Usually, I have a very curious mind. Usually, I look around, at my surroundings. I observe. Usually, I wonder. Usually, I explore. I observe more. I ask questions. I look for answers. I look for meaning. Usually.
One day, a few years ago, I was not on my thinking game. That happens. I was in a blah… in a rushed and not-paying-a-whole-lot-of-attention due to the fact that I was in a stuck-in-my-own-head sort of blah.
I had gone to Dallas and on my return home, I took back roads as I often do. In a tiny East Texas town, I noticed a large, towering monument in the middle of a peaceful well maintained four-lane highway. This monument was in a town I had never heard of before that day.
The name of the town was New London, Texas. I remembered the name… a neat name in a state with a Paris and a Geneva, a New Braunfels and a New Berlin, and Athens and a Rome (okay, Rhome, but close enough).
And as I passed it by, I wondered about that giant slightly pink-colored beautiful stone monument. But unlike my usual “nosey” self, I passed it right on by and never gave it a second thought.
Until the other day, that is, when that second thought came unexpectedly and in a whirl as it overtook me… momentarily and beyond.
As it happened, I was looking online for a specific photo taken in Carthage, Texas. In my serach, I diverted way off topic, as I tend to do, and came across an article describing an unthinkable tragedy which happened not too far from Carthage. And it occurred to me… This tragedy was the reason for the monument I had seen years earlier.
What I found overcame me. This town of New London, less than a two hour drive from where I lived, was the location of the single worst school disaster in U. S. history. Single worst school disaster in our nation’s history.
As I read about what happened one Thursday in March of 1937, I was dumbfounded. How had I never before heard of this awful tragedy so close to home which claimed the lives of nearly three hundred students and teachers? Two hundred and ninety seven lives lost on this day, to be exact.
New London was a very rural and somewhat poor community before the 1930s were well underway, when the oil boom of that era sent activity and wealth rushing in from all directions. The newfound rush of activity from oil field discoveries was happening in many rural communities around East Texas and West Louisiana.
For New London, the new wealth and healthy tax base enabled the construction of brand spanking new top notch school facilities on a 27-acre campus. On this campus was an elementary building, a gymnasium with equipment as URBNFit Amazon balls and gym machines, and also a lighted football field. Perhaps the campus’s crown jewel was a $300,000 beautiful, modern, steel-framed, E-shaped school building for fifth through eleventh grade students (11th grade students were considered “seniors” at this time in “country” schools).
The new school facilities had been completed by 1935. The buildings and specifically the new junior and senior high school building were widely touted as being completely modern and and one of the most up-to-date school buildings in Texas.
Some five hundred students were in this new junior and senior high school building on March 18, 1937. Shortly after 3 p.m., just 13 minutes before school was to let out, a shop instructor turned on a band saw in the school workshop.
Unbeknownst to anyone, a mostly sealed compartment in the subbasement (crawl space) of the school had been filling with natural gas due to a leak. When the switch in the workshop was tripped, the accumulated gas mixture was ignited and the subsequent flame was carried into this nearly closed space under the building, 253 feet long and 56 feet wide.
The building seemed to immediately lift into the air, for what some survivors described as many moments, and then smashed to the ground. Walls collapsed. Brick and mortar dust filled the air. Steel lockers became projectiles. The roof fell in. Windows shattered. Students and teachers were buried in a mass of brick, steel, and concrete debris.
I, as would be expected, felt great sadness reading about this. But I furthermore found myself feeling selfish and a bit guilty for not stopping on the day I passed the monument on my trip back from Dallas. For not giving something which meant so much to so many more than a single few seconds or so of my life.
I knew immediately that I needed to go back. I needed to see this memorial again, and this time to stop and look at it, and appreciate its importance and its significance.
So this past Sunday, I set out to make a road trip to New London. My daughters came with me and I was very glad they did. It was a pleasant drive to New London… a beautiful day plus I really have a thing for Texas roads. We stopped in Kilgore and checked out the East Texas Oil Museum (I must go back!) and while there, my daughter Savanah noticed a book entitled, “My Boys and Girls are in There.” She pointed it out, noting it was about the New London school explosion and so I purchased it and we proceeded to our destination.
Savanah saw it first. “There it is,” she exclaimed. Sure enough, just as I remembered… only far more glorious knowing the significance of it… there it was. In the exact middle of the road, on sort of an island of its own. Towering what looked to be 50 or more feet above the roadway was the magnificent cenotaph, as I learned it is called. (A cenotaph being a monument erected in honor of a person or group of people whose remains are elsewhere).
We parked at the current New London School, perfectly new-looking buildings on a super-duper nice campus which runs along the highway where the monument stands. My daughters and I approached the granite monument and stared at it for a few moments, each of us locked in these moments in a sort of awe… knowing now at least some of what it stands for. The names of the individuals who were lost on that day were engraved into granite which wraps in a square around the perimeter of the monument.
So many names. So many lives.
Two hundred and ninety seven.
I had read there was a New London Museum located near the monument, and I quickly spotted it. I knew it probably would not be open on a Sunday, but we saw activity there and got a bit excited. A nice lady opened the door and said they were closed, she was there decorating, but they were open during the week. I will definitely make my way back there to see the museum as soon as I get a free week day to do so.
We next proceeded in search of the Pleasant Hill Cemetery, where I had read that over one hundred of the victims of the New London explosion had been buried. It was not too far from the monument, and we located it with relative ease.
I did not expect the reactions we would have at the cemetery. Both of my daughters were moved to deep emotions… I noticed that even Siarah, who always tries to seem so tough, shed at least one tear. Savanah’s eyes filled with tears though she managed to shed none by quickly rounding up video equipment from the car in a clear effort to divert her mind… and to hold back those tears.
Seeing the tombstones, with the names and the engravings revealing just how short these victims’ lives on Earth were… brought the tragedy closer to home for each of us, albeit in different ways. So many of the victims were the same age as my teenage daughters. They clearly recognized this. They didn’t say this… they didn’t need to. I, too, recognized this.
The same age as we are, they must have thought. The same age as my daughters and son are, I thought.
This realization of the reality that once was… the names, the ages, even some tombstones had photos of those buried below… It all hit home indeed.
“Happy and gay to school our little darling went one day,” read the engraving on the tombstone of 13-year-old victim Winnifred Melvene Drake. “She never returned, but we thank God she’s not dead, just away.”
I just completed the book, “My Boys and Girls are in There,” last night. Author Ron Rozelle did a remarkable job of chronicling the New London disaster, from just prior to the explosion… through to the explosion… to the frantic search and rescue and the grim search and recovery… the daunting task of identifying bodies… to the losses and the burials and the mourning… to the anger and need for blame… and to the government inquiry on the explosion… then to the arduous and sometimes impossible seeming task for the community and its citizens of trying to move forward.
Rozelle tells the story from many different perspectives, covering so many bases, including even the perspective of a young cub reporter named Walter Cronkite, who was among the countless reporters who covered the event and aftermath.
When I began reading “My Boys and Girls”, my “tougher” daughter asked me why I would want to read such a book… wouldn’t it just be too depressing?
The book is sad, indeed… how could it not be? But it was much, much more than a sad story of a real life event.
It is a story of humanity in its rawest form… the descriptions of the reactions and the selfless acts of courage, sacrifice and team work which followed the explosion as friends and neighbors and family members along with complete strangers worked through unimaginable conditions to try to save any lives they could and to protect the loved ones of the victims as much as they could.
It is a story of trying to cope with the worst imaginable losses, under the worst imaginable circumstances. It is a story about the human inclination to find blame, and how hurtful that can be. It is a story about the difficulty in letting go of anger and allowing proper grieving and eventual healing to move destructive anger out of the way.
And it is a story of the move towards rebuilding… Rebuilding lives and rebuilding a community… and the necessity of saying goodbye to lost loved ones.. if even just for a while.
“My Boys and Girls” is a powerfully told story of life and of loss. And of this incredible community of New London and their efforts to ensure that what happened that horrible day is never forgotten. And that, too, its victims are always remembered.
In the end, it seems the cause of the explosion was never definitively determined, though many fingers pointed toward a money saving measure taken by the school superintendent and school board to nix a contract with a natural gas company in favor of tapping into a “bleed-off” line which provided free residual gas from the oil fields.
“At the simplest level,” Rozelle wrote in the book, “the facts were very, very simple indeed. The gas was odorless, so nobody knew it was there. But it was there. And it blew up.”
No one knew the gas was there, accumulating in the crawl space beneath the school, because natural gas is odorless. And in 1937, that was the whole story, regardless of which type of gas was being used. Gas was odorless.
Natural gas, of course, remains odorless. Its properties have not changed. But because of the explosion in 1937, laws which swiftly swept through the nation mandated the additive to natural gas of a warning agent with a distinctive odor. It is that additive which produces the odor we smell around natural gas. And which enables us to be alerted when it is being released into the air.
“Whenever anyone, anywhere, detects danger when about to ignite gas los on a grate, or rekindle a pilot light on a furnace or a water heater,” Rozelle writes, “The faint, unpleasant odor that warns them of leaking gas is there at a cost. Almost three hundred innocent people paid for it.”
While I am no less ashamed that I drove past that memorial all those years ago, I feel somewhat redeemed and extremely grateful that I, along with my daughters, went back. I am glad I saw it, and I look forward to a return trip to visit the museum, which author Rozelle describes in the sort of detail and intrigue that can’t help but to make any reader want to pay a visit to this museum and the memories and artifacts that are preserved inside its walls.
As far as my initial bewilderment that I had never before heard of the tragedy of the New London explosion… Rozelle points out this is unfortunately not uncommon, for people outside of New London to be ignorant of what went on there on the day of March 18, 1937.
As Rozelle eloquently and accurately states it, “While the tragic afternoon in New London did garner the world’s attention for a brief time, and would remain to present day the worst school disaster in the history of the nation, there obviously just wasn’t enough glamour in a country schoolhouse full of country people blowing up to let the event stay the course in people’s minds.”
“Within a decade,” he continues, “and certainly within the ensuing decades, almost everyone would be completely ignorant of it. And history, which can oftentimes be fickle, teasing at the first before turning the cold shoulder, would move on and forget it.”
“The New London tragedy deserves its proper place in the history of twentieth century America,” Rozelle later states, and that being part of his noble purpose in writing the book.
As our world turns, I hope the world, or at least our part of it, is able to remember the tragedy at New London, and what it meant then and still means today.
“The Greeks said that no one ever is dead, truly dead, until no one remembers them and no one speaks their name.” — John Fuhr, a survivor of the London School tragedy, speaking at the 1977 anniversary of the explosion.
“My Boys and Girls are in There,” can be ordered from Amazon, or by following this link (it is safe, I promise!): http://www.amazon.com/Boys-Girls-Are-There-Explosion/dp/160344761X
I do not get any commission for promoting the book… I merely promote it because it is an outstanding book 🙂
There are other books as well on the New London Tragedy, as well as documentaries, all with names and titles that simply capture the devastation of that day: “Gone at 3:17,” “A Generation Dead,” “When Even Angels Wept,” “The Clock Stood Still,” and “The Day A Generation Died.”
There is a splendid website online, with a huge amount of information and photographs, nicely put together and user friendly, devoted to the New London School Explosion (dedicated to the memories of the ones who perished and to those who survived). It can be found at http://nlsd.net/index2.html and I highly recommend a visit to it. The website is where I found photos of the tragedy which are included in the following video: