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by George Lester
George Lester

Eight miles to the north of my birthplace in Louisiana is a town called Rodessa.

Two different things happened there that are stamped indelibly in my memory.

The first event was about 1933 when I was seven years old. I was at my grandfather's house in Vivian, Louisiana where we stayed temporarily during the transition of our move to Spunky Flat. I went to a movie one night and when I came out there was a vicious thunderstorm with rain so dense I could hardly see. I was completely soaked when I got home. The next afternoon the whole family was chatting in the parlor when we heard a voice calling out. We sat and listened and heard something like "read all about it-big twister hits Rodessa -many die!". We ran to the porch and saw a paper boy walking down the street peddling his wares. Upon purchasing one of his newspapers we got all the grizzly details. While I was running home in the rain the night before a tornado had hit little Rodessa, a town with a population of only about 130 souls. That night 21 of them died.

The other memory of Rodessa occurred a few years later, about 1936. Rodessa was in the center of the Northwest Louisiana oil boom. The derricks were almost as thick and the ones I've seen during the boom in Kilgore, Texas to the southwest. The acrid smell of sulfur permeated the air and at night there was an eerie orange glow in the sky to the north of Vivian caused by the hundreds of flares burning off the waste gas from the oil wells. Many people remarked that it looked like the end of the world.

One night my mother came in the house and asked us all to come outside. We followed her and then looked up in the sky where she was pointing. There, toward Rodessa was a bright object imposed through the flares, much brighter and of a different color. It was a blue-green bar of illumination that looked much like a neon tube positioned vertically in the sky. We stared in disbelief for a long time until we noticed that it was not moving. We watched as it just hung there for all to see.

Northern Light
As soon as it was dark the next night we all went out to look again. This time we found that we were not the only ones witnessing the spectacle. It seemed all of Vivian was as curious as we were about this newfound mystery. This night we were in for another surprise. More of the strange lights had come out to greet us.

Each night after that they increased in number until the sky was filled with them. With the combination of the oilfield flares and the phantom lights the local citizenry was sure this was a harbinger of doom. They reasoned that God was going to punish us for messing up His beautiful planet with the unsightly oil wells and the stench.

A few days later the Shreveport Times newspaper came out with the revelation of what caused the light show in our skies. It was one of those rare occasions when the Aurora Borealis, also know as The Northern Lights, could be seen that far south. Most of us breathed a sigh of relief but many hung on to their theory of the coming of Armageddon.

The oil boom died a natural death many years ago and there is little to show that it ever existed. Now, when driving through Rodessa, it looks like any other small hamlet. There is nothing to remind us of the terrible tornado that smashed the town or of the forecast of annihilation a few years later. If you stopped and asked about the two incidents most would be too young to even remember them.
George Lester
Spunky Flat and Beyond - A Memoir >

August 1, 2006 column
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