By Nita Johnson
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
While the past weekend marked the one-year anniversary of the devastating tornado that changed Laurel County forever, it is a bittersweet ‘anniversary’ in my own life.
Personal illness kept me out of the loop of news reporting following the tornado, but the disaster I witnessed upon returning to work the Monday after the killer storm was unbelievable. Seeing the wrath of nature first-hand was a humbling and semi-religious experience that will remain imprinted on my heart and mind forever.
So will the date of March 3, 1993. Having talked to my Aunt Norma the day before and checking on my mother who had gone to Ohio to see her brother, I was not surprised when I got the call that Uncle Fred had died. Although he had undergone several surgeries and had some health problems, his sudden illness and hospitalization was unexpected. Just months after passing his 59th birthday, my red-headed uncle had passed on.
Sunday marked 20 years since my second uncle left a hole in our family circle. Many changes have passed in those years — we have lost the rest of the ‘elder’ generation except one, and we ‘grandchildren’ are now the grandparents.
With this date fresh in my mind, it was purposely that I gave my resignation to my job in Chattanooga and made plans to make my journey back to my hometown on March 3, 1994. My children were then just 13 and 10 and a half years old, respectively. We embarked on a new life that has been more productive and positive than the one left behind, even though that new life has not come without troubles.
Being back ‘home’ brought its shares of culture shock — the lack of call waiting and living on a gravel road was a huge change for my children. Seeing Chicago, the Allman Brothers and The Judds at the yearly Riverbend festival in downtown Chattanooga was replaced with the various entertainment of the World Chicken Festival — most of which we were not familiar with. The chain and franchise stores that were commonplace in the larger metropolitan area of Chattanooga were limited to Walmart, Kmart and Goody’s, while the smaller family-owned-and-operated stores symbolized the true small town spirit.
There were two middle schools and a new high school that did not exist when I left London in 1980. The area of Ky. 192 that housed shopping centers were just fields during my younger days and the graveled and rutty roads of my youth became asphalt speedways to rural dwellers. Jobs were tight during 1994 and 1995 with the closing of Micro Devices, Caron Spinning and Westinghouse and the controversy over the proposed one-percent occupational tax was bringing hundreds of protesters to the Laurel County Courthouse.
The evolution of London over the past 19 years is tremendous and the progress is immeasurable. There have been ups and downs, but the strength and dedication of our leadership spared the majority of Laurel Countians from the financial disaster of many other towns when the economy crashed in 2008. That one-percent occupational tax has been the saving grace that kept many local people working while other towns resembled the ghost towns of the western movies.
London and Laurel County has now become the hometown of my children and grandchildren. I call it my own form of “Hotel California” — “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” The memories made in this town are ones that run true to life. There are problems but there are also answers, if you try hard enough and work hard enough. There are issues, but cooperation and concern create solutions.
Having recently read local author Vicki Blair’s novel, “Gravy, Grits and Graves,” I appreciate the small town life but hints of the city offered here in Laurel County even more than before. The book paints the picture of small town life and political corruption without dwelling solely on politics. Instead, you know the people of the town and the day-to-day issues that define their lives. It is rare that I read a novel these days and even rarer that I find one that doesn’t have some boring parts, but the story of the people of McWhorter, Ky., is one that will keep you coming back and offers a surprise ending that unravels right before your eyes without your realizing it.
“Gravy, Grits and Graves” should be on the “must read” list to truly appreciate both the small town life and the unbridled talent that lies within this southeastern Kentucky county that we call home.