By Sarah White
From April 3-4 1974, there was a super outbreak of tornadoes across the Midwest. Indiana, where I was 17 at the time, was not spared. While the tornadoes that ripped through Indiana had no literal impact on me or anyone I knew, that event became a turning point in my life.
At the time, I was working as a transcriptionist for an insurance firm in a suburb just north of Indianapolis. I had finished high school a semester early and had nothing better to do than earn money for my alleged future as a college student, although I had not decided on which college or even if I would actually go. But working got me out of the house and the paycheck allowed me to have considerably more fun after work than would otherwise have been possible.
My weeks looked like this: Monday to Friday, 8am to 4:30 pm, go to the faceless, nameless insurance company. Pick up a cassette tape from the supervisor’s desk; go to mine; insert the tape in the playback device, don my earphones, step on the pedal, and start typing. On these tapes were case notes dictated by insurance claims adjusters out in the field. We in the typing pool never saw them and they never saw us. We simply completed transcripts of their interviews with unfortunate individuals and placed them on the boss’s desk, then returned to our stations with the next cassette.
After work on Tuesdays, I would go to my fencing team’s practice at the YMCA, which happened to be next door to the insurance company. Other nights, I’d go foraging for fun down in Indianapolis with my groovy friends, two of whom were on the boy’s fencing team. Weekends, we’d go to fencing meets—sometimes to observe, sometimes to participate. I had no talent for fencing; I did it for the exercise I needed to rehab a broken ankle from the spring before. I liked the swashbuckling originality of the sport. Plus, even on a “team” one competes individually on the narrow piste—it was a sport with less opportunity to let teammates down than, say, basketball or softball.
One of the boys had a Super-8 movie camera and would bring it to fencing meets to film competitors in action for later study. It was not uncommon to see a violent sky in the late afternoon drives home from those meets. We caught more than one tornado on videotape, racing beside us across the wind-bent cornfields. We were 17. We were never scared.
The super tornadoes of April 1974 hit on a Wednesday. It was all over the news, but no damage occurred near Indianapolis. The girl’s fencing team was scheduled for a meet in Culver, Indiana, a two-hour drive north, that Saturday. One of the women who coached us drove the girl’s team to our meets. We headed north that morning on the road to Culver but were stopped by the National Guard outside a small town about halfway. “The roads are closed—too much damage ahead,” a guardsman said. “But we don’t know our way! We only have instructions for this route,” replied our coach. He waved us on.
What we saw next was truly surreal. All the images you’ve seen on TV, we saw along that highway—the topless houses with battered roofs set down a field away, the splintered trees, rootballs high in the air. The colorful litter of housing materials, personal possessions, store merchandise, as if tossed by a burglar. Most memorable was a truck held at a jaunty angle in the spreading branches of a battered oak beside the highway.
We made it to our meet. We made small talk about the destruction we’d seen.
Then began my next week of transcribing. Our claims adjustors fanned out across the Indiana countryside, responding to insureds’ requests. It was the adjustor’s job to downplay the damage, question the insured’s veracity, attempt to wiggle out of responsibility for the claim. It was the insured’s job to impress upon the adjustor the nature and severity of their loss.
I listened, typing along as story after story of what happened between April 3 and April 4, 1974 spilled out. I who had previously typed half-asleep, now typed mesmerized. Disembodied voices described what happened, demanded their due, defended their truth.
We were still transcribing storm stories when August came. I quit, having decided to join my groovy friends headed to Indiana University. I left the job, but took with me a love of true stories, well told.
© 2023 Sarah White