We lost a generation 80 years ago today

Rescue workers search the ruins of the New London School. Photo Credit: Mary Marshall

She had cried until there were no tears left. Her heart had become part of the rubble around her.

Most of all, I grieve for the lost children. I know the lost children. I grew up in a community of lost children.

In the second grade, I walked for the first time down the hallways of New London elementary school in the midst of the East Texas oilfield. A new school. A modern school. It was, everyone swore, the finest school in Texas.

It was the school that oil built.

It had been the school that oil destroyed.

And I walked among the memories of lost children. Their names were still mentioned in whispers. Families still wept at their graves. No one had forgotten. No one even tried.

It had been a chilled and overcast March 18 afternoon in 1937 – eighty years ago today. Children were laughing and ending another school day. Their books were stacked on their desks. Some had already begun lining up in the hallway.

The clock on the wall said three-thirty. Five minutes more and the bell would ring. Five minutes more and they would be on their way home. The clock never reached three thirty-five.

No one knew or could have known about natural gas from the oilfield gathering beneath the basement. Gas had no odor. Gas was the silent killer.

No one ever knew what triggered the spark.

The sky was dark. It looked like rain. Every eye was on the clock. And the world came to an end.

New London school exploded, and, as one newspaper correspondent would write: This small East Texas town of New London lost a generation.

Almost three hundred would die. They and their teachers lay in the rubble of broken bricks and concrete blocks, desks and books and steel girders ripped apart and twisted like ribbons of death. There were screams. And some moans.

Then silence fell upon the ruins of a school. The only noise anyone heard were the prayers of mothers, the curses of oilfield roughnecks, and, with the coming of night, the gently falling of the rain.

My father worked in the oilfield. He was close. The oilfield wasn’t that big. My mother was a waitress in a small café just down in the road in Turnertown. They – as did hundreds of others – rushed madly to the scene.

My father tore through bricks and twisted metal until his gloves had been ripped off and both hands were bleeding. He did not leave. No one left.

My father never talked about it.

My mother did, but not often.

Some parents drove to the pile of rubble. Fathers raced from their jobs. Mothers ran from their homes. They searched all afternoon. And all night. Searching for the living. And, after a while, just searching.

They walked down the hallways of hospitals. They walked through the makeshift morgues in warehouses and gymnasiums. Row after row of blankets. Row after row, the blankets covered the tiny bodies.

They were searching for the lost children. There were so many of them.

They feared they would find their child, or children. Then they feared they wouldn’t.

My mother held one little lady most of the night. Both of them were on their knees in field of brick mortar and mud. Her face was white, drained of all blood and emotion. She had cried until there were no tears left. Her heart had become part of the rubble around her.

Over and over, she kept saying, “It’s so sad.”

Mother nodded.

“My boy’s here,” the little lady said.

Mother held her tighter.

“He’s seven,” the little lady said.

Mother shed her last tear.

“It’s so sad,” the little lady said again. “He’s had to lie all night in the rain.”

He was among them then. He still is. Just a name belonging to one of the lost children.

My heart breaks for them all, then and now. We will never know the impact they might have made upon the world. We only know the impact they made upon our lives on a night they lay in the rain.


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  • Onisha Ellis

    I had never heard this story. From the picture, I thought it was London in WWII. What a tragedy.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      In was indeed a tragedy, Onisha. A young UPI reporter in Dallas was sent to cover the story. It was one of his first major assignments. It was one assignment he never forgot. His name was Walter Cronkite who became a legend at CBS.

      • Don Newbury

        Caleb, don’t think I ever knew Cronkite was on the scene at New London. Do know this: Dr. Ferol Robinson, a gentle soul who died within the past decade, achieved role as a VP at Sam Houston State U. For decades, he WAS the J Department there. At his retirement luncheon, attended by many, Dan Rather was among the guests. He was one of Ferol’s students in the early going, and taught at Sam for a semester, maybe a year. Said Ferol to Dan: “See here, Dan, if you’d stayed here to teach with me, you could be experiencing a nice state retirement check each month like I am.”….

        • Caleb Pirtle

          Great story about Dr. Ferol and Dan Rather. If you ever have a chance to visit the museum at New London, and you should, there have archived recorded memories from many students who survived the blast and from others who were at the scene. One of the recordings is by Walter Cronkite. On the wall, there is also a framed letter of condolence from Adolph Hitler.

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