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Patterson: An 'angel' shelters a young boy on the bus

POSTED: April 4, 2011 1:50 p.m.

The scar has faded but never disappeared, a dark purple smudge among the age spots and lines on Cleburn Patterson's left leg.

The air was calm on the morning of April 6 and it made the boy uneasy as he boarded a city bus headed to New Holland. Most mornings, the 8-year-old would pick up the bus as it looped back toward town. But that day he wanted a good seat and got on early, settling by the front left window.

"It was an eerie-type feeling. You didn't know what it was but it was something," Cleburn, now 83, said. "I was just a young boy and even at my age I sensed a difference."

A man wearing a black top hat and coat, with a frail frame and a silver beard, boarded and sat beside Cleburn. Just past Prior Street, the skies turned dark as the man's clothes. He wrapped his arm around the boy, the two watching through the front window as the funnel cloud became visible, barreling through the square.

"Son, it's a bad storm," were the man's words. "But the Lord will take care of us."

By all reasonable measures, the bus should have been destroyed. It lay in the belly of the tornado's path, surrounded by a wasteland of broken buildings and dreams.

But as the riders watched bricks and planks and at one point a small roof fly past the bus, not one window shattered. Not one person was hurt.

In moments it was gone and Cleburn never saw the man in black again. In the 75 years since, his words every so often grazes his mind.

"I don't know, I claim to be a Christian person," Cleburn said, his voice low and reverent. "I believe in angels but I'm not saying that he was an angel. But it was just something about that experience that I will always remember."

As Cleburn got off the bus, he saw two women with dirt-caked faces and arms, their hair standing on end as if shocked by a strong current. One was his mother, but the boy didn't recognize her. She had been in their home on East Spring Street and held onto a doorknob as the storm hit. That door frame was the only one left standing.

The two stepped over power lines and broken pavement, heavy rain soaking them through as they returned home. Cleburn's father met them there and the three stood in their living room under a small bit of their living room roof that hadn't collapsed.

They watched as four men made their way across the street, holding the corners of a blanket that cradled a young black child. A chimney fell on him, they said, and as the men laid him out on a mattress in Cleburn's living room, it was clear the boy was dying.

"His leg was twisted all up and his skull was cut," Cleburn said. "They were trying to get him to eat. That's another one of those things you'll always remember."

The family stayed with relatives in a home near Alta Vista Cemetery that night, and the next day they returned to salvage what little they could. Cleburn found his baseball bat wedged under an overturned water heater. As he bent down to free it, a piece of jagged glass tore through his leg, exposing the ligaments and muscle beneath and giving him the scar that still stands out on his left calf.

He recovered on the porch of his relative's house, leg propped up on the railing, watching his neighbors carry pots, dishpans and jugs to the fresh water truck.

Cleburn is a man of deep faith.

And he has no doubt that something divine was at work that day in Gainesville, was present on that city bus and in the words of the kind man in the black top hat.

"The Lord did take care of us," he said. "A bunch of young and old people on a city bus. And for that kind of a force to hit that bus direct, right in the front, there had to be a higher power. There has to be."



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