[Today marks the 80th anniversary of the New London school disaster. The following article was first published five years ago.]
One day back when I was a knobby keened lad, I sat in the front passenger seat of the school car watching the East Texas piney woods drift by. The school car was an old army staff car that was provided to my dad by the Oakwood school district, where he’d been the superintendent for a good many years. We were on our way to Longview or Kilgore – I forget which – to the army surplus store where school officials used to purchase things for their campuses. He had probably bought the school car there.
It might have been a pretty spring day, or in broiling summer, or downright cold. I don’t know if it was raining or cloudy or sunny; it was a very long time ago and I don’t remember the particulars. But I can absolutely assure you that we drove by a tall granite monument that sat smack in the middle of the highway and I asked him what it was there for.
My father was a man of few words. And he used very few that day. He kept staring straight ahead and told me a school blew up there.
Even at the age of seven or eight or whatever I was I realized that that wasn’t something you hear every day. So I prompted him for more information. Which I didn’t get. I asked my mother about it that evening and she told me we’d been driving through New London. Then she told me about how, years before, natural gas had collected under the school there and it exploded just before the bell rang to release students to go home. Hundreds had died, she told me, but she didn’t know exactly how many. I asked her how the gas got under the school. She didn’t know that either. I asked her why Daddy hadn’t told me about it when I’d asked him. She thought a moment about that one. Then she said he’d gone there that day, after the explosion, to do what he could to help. He’d tell me about it some day, she said.
But he never did.
That’s how the seed got planted. I learned a bit more about New London later on. Like how the school, along with just about everybody else in that little town, had tapped into a pipeline to get free “green” gas that oil companies flared off as a useless byproduct at their rigs. And how quickly after the disaster it was mandated that a warning scent be introduced into all natural gas.
But whatever my dad saw or did that day and night in New London went to the grave with him.
It wasn’t until I decided, several years ago, to research the event in detail that I realized that he wasn’t the only person to close ranks and keep their silence. The aftermath of what occurred at 3:17 PM on Thursday, April 18th, 1937 was so horrible that many, especially parents of children who perished in the disaster, who had to deal with it couldn’t or wouldn’t ever speak of it again. It is still, so many decades later, the worst school disaster in the history of the United States.
The prospect of researching and describing such unspeakable carnage and heartache made me shy away from doing a book about New London for a long while. What finally convinced me to take it on was the fact that, ironically, so very few people outside of deep East Texas knew that it ever happened at all.
I was smart enough to realize that I wasn’t smart enough to do the book alone, so I recruited my friend and fellow teacher Logan Kibodeaux as my research associate. Then I got in touch with the official keepers of the flame, so to speak: the staff of volunteers who run the London Museum. Our first visit there, a stone’s throw from the site of the explosion, convinced Logan and me that we had an important story to tell.
Then, after more than a year of wading through documents and interviewing the survivors we could locate and reading transcripts and tromping through graveyards, the idea that took root in the school car with my father finally became a book, My Boys and Girls Are in There: The 1937 New London School Explosion, published by Texas A&M University Press.
It’s always a good feeling, and a relief, when a book I’ve done finally gets published. But I felt a particularly heavy responsibility with this one, providing a voice finally for so many, including my father, who couldn’t tell the story of that long ago afternoon.