Holding hands: Ohatchee couple were together when the storm came
by Tim Lockette
tlockette@annistonstar.com
Apr 23, 2012 | 6781 views |  0 comments | 23 23 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Georgia Jones knew something was wrong when her sister Arvella and Arvella’s boyfriend Jim showed up early for their regular visit to her house in Boaz.

Arvella Jones, 72, and Jim Romaine, 80, drove up from Ohatchee almost every Saturday.

But on April 25, 2011, they showed up at Georgia’s doorstep. It was a Monday.

“Usually he’d hold the door open, and let her go in,” she said. “He was nice to her like that. But this time, they just stood on the porch, looking at me.”

Arvella loved her sister’s cornbread, and usually she took a skillet of it home with her. But this time, asked for just a little, as if she didn’t have time to eat so much.

“It was like they knew something was going to happen,” Georgia Jones said.

Maybe they came up early because of Arvella’s doctor’s appointment. Plagued by a medical problem that caused her legs to swell, Arvella said she was going to meet a heart doctor later in the week. Or maybe it was those forecasts, still vague at the time, of a big storm outbreak coming in the next few days.

Either way, Georgia said, both sisters seemed to sense that a big change was coming.

“I got the feeling something bad would happen,” Georgia said. “And, you know, that’s the last time I saw her.”

Love by mail

By her 60s, Francis Arvella Jones had divorced one husband, buried another, raised two kids and toiled for years in Sand Mountain blue jean factories that crumpled when the textile industry moved to Mexico.

Arvella originally planned to retire in Boaz, near Georgia Jones, her only sister and her closest friend among her five siblings. But Arvella also wanted a man in her life. Not necessarily a ring. Just a man.

To hear Georgia tell it, finding companionship was a bit of a challenge for Arvella, who liked to be indoors, and didn’t care for meeting strangers.

“She was a hard person to understand sometimes,” Georgia said. “She was a happy person, but different people have different ways, and she didn’t like being around a whole lot of people.”

Growing up on a farm in Blount County, Arvella was the only one of her siblings who didn’t go out to pick cotton or harvest cane. Arvella was the youngest girl in the family, and she convinced her mother that she was better-suited to cooking and cleaning. So she and her mother worked out a trade-off.

“She stayed home and did all the inside work,” Georgia said. “And our mother came out in the fields with us.”

She was Arvella Landrum then. Later, she married a man named Goble, but the marriage broke up. By their 50s, Georgia and Arvella had married a pair of brothers, both named Jones.

In her 60s, Arvella was a widow, and she wasn’t looking for another name change. Her sister was her closest friend, but Arvella wanted another companion. So she answered a personals ad, in one of those ad booklets you get for free at the gas station.

She struck up a correspondence with a man in Ohatchee, an hour’s drive away. A Yankee. A retiree from New York.

Arvella was interested, but cautious. Georgia still laughs about their first planned meeting, in the parking lot of a McDonald’s in Boaz.

“They pull up, and she tells him, I’m not getting out of the car until you get out first,” Georgia said. “She said ‘I want to see what you look like.’”

He looked nice, Georgia said. He was nice.

Snow is what we got

Jim Romaine was tough, but he wasn’t stupid.

Living in Gloversville, a Jacksonville-sized town in the foothills of the Adirondacks, Romaine had endured dozens of punishing New York winters. He could take it, but the cold whetted his interest in travel.

“He never did like the snow, really,” said his daughter Cindy Dingman. “And snow is what we got here.”

After a stint in the Army, he went to work as a self-employed housepainter, doing construction work when business was slow. It was good work -– good enough to support a family -– if you were willing to travel. And just about anywhere you travel in the United States, you’re south of Gloversville.

“People called him ‘Jim the Painter,’” Dingman said. “He painted government buildings down in Maryland, and he even did some work down on that Army base you had there.”

When he was ready to retire, Romaine picked Ohatchee. Like a lot of transplants, he seemed to love Alabama more than the natives did. He would call folks back home and gloat.

“He’d say, ‘How are y’all enjoying the snow?’ with that accent he was getting,” Dingman said. “He’d say, ‘I’m wearing short sleeves down here.’”

He had a boat and a somewhat unreliable old RV that he was trying to get into shape for the interstate.

And he had a girlfriend.

Dingman knew her father was in a relationship with a woman who rented a place right in front of Romaine’s house. She didn’t know that Jim Romaine had brought Arvella Jones there, from her Boaz home, to be closer to him.

“I never heard how they met,” she said. “I was just glad that he had somebody, and that they got along so well.”

But in asking Arvella to come to Ohatchee with him, Jim just about broke Georgia Jones’ heart. Georgia says she understands why Arvella moved away to be with her boyfriend. Still, Georgia missed her.

“Even after she left, she’d call me every day,” Georgia said, her voice cracking. “I miss those calls.”

Adventures

Arvella had never left Alabama before she met Jim, her sister says.

But Jim couldn’t stop traveling. He liked it, friends and relatives say. And he still needed work from time to time.

“He was sort of a general fix-it man,” said Luther Landrum, Arvella’s brother. “He’d go to work and he’d take her with him. Wherever he was, she’d be there.”

Jim even got Arvella to ride on a plane –- something she said she’d never do -– to New York, her sister said. His boat was the only place she’d refuse to follow him. It scared her, Georgia said.

Those adventures were a bit of a surprise to people who knew Arvella, a woman who, it seemed, rarely left the house without Jim’s urging. Everyone knew she had trouble walking, but family members say that even in good health, she was a homebody.

Jim made sure she had a good home, helping her plant a flower garden. Arvella loved roses, her sister said.

Relatives and neighbors aren’t entirely sure what went on behind the scenes, what common interest or chemistry held them together. Everybody repeats the same few facts. He was good to her. She loved him. They were always together. She liked to stay at home.

All of that came into play on that very last day.

The storm

By Wednesday, April 27, everybody knew something bad was coming. On Monday, a storm system brewing over the Plains had forecasters predicting an historic twister outbreak. By Wednesday afternoon, it was already fact. A massive tornado had flattened Tuscaloosa, while the entire world watched on cable TV.

The same cell that produced that tornado was headed for Ohatchee. And not just for Ohatchee, but for Cochran Springs Road, where Jim and Arvella lived. Neither had a basement.

Neighbors begged the couple to join them in a sturdier shelter. Arvella didn’t want to go. Georgia said Arvella sent a pair of neighbors away with roses clipped from her garden, as if she knew the end was coming.

Jim wouldn’t go without her. So they hunkered down in Jones’ home as the tornado bore down on them.

Forecasters later said it was an EF-4. The odometer of your car, if you drive across the storm zone, will tell you the storm’s path of destruction was between a quarter- and a half-mile wide.

Neighbor Tim Axelton was one of the first people to search the rubble, in the rain and the dark. He was there when searchers dug into the debris and uncovered Jim and Arvella’s bodies.

They were holding hands, Axelton said.

Little was left of their old homestead by the time the sun came up that morning. For a newcomer to the scene, it was impossible even to tell where houses had been. Jim’s boat, or maybe a neighbor’s, was wrapped around a tree like a twist-tie on a bag of Wonder Bread. The busted RV stood seemingly untouched. Rescuers painted an orange ‘X’ on it, to show that no bodies were inside.

Georgia Jones said one of Arvella’s rose bushes still stood after the storm, near her front porch.

You just had to know where to find the front porch.

Walking away

After death, Jim and Arvella went their separate ways.

Arvella Jones is buried in Walls Chapel cemetery in Etowah County.

Jim Romaine is ashes now. Dingman has them, in a paint can, and she says she needs to decide how to divide them among her siblings. But it’s one of those painful things that you keep putting off.

Dingman said she and her sisters will remember their father over a pancake breakfast in Gloversville on April 27. He loved pancakes, she said.

It’s a low-key, family-only event, in a town where tornadoes are as rare as snowstorms in Ohatchee.

After the storm, Dingman’s brother, Jim Romaine Jr., told both family and the press that he wanted to make a go of it on his dad’s old property. But neighbors say they haven’t seen the younger Jim in weeks. Parked on the Romaine property is a curtainless trailer with rickety wood-and-cinderblock steps leading to a big glass door. A pile of split firewood sprawls across the yard, gray with age. It looks like someone made an effort to fix the place and, frustrated with the enormity of the task, just walked away.

“We’ve been trying to contact him since Christmas,” Dingman said of her brother. “I know he was having trouble, in terms of finding a job. I’d really like to know where he is.”

In Boaz, there won’t be a get-together on April 27. But Georgia Jones said she’ll spend the time thinking about her sister, wishing they could sit down together one more time.

Members of both families have met, here and there, and they get along well. But neither family has called the other in months. Both sides seem to feel that the little family Jim and Arvella made together was their own thing. It existed for a while, and it served its purpose.

“Sometimes I wonder what it was like for him in those last moments,” Dingman said of her father. “I’m glad he had someone with him. I’m glad they were there for each other.”

Assistant Metro Editor Tim Lockette: 256-235-3560. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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