Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Bound for recovery

Only two closets withstood the tornado. The rest of the house had been destroyed. One closet contained Barbara Kuhn, who kept trying to stand up to the behest of the storm. Each time she went to move, she said, she'd get knocked right back down. She was trying to go get what was in the other closet ― her two grandchildren, 4 and 9 years old at the time.

Now, Barbara's got a small, empty house being fixed up on the 200 block of S. Roosevelt in Joplin, Missouri. Her attic was completely wiped away by the storm, the remodeled home won't be needing one.

Barbara survived the storm, buried but hanging on. When the tornado was through with Joplin, two neighbors came over to help Barbara out, they were able to extricate her body, bruised and battered from debris and hail of all sizes, from the shambles of her house. But these weren't the two neighbors Barbara was used to seeing. Rather, they were two of that elderly couple's sons, in town for the funeral of their father. Their mother was okay, and so were Barbara's grandchildren. The worst part, of not knowing whether her grandchildren were living, was over. Now all that remained was recovery.

That was five months ago.

Five weeks ago, I broke my finger. I was playing a game and doing a bad job. By all means, I probably deserved it. I had, after waiting a week in denial of the possibility of me actually breaking a bone, to go to the doctor and get it checked out. And again two days later, and again two later. They finally gave me a cast on September 23rd, my mom's birthday. After struggling through life one-handed for a week and a half, I got it removed on October 5th. Sweet freedom.

And then there's Joplin, Missouri. Joplin didn't suffer a broken finger.

Joplin hasn't been inconvenienced. Joplin's been shuffled. A mighty storm of wind and water ripped Joplin limb from limb and strewn it all throughout itself. This surgery has taken five months, and is still ongoing. Broken is the bone structure, but Joplin's mind is clear and in good spirits.

Barbara's been so blessed. At least, that's how she puts it.

My thoughts? Bullshit, Barbara. You've not been blessed. God hates your city and had the gall to prove it. Your neighbors died and the foundation of your home city is still broken. You know what I did on May 22nd? I probably sat on my ass, belittling the disaster ― “oh, another one?” ― and went to work. And I probably complained about having to walk to my car in the rain. May wasn't very warm this year, if I remember correctly, so I'm sure the rain wouldn't be very welcomed.

But you, Barbara. You've floored me. You're happier than I am. I'm here for you. And you know what, I'll get all the glass I can out from under your new deck. This hoe will have to do the job, even though its tiny head will make scraping it all the more tedious. I won't ask why you didn't remove the glass before you put the dang deck in, and I won't ask what you did this summer. I have a feeling I know.

Yet the peace with which you carry yourself, speaks to something much more fulfilled ― much simpler. It's all material stuff, she says. What really matters was intact. Barbara obviously didn't own an Xbox.

Or maybe she did. She may as well have owned everything. The more she owned the more she would have appreciated losing it. Well, that's all we have time for Barbara, see you on the other side.

Holy crap, where are we? This is Joplin, Missouri. It's a town that knows itself better than I do. I don't know what it's like to live here. I have an idea what it's like to live here now, but, this ain't Joplin. Or at least I would think. I signed up to come here for a service mission trip through a friend. Well, a whole gang of them, really, but I digress. It's me, Jason, a junior in high school, seven girls of various ages, an adult couple, and Jamie and Mary, who organized this whole deal.

This is the house? Oh man, I don't really know where we'd start. It's up, standing. But it's gutted and there's a mountain of wood in the front yard. The yard is trashed. Ah, the roof it is. Hi roof.

We spent Friday afternoon on that rooftop. There was this old roof up there that needed to be smote. So  I got a shovel, which works better than a flatbar, and started digging through to the bottom of the shingles, uprooting hundreds of nails in the process, and ripping up that tarpaper.

The roof provides a nice view. Well, a proficient view. You can see far. But what you see isn't really nice at all. Homes ― areas in which people like the ones you like go to sleep and wake up in every day, where food was kept, chores were completed, families struggle to keep on. Imagine, imagine having that ripped from the ground by God himself and thrown like a piece of crumpled paper, on which was scribbled your entire life. How do you watch it go? How can you?

And yet, Joplin presses on. Building back the city the way they remember it, one project at a time. Like someone merely went through and made a gigantic mess in their town. Spring cleaning. Help from friends. Service projects. Ask God to say sorry, show mercy, provide grace. Get up in the morning, get out of bed, and work backwards.

How did you spend your summer? I spent mine feeling like I was doing too little. In Southwestern Missouri they spent it feeling like there was too much to do.

The wrath of that tornado was devastating, unforgiving and coldly real.

Just look at this pile of trash in front of this house. It spans the width of the yard, and is having trouble containing itself to the limit of ten feet from the curb. In this garbage heap lies the entire house, of 2408 Montana Place. The house has been pretty much gutted, and the roof is a glaring mess. We set up a ladder and climb on up.

Oooh wha oh, it's unstable, of course. There's tarp covering weak spots, and tired shingles barely holding on to everywhere else. Our task is to strip this roof, and administer a new one.

This house is Christi's. Also living here are Gavin, Emily, Alex, Joey, Sam and Michael, according to the spray-paint on the unhinged garage door. I don't talk to Christi, I don't get the chance. She's a Chiefs fan, though, apparently. Pretty unfortunate. Also her house is destroyed. She tells Jamie, the leader of this trip, that we're a miracle. It feels pretty cool to hear. I continue ripping shingles off the roof with my flathead shovel. Dead tired and hot. But it feels so good, so therapeutic, to do some manual labor for someone else. I'm making up for all the housework I didn't do as a kid.

As a clear message from God that I was meant to be here, I begin to hear the jingle. You know the jingle. You hear the jingle, and you cry out that you've heard the jingle. An ice cream truck is nearby. I get my Two-ball Screwball and enjoy it on the roof in the beaming sun. As I sat there, with some of my closest friends, a train passed by behind the row of rebuilding houses across the street ― Union Pacific.

In that moment, I felt really what the spirit of America was. For some reason, seeing that train, undoubtedly packed with materials pointing toward progress, and enjoying ice cream on top of this roof I was helping to rebuild for the sole reason of pitching in, it just clicked. I was filled with a sense of greater purpose.

The day wears on, and wears on us. We're all growing tired by around four, when all of a sudden a bus pulls up. It's always nice when you're tearing off a roof and starting to get really tired and ready to go home and the Lincoln University football team shows up. They were just passing by, apparently. Thought they'd stop and help. They ripped the rest of the roof off, pretty much. We pointed our collective finger at the sky, uttered gratitude, and went home having completed the first half of the battle.

I slept like a dead baby that night.

Saturday we went back to put the roof back on. It proved to be easier imagined than completed. But while I was up there, hammering in plywood and metal siding, I fell in love with that roof. We all did. We were no longer scared of its numerous pitfalls, as we knew how to avoid them. No one fell through the thing all weekend. Mike kept us working, kept us rolling on tarpaper and eventually we began hammering in the shingles. Every once in a while, I would see a train pass by, and feel rejuvenated. We needed to get this done. We had to get it done. If we went home without completing it, this trip would be a failure.

At dinner, which was hamburgers and hot dogs brought in a to-go box (not saying that's bad ― that's definitely good), I walked down the street to a half destroyed house. There was stuff everywhere. Their stuff. Their life. In a bedroom I found a copy of Happy Feet, and Badder Santa, which is weird, because  this bedroom definitely had belonged to a little girl. Then again, who knows where that DVD had come from? There were shoes, clothes and a drawer full of socks. I pulled out one pair of these tiny socks and unfolded them.

“Someone who loves me very much went to San Francisco and got me these socks” in bright, colorful, text.

Fuck, man. What do you do about that? These people's lives have been permanently gashed. If they're still living, they're scraping by. This was not another storm. Not another national disaster. This was another national tragedy, as far as I was concerned. Sure makes a roof feel insignificant. But that one roof, that was us. We had that roof. We were going to provide that roof and put it over that family's heads. We don't have time to contribute much else. But, man, if only we did. I kept the socks. Some souvenir.

We woke at daybreak Sunday morning and headed over to the site of Christi's house. We began work, and it soon became apparent that the roof was going to take more than the six hours of labor we had to offer to be finished.

We did what we could, Joplin. As the last futile minutes of labor passed by with no glorious finish line to signal us home, I came down from the roof and began scootering around. I spotted a youth walking his dog. So naturally, I chased the kid down on the Razor that was for some reason left in the front yard. I talked to the kid, Bryce was his name.

I asked him about the tornado, and he remembers it like a  dream he had. It happened, but in the end, it didn't kill him. He talked about how his dog, Gizzy, was smarter than he and his family, because it hid under the bed instead of in the closet. The family's Great Dane was unfazed by the tornado. And the damage to his house was “between minor and major,” but it had just gotten rebuilt. He used to have no fear of tornados. Now he says a loud storm will give him anxiety. Well, yeah.

I returned to the site, wiping out along the way and scraping my hands, which I had already cut twice with a boxcutter blade, and pretty much making grabbing things a difficult task. I was going really fast, guys, it was a pretty cool wipeout.

I grabbed a soda and hopped back on the roof. I sat there and looked out at Joplin for one last time from the peak of that roof. It's banged up. Time does not heal geological wounds. People do. People like me, who had never been on a service mission before and wanted to help people to make myself feel like less of an oaf. People like the Lincoln University football team, who know when to pull over and rip some shingles for the hell of it. People like Barbara, who feel blessed to be here and won't let you take your life for granted.

The trip was incredibly fun. I learned so much in so little time. I also got shocked by an electric fence, but that's unrelated. For the city of Joplin, we were appreciated, but just a speck in the mosaic of people, groups, it will take to get that city back on its feet. When people talk about greater purpose, it's hard to see your impact, beyond barely recognizing your face in the crowd. The roof we failed to complete would be finished off by some other group that I don't know. That's what it takes to rebuild, it takes all of us. And in a country so typically divided, seeing a united front stubbornly erect a city from the rubble created by God himself will make you feel that, as a race, people can do some pretty cool things every once in a while.

I came back down, and said goodbye to the house. As we drove away, I wondered if Joplin had a real future. It sure seemed so. Joplin's a train, like the ones I saw all weekend, that's bound for recovery. The weekend was a lesson in reality, one I'll never forget. I felt needed by this stranger, this city, and I felt like everything made sense. Especially when I was watching the trains pass by.

--Eliot Sill

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