Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A local's lament for his lost city

From The Joplin Globe. . .

By R. Duane Graham
Special to The Globe


Sunday evening, before the onset of the cruel aftershocks that pummeled our devastated city with remorseless storms and rescue-impeding rains, my youngest son and I undertook a journey to a destination he — a high school student and baseball player—seemed desperate to see.
He wanted to go to his school.
He had heard it had been destroyed and he wanted to see for himself, see if his home away from home — the school and the ballpark — were still there.
Just an hour after the historic tornado hit, we began our walk to Joplin High School. We stepped over thick, once-pulsating power lines; we listened to a natural gas main hiss an awful hiss as it filled the air with that unmistakable odor and imminent danger; we stepped on and over shards of civilization — the wood, glass, and other fabric that make up a life-home; we passed by pummeled, twisted sheet metal no longer confined to driveways or cowering in garages, but like wildly wounded or dead tin soldiers on some strange and dreadful battlefield, they testified to the power of a fearsome and formidable opponent, in this case a monstrous whirlwind of nature.
In short, we walked through the rubble — how terrible it seems to call it that — and we watched the landscape, once so familiar, disorient us with its new unfamiliarity, the product of an appalling but natural disregard for our pattern-seeking and sense-making needs as human beings.
And that smell.
The stale smell that no CNN report can convey, no matter how detailed or how crowded with images. That wet-wood, musty, gassy smell that democratizes the neighborhoods, the poor and the middle-class and beyond, as it wafts through the scene.
And the sounds.
The unrelenting sirens, of all kinds, with their Doppler effects and with their piercing seriousness. But the most amazing sound of all was the quasi-silence, the eerie effect of the shocked and shaken as they made their way to loved ones, or to be loved.
And then we turned the corner and there it was. Our Hiroshima.
The school, and the surrounding landscape, was now a victim of nature’s Enola Gay, which dropped a Fujita-5 tornado in the middle of our city, and in the heart of the familiar, and in the education commons, the place where rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black and white, came together to learn, to socialize — and to play high school baseball.
From the elevated soccer field that overlooks the ballpark, the inspired geometry of the diamond was still discernible, even though the place had been leveled and the ground was littered with pieces of the neighborhood. A four-wheel drive pickup made its way across the outfield to get to the street beyond, the fence no longer an obstacle, no longer a fence.
To the west, the houses were gone. The houses whose windows and roofs had been the targets of years of foul balls, duds bounding off the bats of too-hopeful Major League aspirants. Those familiar houses were gone. All of them, and all behind them, and behind them.
And to the south, all gone. And to the east.
And the boy, becoming by necessity that moment more manly, spotted a figure below, standing near the field, behind what used to be the visitor’s dugout.
“Coach Harryman!” he shouted.
And the stunned coach, whose attachment to the field and school is measured not just by years but by a career, turned around and greeted us, making his way up the hill to where we stood, his tearful wife soon by his side. We shared our disbelief, exchanging inquiries about loved ones, standard practice around here these days.
Then it was time to get back home, before streetlight-less darkness made getting back home even more dangerous, and getting back home now even more necessary, after the sights we had seen.

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