Tuesday, August 30, 2005

A Painful Flashback

Anyone who has ever lived through a natural disaster gets a knot in the stomach when you watch someone else go through it.

Let me just say...my stomach's been in knots in the past day.

Back in January of 1999, my family lived through the first batch of tornadoes that tore through Jackson, Tennessee.

I was serving in a part of town I grew up in as a teenager. The Jackson-Madison area has several lines of cultural and economic demarcation, and south Jackson is where I'm most at home. Sure, there are nice enough folks who live in northside (let me tell you, that's a huge concession that should display my "maturity" as opposed to my opinions when I was a kid!), but the heart, soul, the hard living of folks in south Jackson was what most resonates with me. And in the late 90's, I served a milltown village in the area called Bemis.

It was a strange Sunday night. My wife was gone, working with the youth at the church. I was at home in a 100 year old parsonage. It's a huge house. It was the manager of mill's house. two floors with 12 foot ceilings, an attic that was a floor unto itself, and a stairway that let up to the "widow's walk," which was, as Bemis-lore goes, the highest point in the village. But on that night, it was the cellar that occupied my attention. My two boys and I were at home watching the NFC Championship football game. It was an hot day. Too hot for January, and my own internal sensors were up. Just before the power went out, the Memphis weatherboys were tracking the storm with their new fancy-ancy radar. When they said tornado warning, Madison County, on the ground in Mercer moving toward Bemis...

Well, nobody on the news says "Bemis." Sure enough, that distinctive green/gray hue was in the sky...the winds started blowing, and I grabbed the kids to go to the cellar. Dark, dank, musty..all kinds of beasts lived down there, but it was our safe haven. The noise was unbelievable, my kids were scared. Shoot, I was, too. You could feel the change in air pressure, like a huge vacuum cleaner on the outside door of the cellar. It's a memory burned in me. And we held on and sang "Veggie-Tale" tunes, because that was the "in-thing" at the time.

God is bigger than the boogie-man, he's bigger than Godzilla or the monsters on T.V. Oh, God is bigger than the boogie-man, and he's watching out for you and me.

That's the hokey the tune my kids wanted to sing, and frankly, so did I.

When it was over, we were o.k. We heard our dog crying from her crate, and I regretted not going to get her, but I was left with the choice of what I knew, and that was, I had two kids in my arms, and that's what mattered most. I was worried about Kristy, and the church. When I went outside it was completely black. I didn't know the sum of what had all happened, but on the driveway of my house, lay someone's front door.

Not good.

Not one-half block from our house, homes were destroyed. That close.

The turf of my youth was devastated. My parish area scarred forever.

Eight people killed.

Let me tell you in the terms of my Western Kentucky roots -

an F4 tornado is an evil SON OF A BITCH, and I think it's mother is a hurricane named Katrina.

If you've ever survived a natural disaster, you know. It's a story you have to tell, and it's one that you only feel prompted to tell whenever you see someone else going through something as bad, or, in this case, so much worse.

It's the look in the eyes of those who are surviving in New Orleans, Biloxi, Gulfport that's caused me to remember. Well, more than remember. Somehow it triggers a form of post traumatic stress. There's a shock, a sense of survivor's guilt, a glazed over look that says,

overload...all systems shutting down.

The night of the tornado I lived through found me driving in the pitch black dark of a city trying to ascertain the welfare of a number of my parishioners who were at ground zero. At the light of day, I learned that the home of one of my lifelong friends' parents was destroyed while they were in it, hunkered down in a closet. With work boots and gloves, I went over to see what I could do. Jack and Penny are as second parents to me. I spent many a night in their home growing up. That day, I was no longer the Methodist preacher in the neighborhood, I was Johnny, one of their own, who grew up with their son, David, just trying to help do...something.

Pieces of furniture survived, and I was helping David, my old friend, move anything salvageable to storage. As we navigated through what was the family room with a piece of furniture, I was aware that I was walking on their family pictures, now strewn in the floor as if they were so much trash, and no one was working to pick them up, even though everyone seemed aware they were there. I don't know if I've ever felt more awkward in that moment. These people I loved, who helped raise me, and here I am walking on the shards of glass that held the wind and watered damaged photographic record of their lives. But I haven't forgotten the look in their eyes...I've seen it again on television from the Gulf Coast.

Or, the sense of what happens only days later as the next round of violent weather comes through, and the alert sirens blare all night long, and after awhile, so numbed and fatigued, so scared of what could be knowing all too well what had happened a few days before that I begin to hear the siren even when it's no longer on.

Like a said, a SOB.

I was out of town yesterday at a Board of Ministry meeting with our probationary deacons and elders at Lakeshore as Katrina was making way toward Memphis. My wife, a half a state away at work for the week. And at home with my children was my mother. The meeting was supposed to last two days, but nobody could keep their minds on the agenda. We were only preoccupied with what was going on, what was coming (and where I was they were forecasting 60MPH winds and 8 inches of rain).

All I wanted to do was go home. And I drove that night through the beginnings of Tropical Storm Katrina's approach to Shelby County. I just needed to hold my boys, and if nothing else revisit that lame, stupid, bad theology, old Veggie Tales tune.

For their benefit, of course.

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