March 1, 2011
The old man sits
resting in a dining room chair
on his slender concrete front porch.
Behind him the front wall of his small, shoddy built house
tapers downward to the left,
from the top of the wall
toward the foundation.
There is no roof.
The front door is intact.
It’s like a scenery backdrop.
Hollywood hasn’t been here;
instead, a spring tornado.
I ask permission –- to look around,
to ask a few questions, take a few pictures.
I’m a journalist, documenting
the damage; the suffering of the residents.
He nods wearily, says its fine.
And I go behind the façade
into empty, partially walled rooms
open to the bright blue sky.
Beyond the open back side of the house,
the debris field of building materials,
splintered, well-aged two by fours and wallboard,
strollers, wood-framed play pens, and pieces of clothing,
decorates the crowns of tall trees between his house
and the remains of the houses of his back door neighbors,
as though they’d done their spring cleaning
and left it hanging high.
A couple of his friends, contemporaries,
only a few years younger than his 75-plus years,
walk around the open-air structure,
collecting what remains of his life.
Around the half walls of rooms
stand bookcases and tables
still carrying their bric-a-brac, and books,
undisturbed by the whirling winds
that two days before bent the four parallel steel poles
of a nearby billboard’s supports
at a 60° angle, still parallel.
They stand today, community art,
a monument to the storm and its survivors.
My new friend’s house sits in a neighborhood,
of homes set tightly along narrow streets,
but separated by deep back yards. There are
several blocks of these fragile thin-walled, homes,
constructed skimpily enough
to make manufactured housing seem durable,
built beyond what necessity might require.
A drive through the neighborhood this week
reveals it much the same as in pre-tornado days.
But many homes have been improved
by the masonry skills of their owners who have clad
their weak shells with brick, stone.
I think back on the old man and his friends
and the others I met that day,
and wonder if, having survived this,
the worst that nature could throw at them,
they now know some pride in their endurance,
their lives like those billboard supports:
bent but not broken.