by Myles Abroad
Tragedy strikes a small community, forcing them to re-evaluate what is important in life.
As I slowly slip into the waning years of my life, I am compelled to contemplate the journey I have traversed. I open a picture album and slowly turn the pages; the images evoking memories and emotions few can share; each moment in time cascading onto the next; its imprint reshaping the events to follow. I stop as I turn to the page displaying the newspaper clipping of the tornado that touched our community in the summer of '91. No other event I passed through in the journey of my life had such a profound effect. I carefully remove it from behind the cellophane and read it with dim eyes...
Extract from 'The Indianapolis Gazette' dated Thursday Jun 6, 1991
3 DEAD AFTER A TORNADO RIPS THROUGH A RURAL COMMUNITY IN CENTRAL INDIANA
A small rural community 3 miles north of Dahlia, west of Highway 61 was devastated yesterday around 6:00 pm when an EF-3 tornado ripped through a trailer park demolishing 4 homes and claiming 2 lives. Its eastward march caused extensive damage to a truck stop and claimed one more life. The community is shattered by the deaths; many have been left homeless. A spokesman for the Pike County Sheriff's department accounted the deaths to the suddenness of the storm. "People just didn't get time to find adequate shelter. It's a miracle there were not more killed." The victims have not been named. There were multiple reports of tornados yesterday evening causing extensive damage though no other fatalities were reported.
I gently replace the newspaper clipping, now faded and yellow after all these years. Each time I read it, I never fail to be transported back to that stormy evening; soaked, battered and overwhelmed by loss, standing in the wreckage of our community. The rain cascading down my face as the emergency vehicle lights flash in the gloom, rhythmically spelling out the grief of hearing loved ones forever taken from our side. Utterly helpless, the strength drains from my limbs as I survey our possessions mixed, trampled and strewn over the landscape; symbols of our simple lives, hopes and dreams, carelessly cast aside. In one brief moment of terror, our lives changed, totally and irrevocably forever.
And yet, there was hope and a will to survive; for those we love and remain and for the memory of those departed. The beautifully woven fabric of our community, inadvertently formed, was stretched, frayed and torn but not unravelled that evening. In the years, that followed a stronger tapestry emerged, strengthened by cords of shared grief, loss, love, memories and friendship. The threads of our petty problems, irrelevant, removed and replaced. That evening a knot, a nexus, was formed that changed the pattern of the weave, guided by a hand that now understands that life's not just about surviving, but how you survive.
Community - Saturday, 1 June 1991
Bill Prather drove the last nail home and dropped the nail gun on to the newly built deck. "Well, that about does it, and just on time. Told you so, didn't I?" he said to Jake Rollins, playfully punching him in the arm.
Jake smiled and glanced at his watch. "Hold on a sec. You said four. It's nearly that and we still gotta clean up,"
Bill laughed, "You can't weasel your way out of this. We bet on when we'd finish building the deck. Well, you lost and that means you get to clean up while I go present the bill to old man Jim."
"Well, I had to try," Jake replied, grinning.
Bill winked. "Enjoy cleanin' up," he said as he reached into his back pocket, pulled out his hastily written bill and strode over to Jim Stebbins front door.
Jake smiled as he watched his friend knock on the door. Bill was a bear of a man; tall and built like a line backer although he was starting to nurse a beer belly which Jake enjoyed ribbing him about. A life spent outdoors had left him darkly tanned and weathered. His shaggy dark brown hair, always kept under that worn Colts hat; a full beard covering his lantern jaw rounded off an intimidating appearance. However, his dark brown friendly eyes were the only indication that appearances can be deceptive. He was the gentlest soul you could ever meet. Jake had never seen him lose his cool. When things piled up on him, his response was to take his cap off, run his hand through his hair and then firmly draw his cap back down on his head, saying, "Well, sheeit."
He had known Bill four years. When Jake and his wife Emily had moved into the trailer park, Bill had introduced himself and his family and had simply stated if there was anything they needed just to 'holler'. Eventually, they worked on cars together and anything else they couldn't manage on their own. They got to know and trust each other's abilities and skills.
Emily babysat their two girls until their youngest was of school age, while his wife Darlene worked mornings at Wurth Drug Store in Dahlia, There was an ease between both families; a path was worn between their trailers from their continuous intermingling.
Bill was a building contractor. He ran a small crew during the week and Jake worked with him on the weekends when he needed the help. Jake couldn't help but marvel at his confidence in planning a job. Earlier in the week, Bill had asked for his help to build a thirty foot deck on Saturday. Jake had agreed, but reasoned it would take most of Sunday as well. Bill had flatly told him it was a one day job; if they got started at eight, then they would be done by four.
"I tell you what Jake," he had said. "If we don't finish by four, I'll clean up while you relax, otherwise you clean up. Deal?"
"I wouldn't agree to that, Jake," Darlene had said. "Bill is usually right about stuff like that."
Jake had ignored Darlene's advice and shook on the bet, thinking he would easily win. They had arrived on site at eight in the morning and sure enough, Bill was right. Jake shook his head, chuckling.
He stretched out his tired arms and arched his back to release the tension from his body; lit a cigarette and deeply drew in a lungful of smoke, letting it out slowly. He looked over their mess and pushed himself into motion. He gathered up the tools, coiled up the air hoses and extension cords and methodically packed everything neatly into the back of the pickup truck; everything in its place. As he worked he could feel his jeans and shirt sticking to his sweaty body.
He glanced up at the clear blue sky. "Man it's hot! Must be about ninety degrees," he muttered, wiping the sweat from his forehead.
He swept down the deck, gathering all the off cuts of timber. The smell of freshly cut lumber hung in the air of the wooded lot. He breathed in deeply, relishing the smell as he stepped down from the deck. He stood back to admire their handiwork; deeply satisfied with their day's work. The deck ran the length of the house, ten foot deep with an elegant railing running its length and sides. The railing was interrupted midway by a wide stairway spanning a four foot drop.
Not for the first time, Jake turned around to gaze at the view. He envied 'Old Man Jim' being able to sit comfortably on his deck and gaze down at Sheridan's Lake; the heavily wooded hills running down to the blue waters edge. He could only imagine what it would be like to sit out each morning; drinking in the early morning fresh air surrounded in this picturesque setting.
"Maybe someday," he sighed to himself as he started to load the truck with the discarded lumber from the old deck; wood to burn in the fire pit tonight at the barbeque he and Emily were hosting. Bill emerged from the house and helped him finish loading the truck.
"Did he pay up.?" Jake asked as they climbed into the truck.
"Yup, but he sure loves to haggle," Bill said as he took the wad of cash out of his pocket and peeled off a few notes, handing them to Jake. "Here's your share A hundred bucks for half a day's work; not bad, huh?" Bill chuckled. He put the truck in drive and pulled out onto the small country road that ran through the forest hills.
Jake laughed as he stuffed the money deep into his pocket, "Yup...Easy money. This'll go in the jar." He and Emily had a large glass pickle jar she would put her tips from waitressing in. He also threw in any cash earnings. It could add up to quite a bit when it was full.
"You guys still saving for a bigger home?" Bill asked.
"Yea. What we have was fine with the three of us, but now we have two kids it seems there's no room for anything anymore."
"Your trailer probably is that bit too small for all of you, Jake, but it doesn't have to be much bigger."
"Well, yours ain't that much bigger than ours. It must be getting crowded, especially now that your two girls are getting big."
"We get by," Bill replied. "I think the more space you get, you just buy more junk you don't need. I guess I'm lucky 'cause Darlene feels the same way. She don't care nothin' for shoppin' or gadgets. We work hard when we need to, but we like spending time with our girls and our friends. I'd rather drive an old beat up truck, I got to fix sometimes, than havin' to work an extra job to pay for a fancy, new one. That's just us though."
Jake mulled over what Bill was saying, pleased his friend was content with his life, but Jake wanted a little more. He was tired of struggling, and desperately wanted to be comfortable; a nice house, a reliable car, able to buy the things Emily and the kids needed, sometimes what they wanted. However, he felt like he could crack with the pressure he was putting himself under to 'get ahead in life'; to live the 'American Dream'. He had separated from the Air Force five months ago and now worked for Realto Communications Corporation. They paid him an average wage; but, when all was said and done, they were not much better off, financially, than when he was a buck sergeant in the Air Force. The increase in wage just about offset the loss in benefits.
He had also spent the last four months in night school taking two more courses towards his Bachelor of Science. This last week he had taken the final tests. If he passed, he would earn six semester hours, leaving him eighteen to go. The goal was to be an engineer and then he would earn the 'big bucks'. It had been a gruelling year though; the war, college, a new job, a new child. He felt exhausted just thinking about it and slowly closed his eyes. What Bill was saying did sound good. And then there was Emily...
'Bill is a lucky man,' he thought to himself. 'He has a gem of a wife that really seems to respect him.' Jake had often seen how Darlene would gaze up at Bill with admiration. She seemed to believe in him and trust his judgement. 'I wish my wife respected me like that,' he thought. 'In spite of all I do, Emily just nags me all the time and acts as though I don't know what I'm doing!'
They came to a stop at the intersection with the main county road they lived on, twenty miles east. Bill turned, quickly gathering speed. Jake enjoyed the feel of the warm air blowing through the open windows of the truck. He watched the wooded hills give way to flat open farmland, the corn standing tall and green. They passed a pig farm and Jake wrinkled his nose at the stench.
"I don't know how they can stand the smell," Jake said.
Bill looked over at Jake with a big grin on his face. "It stinks, don't it!? I guess they must get used to it... I sure couldn't."
Jake grinned back and said, "I guess I ought to be glad that's not what I do for a livin'. It would be hard to ever get a date."
Jake heard one of John Cougar Mellencamp's hits playing on the radio, describing life in 'small town' America. He turned it up and sat back quietly singing along to the lyrics; they resonated deep within. He wasn't born in a small town, but he loved central Indiana country living, especially in the summertime.
"You know Jake," Bill said, "you've been looking pale and worn out lately. You feelin' alright?"
"Yea, it's just been hectic lately. At least I have a few months away from college work," he replied. "That'll help. I'm gonna enjoy the summer."
"You do that," Bill replied, smiling. "This is the best time of year."
A red Camaro tore past them and Jake looked over his shoulder. "Crazy nuts. Where's the cops when you need them?" he said. "Say, wasn't that Rob and Tammy?"
Bill grunted and looked over at him. "Yup, and I'm sick of them. Always blarin' their music, fightin' and hollerin' late at night, racin' up and down the drive like it was a drag strip. I was beatin' on their door late last night tellin' them to keep it down."
"They need to be kicked out of the trailer court before someone gets hurt."
"That's a fact. I don't know whose worse, though, them or your buddy, Rango," Bill said.
Jake sighed heavily as he thought of Rango, He and Jake had served together in the Air Force, sharing the ups and downs of military life, and had separated from the service a month apart. They had formed a tight bond, despite their differences. Rango was a couple years younger, single, irresponsible and wild, but when sober he possessed the most, generous, kind and loyal spirit possible.
When Rango had initially left the Air Force, he moved home but then showed up on their doorstep six weeks ago with the intention of settling in the area. He slept on their couch for two weeks until he got a job and rented out one of the trailers in the trailer court.
He was a bone of contention between Jake and Emily, though. Jake felt compelled to look out for him while Emily regarded him as a negative influence on their family. It seemed some of their friends also felt the same way.
"Sorry Bill. I know Rango's a bit wild at times, but that's just 'cause of the booze."
"Stop apologizin' for him, Jake. You don't have to make excuses for him."
"I'm not tryin' to. If you really got to know him you wouldn't think he was so bad."
Bill grimaced and rubbed his neck. He looked over at Jake. "The thing is Jake, I know he's a nice guy but when he's drunk he's meaner than a snake."
Jake ran his hand through his hair, took out his cigarettes, handed on one to Bill and lit up. "Well Bill, I hate to admit it, but I can't disagree with you there."
They continued due east down the county road for another ten minutes until they arrived home. Home for both Bill and Jake was Willow Branch Trailer Court. True to its name large mature trees stand throughout, giving ample shade from the sun, a welcome break from the monotonous straight cornfields.
The trailer court had seen better days though. It offered a dozen run down mobile homes set off from the road in two back to front rows. They were rented out mainly to transients and at that time only half the trailers were rented. In spite of that, three families, the Rollins, the Prather's and the Brady's, owned their own trailers and had lived their long term. They, along with the Smiths who lived across the road, had together made it their home.
Bill slowed down to cross the railway tracks that marked the boundary of the trailer court and then parked the truck in front of Jake's trailer, which sat alone, overlooking one entrance to it. They saw Norman Smith across the road working in his vegetable garden.
"Good old Norm," said Bill. "He and Doris sure keep a nice garden."
"Yeah they do," Jake replied. "I've helped them out in it lots of times. They really know what they're doin'."
"Don't I know it," Bill replied smiling. "Darlene goes over there a lot. She's really taken an interest in gardening. She wants us to plough one up next spring. She's been getting all kinds of ideas from Doris."
Bill honked the horn at Norm as they got out of the truck. Norm saw them and waved. He walked across the road to them with a sharpness suggesting a career in the military. His dark face lit up in a smile and his eyes sparkled with mischief as he approached them.
"It looks like you two have put in a hard day's work for a change." Norman said to them as he shook their hands.
Bill grinned back at him and winked. "Well, I gotta show Jake that there's more to work than sittin' inside an air conditioned office."
"He's showin' me that alright." Jake responded, wiping the sweat off his forehead. "Looks like you've been puttin' in a shift in your vegetable patch, Norm."
"I wasn't doin' much. Doris is getting some food ready for the barbecue tonight. She sent me out to collect some things for the salad she's putting together. She made a cherry pie too, but warned me not to sneak any," he said grinning. "I always do what I'm told."
"You're a lucky man, Norm," Bill said. "Your wife can sure cook."
"Oh I thank God for her daily, Bill. I don't know what I'd do without her," Norman replied. He glanced at the stack of rotten lumber in the back of the pickup truck, "That's a nice pile of wood. Is that for the fire tonight?"
"Yup," said Bill, "we're just fixin' to unload it."
"Need some help?"
"You bet, Norm," Jake said, and then added, "Unless you're not up to hard work anymore, old man." Norman had retired from the air force twenty years ago and he was now close to retirement from the Realto plant where he worked as a production manager.
Norman chuckled. "I could work you two young bucks into the ground, any day of the week," he replied, removing a piece of lumber from the truck and pitching it across the fence.
Jake didn't doubt it. Norman was a disciplined man who kept himself fit and trim. The only indication of his age was the slight greying of his hair which contrasted with his black skin. Together they finished unloading the truck.
"Norm," Bill said, "Darlene was telling me this mornin' that some of your tomato vines seem to be getting some sort of rot."
"Sorry guys," Jake said, looking at his watch. "I gotta pick up the kids at Karen's." Jake chuckled to himself as he crossed the entrance drive and then walked onto the large green area separating his and Karen Brady's home. He knew once they started to talk, time would become irrelevant.
Walking across the green he waved at Karen's husband, Drew. He had just driven his ride on mower onto the green to begin its' weekly trim; just one of his responsibilities as the trailer court manager.
Glancing at the row of trailers overlooking the green, he noticed a moving van outside one. "Someone else moving out," he sighed, realising he didn't even know their names.
As he approached Karen and Drew's home he could not help but admire it, sitting proudly at the main entrance to the trailer court. It was immaculate; double wide, gleaming like new in the sunlight, the deck impeccably stained, the lawns crisp and flowers beautifully arranged. He crossed the main entrance drive and walked onto their deck, the high pitched laughter of children playing coming from the back yard. Karen came to the front door and her open, friendly face broke into a welcoming smile.
"Hi Jake," she said. "It looks like you've put in a tough days work. C'mon in to the air conditioning and have a cold drink."
"Thanks Karen. That would be nice." He walked into her cool dark home; the contrast in temperature so refreshing. As usual their home was neat and clean with a constant fragrant smell in the air, which Emily had said it was potpourri.
"Looks like someone's movin' out, Karen."
Karen's smile subsided. "Yea, the Bartlette's. They said Rob and Tammy were drivin' them nuts. I don't know why we ever rented to them."
"Can't you kick them out?"
"Well, that's what I keep tellin' Drew. They've sure caused enough trouble." Then she wagged a finger at Jake, "And Rango ain't far behind them."
Jake smiled apologetically and Karen smiled. "Well, forget about that for now and let me get you that drink," she said.
Karen poured him an ice cold glass of tea. He gratefully took a long drink, his parched throat blissfully refreshed. She smiled at his obvious relief.
"The kids are around back," she said. "We set up the paddle pool and they are having a blast," she said smiling. They walked to the sliding glass doors overlooking their backyard.
Karen and Drew had a large fenced in back yard with two large beech trees giving the yard and their home much needed shade. They had invested in outdoor play equipment for their children, making the Brady's a favourite destination for other kids to visit. It wasn't just the equipment though that attracted them. Karen was welcoming, fun and caring, but also firm. The pool was a novelty though, and everything else was ignored.
Jake and Emily's three year old daughter Meagan was in her pink swim suit mixing it up with Karen's three boys. Her youngest boy, Brian was a year older than Meagan. The older boys were Caleb, who was seven, and Pete, who was eight. All her boys were blond; tanned and freckled from playing in the Sun. Meagan, like her mother had a mop of curly brown hair and sallow skin that tanned easily.
"You should have seen them earlier," she said, starting to laugh. "Drew got the paddle pool out of the shed and got Pete to start filling it. It wasn't long before Pete was squirting all the kids with water. They were all running around throwing buckets of water at each other. It was funny to watch but I had to step in. It was starting to get out of hand."
Jake laughed along and then looked over at his son Josh who was in the play pen under the shade of the trees. He was eleven months old and hadn't mastered the art of walking yet, but was standing up, leaning against the edge of the play pen, pumping his pudgy arms and hollering with longing at the other kids.
"Poor Josh," Karen said, "he really wants to be with the bigger kids. I had him in the pool earlier but the others were bein' too rough for him."
"They're having such a good time, Karen. I hate to break it up, but we gotta go." He put his empty glass in the sink. "Thanks for the drink, Karen."
"You're welcome Jake, and the kids can stay longer it you want. It's no trouble."
"Thanks Karen, but you've watched them long enough. Besides, I need to get them ready and Meagan can help me set things up. Emily says it's good to get Meagan involved in whatever we do." He smiled at Karen. "I think that was your advice and it's working out great for us."
Karen blushed. "Well I can see it's workin' with Meagan. She's always so helpful. She's so cute Jake."
"She is a good girl Karen, thanks to you and Emily."
"What time are we all meeting up tonight?"
"Six thirty, seven, whenever you can make it. Emily said she would be home by six thirty. The weather is perfect for it... We picked up a bunch of firewood today, so the kids can roast wieners and marshmallows."
"That'll be fun for them. We've been lookin' forward to it all day." Then her face turned serious. "Are you sure Rango won't be there tonight?"
"I promise, Karen. I told him to stay away and he said he would," Jake said, as he slid open the sliding glass door. They stepped out into the back yard and were greeted by the noise of four boisterous children squealing and splashing around in the pool. Meagan called out to her Daddy and went back to splashing around in the pool. Josh caught sight of him and held out his arms, calling to be set free. "Hi Josh." said Jake as he walked over and picked him up. He brought him over to the pool and lowered him into it. He gasped with excitement and started to kick his legs in the water. Karen and Jake both laughed at Josh's expressions.
"He really likes the water, Jake."
"Yea he does!" Jake said. He looked up at the other kids splashing around and called out to them. "Looks like you guys have been having a great time... Meagan, I'm sorry but we need to go. Can you say goodbye to the boys?"
"Why the hell do I have to go, Daddy?" pleaded Meagan.
"Meagan! You can't say 'hell'."
"But uncle Rango says it all the time."
Jake looked up at Karen, sharply. She looked back, her eyes wide and round in an expression that said 'See? I told you so'.
"Just 'cause Rango says it, don't mean you have to. He says a lot of things he shouldn't say. We've got to go home to get ready for the barbecue. You'll see the boys later."
"C'mon honey, your Daddy needs to go," said Karen. "Can you help me get yours and Josh's thing together in the diaper bag?"
Jake felt sorry for Meagan when he saw a sullen expression cross her face, but she didn't fuss. Instead she quietly said goodbye to the others and got out of the pool to help Karen gather up their things. Jake let Josh paddle for a little longer and then went back into the house after saying goodbye to the boys.
Karen walked them to the front door and kissed Meagan and Josh goodbye. "We'll see you guys soon. We'll have a great evening together," she said to them as they were leaving.
"We will Karen. See ya later."
Jake walked home across the green, laden with Josh and their baggage, while Meagan, still in her swimsuit and barefooted, raced across the green. Drew was still mowing and they waved at each other again. Surprisingly, Bill and Norman had already left. Meagan was close to the gravel drive when, alarmingly, Jake saw the red Camaro spin onto it from the road, churning up gravel as it struggled to gain traction. Jake grabbed Meagan and pulled her back away from danger and watched Rob and Tammy as they barrelled forward on the drive.
"Slow down, you idiots!" he yelled.
In response Tammy threw an empty beer can at him and gave him the finger. Jake watched them skirt around the green and then drive back around to the back row of trailers. He picked up the beer can and crushed it.
"That's the last straw!"