|| Therefore thus saith the Lord God; I will even rend it with a stormy wind in my fury.
Ezekiel 13:13 KJV
The small rural town snuggled peacefully amidst the gently rolling hills as it had done for well over two hundred years. Reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell painting, a calm and relaxed tranquility pervaded the picturesque scene. Many of the stately oaks and maples that lined the streets and provided front yard shade predated the arrival of the first white settlers. The spring that had encouraged them to stop and put down roots of their own still flowed from the base of one of those hills. Although several churches had been established over the years to provide spiritual sustenance and guidance, the little white steepled church, built on a high hill that overlooked the little town, possessed the dignified simplicity of an earlier time, the colorful stained glass windows its only extravagance.
Located not far from the spring, the town's cemetery had long ago settled down quietly on a hill all its own. Carved from local limestone and worn by the elements of nature, the epitaphs on its oldest headstones had gradually faded with the passing of time. The cemetery's massive old oaks, present when those earliest settlers had been lowered into the earth, continued to peer down from their lofty heights, regarding those small mounds with veneration and respect. Located on the other side of the town next to the railroad tracks, the few businesses that had not yet vacated the dilapidated downtown had closed for the holiday weekend, and the old stone quarry across the tracks continued its endless sleep. Its years of crunching limestone and belching its thick dust into the air had ceased long ago. On many hot summer days when no breezes had stirred the air, that irksome and wearisome dust had fallen and covered the downtown like a whited funeral shroud.
The weather that day was stifling and unseasonably sultry for the end of May. And although the town was no stranger to sweltering heat, the muggy air combined with the feverish hotness of the late afternoon began to hang heavily over the town like a wet, woolen blanket. A forboding expectancy began to permeate the Sabbath stillness. The leaves of the trees fluttered with restless apprehension, and the little white steepled church that overlooked the town trembled uneasily as it kept a vigilant eye on the western sky. Ignoring the impending tempest, the occupants of the cemetery continued their careless slumber. The empty store windows peered vacantly at the sky that afternoon as the rough and jagged quarry bluffs, unperturbed by the scorching sun, looked down with contempt upon the deserted downtown buildings. Even the dogs of the town had sought refuge wherever they could find a bit of shelter from the oppressive heat.
Their fleshly appetites sated by Sunday dinners consumed hours earlier in the day, the residents who had remained in town for the long weekend settled down to enjoy the calm of another idyllic Sunday afternoon. Babies and toddlers napped in air-conditioned comfort as those too old for daytime snoozing engaged in their typical indoor pursuits. A few devout souls read their Bibles while others not so devout gossiped over the phone, savoring their neighbors' transgressions like an old dog gnawing on his favorite bone. A small verbose handful tackled the jumbo crossword puzzle that appeared weekly in the expanded edition of the Sunday paper. Television and the internet with its world wide web had cast their spell, hypnotizing many of the town's inhabitants. From pornography to medical advice to recipes, each online visitor found something of interest.
Some braver souls, defying the brooding heat, had ventured out-of-doors. The sound of a lawnmower could be heard in the distance by local youths who, perspiring profusely, diligently honed their basketball skills at the elementary school's modest playground. The swings and other metal equipment, blistering hot from the intense heat, were unoccupied. A couple of residents took advantage of the empty car wash, soaping and rinsing their vehicles as their sweat quickly saturated their clothing. A few hardy youths rode their bikes as families fortunate enough to be blessed with backyard swimming pools sought relief by splashing and frolicking in the tepid waters. While pastors sat in their offices composing their Sunday night sermons and mothers pondered what to fix for Sunday suppers, the National Weather Service was preparing the report that would immediately be faxed to all local stations. An intense storm was headed directly for the heart of the small rural town.
For unbeknownst to the townspeople, the black horseman of the Apocalypse was preparing to descend from the heavens, leaving behind scenes more appropriate to Dante than Norman Rockwell. For on the outskirts of town, cool air was mixing with the sultriness of the late afternoon--creating a lethal combination. For the handful of residents outside in the heat, the ominous shade of green that suddenly appeared in the sky over their heads sent shivers up their spines. For those inside with televisions turned on, local weathermen interrupted programs in progress, warning of the impending danger and the need to seek shelter immediately. For many the first indication of the menacing storm was a deafening roar and the furious winds. Within seconds a monstrous twisting and churning F3 tornado plunged from the sky, mercilessly destrpying everything in its path. Young and old, rich and poor, healthy and infirm, all frantically sought shelter from the violent storm that was already upon them.
Reaching a speed of 170 miles per hour and cutting a swath of destruction up to 400 yards wide, the tornado quickly ravaged and decimated the town. The majestic oaks and maples that had quietly stood sentinel for centuries snapped like spindly matchsticks. The houses on the street where I had lived as a child succumbed to the fury of the storm. Roofs were blown away, and gaping holes stared back blankly where walls had once stood. Scraggly insulation clung to the pieces of jagged glass that remained in the imploded windows. Debris littered the ground and hung grotesquely from anything left standing. Cars, trucks, motor homes, and boats--anything that had been outside when the storm hit--lay tossed about like a child's toys. The creek where I had often played as a child was strewn with wreckage from the storm.
The sanctuary of the little white steepled church on top of the hill had vanished. A gaping hole in the earth was all that remained. Never again would its bell ring out clarion clear on Sunday mornings, beckoning saints and sinners alike. Every Sunday, scrubbed clean and dressed in our best, that bell had summoned my family up the steep hill. Always dependable, we were numbered with the faithful who could be counted on to be there every service. My dad had been a Sunday school superintendent and my mom had taught a children's Sunday school class. We all knew our roles and had always played them to perfection. As a child I had learned that good appearances ranked ever higher than holiness.
During Sunday morning services, my family had always sat to the right of the center isle, close to the front. We were another Norman Rockwell painting--picture perfect. Dedicated to members deceased and long ago forgotten, the resplendent stained glass windows
etched themselves in my memory. However, I can recall very little about the worship services. Neither can I remember the face of even
one pastor who had labored there during the eight years of my family's fidelity and commitment. My most vivid memory is that of one member whose last name had once been worth of the town's respect. This portly old gentleman had always sat on the back row to the left of the center isle. Every Sunday he would fall asleep during the sermon and be snoring by the benediction. As steadfast and loyal as my family, if attendance earned one a place in Heaven, we all had nothing to fear.
Neither can I remember anyhing about the basement, even though I had descended those steps every Sunday for eight years. It was in Sunday school that I had learned about Noah and his Ark, Joseph and his coat of many colors, Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac, Jonah and the big fish, David slaying Goliath with only a sling, baby Moses set afloat in the bulrushes along the banks of the Nile, and many other stories of the Old Testament that I had loved so much. It was also in Sunday school that I learned about Jesus, the suffering saviour who loves all the children of the world. Fifty-five years later I can still remember the words to the song that Sunday school children still learn today .
Jesus loves the little children
All the little children of the world
Red and yellow, black and white
They are precious in his sight
Jesus loves the little children of the world.
Growing up in a small, rural town, I had never seen any red, yellow, nor black children. "Where do they live?" I had always wondered. "Does Jesus really love them all? Does he really love me? If Jesus does see and know everything I do, how could he possibly love me?" I found no answers in that basement so many years ago, and today it is filled with dirt and lies beneath a sparse patch of scraggly grass.
After all those years had justice finally descended in all its fury upon the little white steepled church and its town? Indeed, had the church trembled at the approaching storm, sensing that God's judgment was nigh? Had the black horseman weighed it in his balances and found it woefully lacking? Is that why, of all the churches in town, only it had been obliterated. And, if so, what abominations had merited its destruction?
The pitifully small white clapboard house that I had lived in as a child was damaged by the storm, but repairable, Too small for a growing family, we had lived there for only three years before upgrading to a house more suitable to my parent's desired position of prominence in the community. This first house had been built on a dumpsite, and my brothers and I had needed to be very careful when going barefooted in the summer as we were always painfully discovering pieces of glass and other assorted bits of long ago discarded garbage, More than fifty years later that house, the house of the june bugs, still evokes vivid images of enormous swarms of insects. Attracted by several peach trees in the back yard, in late summer they had often been so thick that they had literally covered the trees and carpeted the ground.
Ironically the already dilapidated downtown had sustained little damage. Over fifty years ago a bank, post office, dime store, beauty shop, florist, grocery store, bank, restaurant, insurance office, barber shop, appliance store, women's apparel, dry goods, doctor's office, hardware store, grain mill, and theater had all thrived, especially on Saturdays when the many farmers had flocked to town to do their banking, shopping, and grooming. As a child the old theater with its tattered seats had been my favorite, Featuring a different movie each week, my brothers and I had rarely missed a showing. Whether romance, war, horror, comedy, or tragedy, we vicariously experienced it all. However, unable to compete with the growing demand for larger, fancier cinemas that offered multiple showings, the antiquated facility had finally closed its doors and slipped into oblivion. LIkewise, the small family owned businesses, unable to compete with the larger chain stores that offered everything a family could need or want--all under one roof--had ceased to thrive and prosper. Eventually they, too, had been trodden underfoot by the relentless march of progress.
Eighty percent of the town's buildings had been mangled by the storm. Residences, beauty shops, apartment buildings, churches, and the town's only doctor's office were in need of repair. Some appeared to have sustained only minor damage, while others had been totally obliterated and blown away. A few that appeared to be spared by the storm had actually sustained damage to their foundations that would later require them to be razed, their remains hauled off and dumped ignominously in some distant landfill. The town's largest apartment complex was roofless, and everything its tenants possessed had been soaked and ruined by the rain. Although the house next to the post office had sustained major damage, the post office was virtually unscathed, its workers sorting mail by flashlight two days after the storm. The town's only elementary school had also been severely damaged and would not be ready for student enrollment in the fall. The roof of its gymnasium and several classroom walls would have to be repaired. This was the new school that had replaced the asbestos infected building that I had attended for eight years of my childhood. After generations of children had unknowingly breathed its tainted air, that old brick structure had finally been torn down.
Growing up in the fifties and sixties, my parents had been more concerned with the Cold War and the possibility of a nuclear war than the possibility of an impending, destructive storm descending upon our town. My mom had once embarrassed me by attending a school board meeting, demanding to know how they would protect their students if a nuclear war with Russia should occur? My dad had even ordered plans detailing the construction of a bomb shelter. How ironic that my parents had obsessed with threats that originated on a faraway continent, but had cared nothing about the dangers that had lurked in the house where we lived.
Over in mere seconds, the tornado left behind a community that had been severely wounded. People, dazed and in shock, emerged from their scarred homes as others frantically scurried to check on the safety of neighbors and family. With no phone service, it was impossible for residents living in one end of the town to determine the safety of friends who lived just minutes away. Hundreds of trees blocked the roadways, rendering the vehicles not destroyed by the storm virtually useless. On-the-spot rescuers navigated their way through a twisted maze of dangerous debris, entering houses that could any minute collapse on top of them. Downed power lines were strewn everywhere. Soon helicopters were hovering over the town as local news stations competed to broadcast images of the chaos and havoc.
Dazed, horrified, and speechless, residents surveyed their ravaged neighborhoods. Any navigation required wending their way through the debris and detouring around toppled trees and utility poles. Darkness would descend soon and there would be no lights. Concerned only with survival that night, the residents would later begin the work of salvage and restoration.
Everything had changed forever in so little time. And had I remembered them what the lost little girl inside of me had never forgotten, the screams might have come forth much sooner. For deep within, a storm as destructive and devastating in its own measure had been brewing for well over fifty years.