Sunday, March 4, 2012

Thar Be Dragons

"Stephen, we need to get into the basement,” my wife has hold of my hand and is pulling me from Morpheus' embrace, "" I hear the loud roars of angry dragons and whipping winds causing stuff to hit my roof as we plod down the hallway to the sanctuary of the basement. Miraculously, I don't injure my wife or myself as we negotiate the stairs in the darkness, and I'm finally awake by the time the basement door is closed and we think all is well. Having survived the dragons’ attack, we feel brave and decide to peek out the garage door. We experience only blackness and a hard rain, but it is apparent even to me something fantastic has occurred. At first I think I hear the whining of our cat, but when I focus a little more closely, I realize it's a call for help. Mr. Tesla's AC current has deserted us and I rely on Mr. Edison's DC cells to provide light for strapping on boots and raincoat. I make my way into the blackness of an early morning blanketed by a heavy rain, traveling no further than the end of my driveway - it's apparent the dragons’ wrath has left behind devastation.

Climbing over and around trees and debris I make my way toward the cry for help, but for some reason I am suddenly compelled to check on my friend David three doors up from my own. It was not simple finding my way in the dark and it seemed like it was taking forever, when I finally flashed my light through the little windows on his front door and knocked, yelling his name. He answered my call as usual. But this wasn't usual; he had the look of residual terror in his eyes. His house had its kitchen sliced off by a falling tree, but both he and his new wife were unharmed. He wanted help getting a mattress into the basement to protect it from the rain that was pouring through what was left of his roof. Such is the mania caused by Death when he looks in your direction, but decides, "I'm busy right now, I'll come for you another day." Once the mattress was stored safely in the puddles of David's basement, I tried my hand at getting to the cries for help.

Several large trees had fallen on the house; she was pinned between her collapsed ceiling and her bed. Other neighbors had gathered around, all of us wringing our hands, feeling the exquisite pain of helplessness. Her husband was talking to her through a hole in the floor created by a limb of an offending tree, trying to keep her calm while he stood in the damp darkness amongst the debris in his basement. I gave him my flashlight; his flashlight had gone dead, the only known casualty thus far. Defeated, I retreated into the darkness and stumbled home for another flashlight, a towel, and to collect my thoughts. Slightly drier and armed with a fresh flashlight and a sledgehammer, I was determined to get through the front door to provide relief for a woman trapped in her own bed. Such are the thoughts of a fool mentally paralyzed by the anguish of disaster. Passage beyond the front door was impossible, the house violated by multiple large trees. Purpose was restored when someone suggested that removing the trees that blocked our streets would allow passage for police and other first responders. I am competent with my chainsaw.

The day matured and chased away the rain, the sun revealing a clear blue sky. The aftermath of nature’s fury was on display and inspired awe. Before long, volunteers started to show up, offering a hand cutting up the downed trees, meals and bottled water. I was amazed how quickly word spread and help was provided. I was also amazed how quickly the vultures appeared. The neighborhood streets were clogged with people, first just walking by and eventually driving by, gawking at destruction. Hucksters trying to convince me they were "tree surgeons" and “$1,400 per tree was gonna be a bargain, just wait and see.” Of course I told one "surgeon", "these trees are dead, they don't need a surgeon, they need a mortician and because we were so close I'll just bury them myself." When we finally found passage through the clogged streets and escaped the neighborhood for about an hour in search of chainsaw supplies, we returned to the reality that my wife didn't lock her car and now her expensive camera belonged to someone else.

In 2004, Hurricane Ivan attacked Pensacola. My friend Don and I borrowed a pick-up and drove through the night so we could join in the relief effort. Armed with chainsaw, food and water, we worked for a weekend and then drove home. A year or so later, Katrina made a mess of Mississippi and Louisiana. Don and I made multiple trips, first into Mississippi, then into Louisiana. Last April, truly devastating tornados cut a path of death and destruction across Alabama and our gang of disaster relief people served the stricken in the Asheville area. All this relief was offered days or even weeks after the event, but the tornado of Monday January 23rd happened in my yard and my neighborhood, and I felt the anxiety of helplessness within minutes of the 4:00am visit of that careless storm. I witnessed the best and worst of humanity within a few hours of the initial chaos, and it has left me with a different perspective toward those that want to help. There are those, like my new friend Adam, who know how to quietly offer assistance. He worked next to me as we cleared downed trees, and when it was time to take a break we talked duck hunting between swigs of cool water. I will live up to the promise I made Adam, to take him skeet shooting next time I have a weekend away from trees lying on the ground. I have infinite respect for the anonymous person or group that left the box of food at our doorstep. But I have to admit I'm starting to suffer from "relief fatigue". I look forward to the weekend when my neighborhood isn't hindered by armies of strangers wanting to feed me or help me with my problems. I yearn for a Saturday I can, without guilt, call Adam and ask, "Wanna go bust some clays?"

Stephen still lives in Paradise Valley along with his wife of 30+ years, who is elated that the hickory trees which used to populate the yard are gone and can no longer torment her with hickory nuts. They enjoy electricity and indoor plumbing, and Stephen is considering a second career as a chainsaw sculptor.