Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Stormy Monday

Perhaps I am too quick to see the ironies in things. Maybe that is a hazard when one has been a journalist and a student of history most of his life.

Nevertheless, I do find it ironic that, two weeks ago, I wrote about my memories of the abduction, rape and murder of a sixth–grade girl in my home county 35 years ago — and, this week, the same small Arkansas town in which she lived was devastated by a tornado.

At the latest count, there were four people dead in that small town — Vilonia. To me, that is staggering.

Four fatalities in a given storm is a pretty impressive number just about anywhere, but Vilonia is merely a bump in the road by almost anyone's standards.

Even though Arkansas' governor says everyone has been accounted for and the death toll is not expected to rise, that many deaths in a place the size of Vilonia remains significant.

Ghost towns have larger populations.

It's been a long time since I lived in Arkansas. When I did, I seldom heard much about Vilonia — even when I grew up a virtual stone's throw from the place. Frankly, when I left there, if I had stopped to think about it, I would have said that I didn't expect to hear about Vilonia again — unless I moved back to Arkansas.

Since the internet boom, I have been visiting my hometown newspaper's website to keep up with the news, and, from time to time, I see Vilonia mentioned — in city council stories, in school board stories. But I rarely give much thought to it.

It is unnerving now, to say the least, to hear Vilonia mentioned on the national news and to hear the names of places I haven't thought about in years — except, of course, in the context of the memories of which I wrote two weeks ago.

Speaking of my hometown newspaper, I was visiting that site a little while ago, and I was looking at the obituaries — as I often do (it's how I have learned of the deaths of many of my old friends, teachers and others). I saw someone of whom I never heard before, an elderly lady who probably (although I don't know this for sure) lived most of her life in that little country town.

She died on Sunday. I don't know much about her. The obituary didn't mention her cause of death, but it did say there were many children and grandchildren, even great–grandchildren, who survived her.

The obituaries of the four tornado victims were posted on the website, too, but they died on Monday.

Those tornado victims, I think, will live on in Vilonia's collective memory as the casualties of Stormy Monday. I'm guessing that the lady who died on Sunday will be long remembered by her family, but not by most others.

When she is remembered, it may be in a kind of "She died the day before the Twister" way. Doesn't seem fair, does it?

I have empathy for both sides.

When I was 5, a tornado ripped through my hometown. At that tender age, I saw what nature could do. When its fury is unleashed, no man and nothing made by man can contain it. The stories of the destruction it left behind live on today.

As a child, I did something that I'm sure Arkansas schoolchildren still do. I participated in tornado drills. They were the same as the "duck and cover" drills that were designed to protect us in the event of a nuclear attack — but, by comparison, ducking and covering seemed more likely to save my life if a tornado struck.

Next week will be the 16th anniversary of my mother's death in a flash flood here in Dallas. She was a first–grade teacher so there were many children and their parents who were affected at the time, but that memory faded. By the first anniversary of her death, few people still spoke of her outside the family.

The storm itself is still remembered by some, primarily because of when it happened — Cinco de Mayo. But, if not for that, it might be forgotten by nearly everyone today even though nearly two dozen people in the Dallas–Fort Worth area died.

It happened about two weeks after the Oklahoma City bombing.

That's maybe the greatest of history's ironies — how some events are overshadowed by others. But that doesn't take anything away from their significance. One of my favorite writers, Mark Twain, once observed, "Nothing that grieves us can be called little: by the eternal laws of proportion, a child's loss of a doll and a king's loss of a crown are events of the same size."

Take, for instance, Nov. 22, 1963. History remembers that day as the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated — but it was also a particularly bad day for people who appreciate good and thought–provoking writing. C.S. Lewis, the author of the "Narnia" books, and Aldous Huxley, author of (among other things) "Brave New World," also died that day.

Lewis and Huxley were overshadowed at the time — and understandably so — by the events here in Dallas, but that certainly didn't lessen the loss to the written word.

It might have remained unnoticed by most, though, if not for Peter Kreeft's 1982 novel "Between Heaven and Hell" that explored a philosophical discussion between the three men in the afterlife.

That's another thing I've noticed about history. Sometimes scales that have been tipped noticeably in one direction for a long time may slip back into balance unexpectedly.

It's still true, though, that history repeats itself. Well, perhaps not word for word.

As Twain or Will Rogers or Artemus Ward or perhaps someone else said (I've heard it attributed to many people), history may not repeat itself, but it rhymes a lot.

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