Monday, April 28, 2014

The Sound and the Fury

I grew up in Faulkner County in central Arkansas.

There was a time, when I was a teenager, that I liked to tell myself that the county was named after William Faulkner, a great novelist from Mississippi — but I knew (thanks to the Arkansas history class we all had to take in fifth grade) that it was really named after the man who composed "The Arkansas Traveler," which was the state song for about 15 years and has been the state historical song since 1987.

William Faulkner, with novels to his credit like "The Sound and the Fury," might be more appropriate today, considering the intensity of the tornado that ripped through the county yesterday and virtually demolished two towns, both only a matter of miles from my hometown.

My hometown, incidentally, appears to have been spared — but that wasn't the case when I was 5 years old.

I grew up in the country on a man–made lake. When my parents wanted to go out, they drove to Little Rock, which was about 30 minutes away, and, on that particular evening, they went out, probably for dinner and a movie.

There was a high school girl named Gail who lived about a mile or so down the road from us. She was the usual babysitter for my brother and me, and I remember that she came over to watch us. Not long after my parents left, the storm started to brew up. My family didn't have a TV in those days so we must have been listening to the radio, and we must have heard that a tornado was headed our way.

Gail called her father and asked him to come get us in his pickup truck. There was a storm cellar at Gail's house, and she figured we would all be safe there.

But we didn't get there in time for it to help us.

As we were heading to her house, I remember looking up through the windshield — and seeing the tornado pass directly over us. It is a sight and a sound I will never forget.

Another thing I will never forget is the scene at Gail's house when everyone was sure the storm had passed us. We emerged from the cellar, and Gail and her siblings ran around their yard, grabbing scraps of paper that were swirling around in the tornado's tailwinds. I don't know what they were — maybe mailing labels or envelopes or pieces of telephone book pages or something else — but Gail and her siblings were calling out names and places when they could read them.

That whole scene is a bit of a blur for me now. I remember a lot of noise — some of it was the wind, some was the shrieks of the young folks as they deduced that pieces of paper in their hands could tell them how far the tornado had traveled. There was so little that anyone knew in those first minutes.

In the background, I remember the sound of Gail's family's TV and the updates on the storm's destruction. If we had been in town, instead of cut off by a line of hills and trees, we probably would have heard a lot of sirens. It was a cacophony.

William Faulkner wrote about the sound and the fury; I heard the sound and witnessed the fury.

It was hilly country where we lived, and the tornado must have bounced around it because there was little, if any, damage out there. We got to Gail's house and joined the rest of the family in the storm cellar — but, by that time, the tornado had passed us, crossed over the hills and touched down in town, plowing through the heart of the community. There were many casualties and a lot of damage in town.

Faulkner County was declared a disaster area after that tornado — and I have friends there who tell me that it probably will be declared a disaster area again.

The two towns that sustained the greatest damage and loss of life were Mayflower and Vilonia. Neither was very large when I lived there; I'm sure that little has changed, even though the town in which I grew up apparently has tripled, maybe quadrupled, in size since I was in high school.

If yesterday's tornado had hit my hometown, the loss of life probably would have been staggering, and the damage would have been almost incomprehensible. So I guess that is something for which we can be grateful.

But the damage and loss of life must seem incomprehensible to the residents of those two tiny towns as they try to carry on. A friend of mine says the estimate is that 85–90% of each community has been leveled.

Based on some of the pictures I have seen, that's probably correct. If you're reading this and, like me, you no longer live in the area — or even if you have no connection to the area and simply want to see what is happening there — you can see the latest photos and articles at the website of my hometown newspaper, the Log Cabin Democrat, which is offering unlimited access to its material.

Arkansans are tough, and they're accustomed to dealing with tornadoes. The healing process begins almost immediately. I am already hearing stories of examples of the can–do spirit I saw in action so many times when I was growing up, and I know the survivors in those two towns will rise above this.

They will mourn their dead and clear the debris, and that will be painful, but they will be all right.

They've done this before.

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