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Our Spirit Will Not Be Broken: Voices from the April StormsOur Spirit Will Not Be Broken: Voices from the April Storms

Riches Among the Rubble
by Renate Harder

In April of 2011 in the Shoal Creek Valley near Ashville, Alabama, a 32-year-old subsistence farmer left his lot early in the morning. He intended to plow his leased field three miles away from his homestead. On his battered tractor, he whistled a Willie Nelson tune while the birds around took off because of the machine's sputtering that drowned out frogs' croaking and dogs' barking.

Kenneth' mind was busy planning the land's use for planting sorghum and com later. "If ever I'd be able to buy another tractor I'd be happier and wouldn't spend so much money on fixing mine," he thought, imagining easier times and maybe a future purchase of land and even a horse for pleasure riding. "Always being short of cash is really a burden, killing my enthusiasm for farming at times."

He passed the bank remembering how the greedy banker had denied him a loan and left him with a grudge. That hard-hearted man had stared to the parking lot where his BMW was gleaming and probably was the cause for his arrogance.

Now the green mountains held the valley cupped in their hands, for Kenneth a delight to see. As he arrived at the edge of the field, he put his water bottles and lunch package into the shade of a bush. For hours he plowed, watched the clouds and flocks of black birds avoiding a couple of vultures. There was no presentiment of something unusual by his observations. A little, cheap radio in his chest pocket with earplugs allowed him to enjoy Blue Grass music interrupted by advertising. He missed some kind of warning because the tractor’s loud noise. Soon the sky turned dark, and the clouds started moving very fast.

"Just one of those upcoming thunderstorms," Kenneth calmed his mind. "I'll stick it out until it pours on me. Some minutes later he took shelter under a group of trees along a deep ditch, resting. Soon peering out from under a bush, he was startled to see the unusual, strong storm causing the trees to sway dangerously. He could not escape and get home fast anymore. Now he heard the shrill sirens giving him goose bumps.

He was shocked to see the first trees topple and a barn splinter. All of a sudden, a dark, swirling funnel cloud loomed above the edge of the woods close-by. A horrible tornado, Kenneth recognized with horror. Instinctively, he threw himself face down into the deep, muddy ditch. His trembling hands protected his sweating head as his heart was pounding wildly. He held his breath for many seconds, feeling as if his blood was frozen. The deafening noise of the tornado above him paralyzed him. Like a freight train! It pummeled the woods near him and overhead. For a moment it resembled ten roaring trucks around him. Kenneth's stiff body lay motionless.

Trees collapsed or snapped close-by with cracking noises, crashing on each other on the ground. Debris with leaves and branches swirled through the air like toys. A branch landed on Kenneth's back, some small rocks, too. He screamed, "Lord, have mercy! What a fury!"

For about two minutes, Kenneth lay in a cramp listening and imagining the worst, fear causing his thoughts to be shaken and turned upside down. The treacherous storm blew a lady's shoe to his side. A part of a boat ended up in his ditch right in front of him. The fury tossed metal sheets from roofs against his tractor. Broken, wooden boards landed on his plow.

Again natures' immense power ripped out of the ground a mighty oak tree close to him. The earthen cluster of its roots crashed against a smaller hickory tree. Cracking tree limbs whirled to all directions.

"No way to get home right now," Kenneth concluded, his body still vibrating from the terror and horror. "My safety comes first." Startled, he witnessed as the storm turned his tractor upside down. The fury pushed it towards the edge of the field against a fallen tree trunk.

"How do I ever get home after everything will calm down again?" Kenneth asked himself. "Only walking is possible. How has my wife endured such a scary drama? Is my baby safe? Is my mobile home still standing in its place?" Worried to death, he regretted that he had not returned home earlier. He realized that he had missed the radio's warning a minute before the disaster. But the batteries of the portable radio were intact.

Now the storm blew with reduced force. But Kenneth did not dare yet to leave the ditch. Soon in a distance, a helicopter roared above the road probably in search of helpless victims. Encouraged, Kenneth cautiously crawled out of the ditch. He rubbed the mud off his face with the sleeve of his shirt. Right away he checked the devastated surroundings and looked up at the clearing sky.

To his surprise, among debris and fallen trees around him, many pieces of paper lay strewn about him. As he picked up one to look closer, he held a hundred dollar bill in his hand. Other fifty and twenty dollar bills partly covered with leaves lay between sticks and rocks, most not torn to pieces at all. With a racing breath, Kenneth collected more than a hundred different bills in good condition.

What a special "rain" from the upset sky! "It's a gift just for me," he thought. "The tornado must have hit the bank in town which I passed hours ago. I guess that the arrogant banker was buried under the building's rubble, maybe only trapped. I wouldn't mind if the fury has smashed his BMW. Anyhow, the safe's load flew away right towards my field. What good luck! A collapsed building and a safe ripped apart caused this present for me. The storm must have blown it straight to my land, whirling it in the air a lot.

I'll forget morals in this tempest. The money is simply mine. I won't ask the different banks first which one lost such an incredible amount. Hiding it and keep quiet about it could buy me more than another tractor," Kenneth pondered. "How can I keep it a secret from even my wife?"

As he grabbed the bills, he was still terror-stricken and breathing irregularly. He stuffed the money into his jeans' pockets until they were bulging. His pulse raced imagining the purchases they would make possible.

Now he waited another twenty minutes until a bearable wind still blew just smaller rubble around. Climbing fallen trees and dodging root clumps, he reached the devastated roadside. The storm had snapped power-line posts like matches. They were lying around everywhere, warning Kenneth not to step on a wire. Telephone posts and lines lay crisscrossing the almost impassable, two-lane road. Electric and phone lines crossed Kenneth's path in the fields, too. Cautiously so as not to get electrocuted, again and again he dodged them with long strides, stumbling often. A smashed car upside down blocked the road close to him.

Kenneth hurried home wondering how other homeowners had survived the catastrophe. Left and right from the road he saw damage and total, destruction of houses, barns and woods. Roofs and garages had caved in. Uprooted trees and ruins of vehicles disfigured lots everywhere. A dozen houses and barns he passed looked like piles of broken beams and glass having been toppled by the tornado's hellish power.

"Most have just the foundations left," Kenneth saw with dismay. Pets ran around, confused. A herd of horses still panicked, storming towards the woods. Three cows crossed a toppled fence in a hurry. A pony and two calves lay stricken and motionless beside a disconnected propane gas tank.

Some irritated homeowners held their heads in disbelief and helplessness; others tried to catch the escaping animals, wringing their hands in desperation and shouting orders and names. A few children screamed for help, confused and running. Three victims stared, their bodies frozen and hurt.

"A whole family of fifteen is trapped under the rubble. Come quickly. Help them," one elderly man shouted like one out of his mind. But Kenneth walked faster like a robot, his mind in an uproar out of concern for his own family.

A helicopter whirled above searching for injured victims. The old man flagged it down. A sigh of relief left Kenneth who was watching. He understood that no emergency vehicle could come along for a rescue because the only road was covered with trees and dangerous electric lines. A stove was hanging in a torn fence. A bathtub was tangled up with a baling machine. Wheels from a trailer swam on a fishpond beside wooden boards. Even the tornado had sucked some fish out of the pond and blown into the grass.

Twisted metal sheets from roofs lay strewn everywhere and hung in still standing, debarked trees. Parts of a horse trailer were mangled with a broken metal gate of a pasture. Remnants of a window hung in branches high up. Kenneth had to climb over a door partly lying under a tractor on its side which had buried some chickens. In a pasture, a live hull had lost his orientation and was fighting a ruined garden chair.

Soon, Kenneth fought for breath but did not allow himself time for resting. Automatically, his legs obeyed him as he dodged branches, tree trunks and parts of machinery, even broken electronics and chairs. It took him several times the usual number of minutes to reach his home, a gray mobile home at the edge of the woods along Shoal Creek.

But what a shock to discover it smashed by two trees on its roof. His wife, Melinda, squatted on the dislocated three steps, their toddler, Brandon, cradled in her arms. Both wore improvised bandages around their limbs. The boy was crying because of a bloody wound in his face.

"Good grief, Melinda! Are both of you hurt badly? I hope just scratches and bruises. My little Brandon, my sunshine, let me calm you down."

"Finally you are back, honey," she uttered. I think, no fractured bones. That was hell on earth, I tell you. Now try to help us. It's urgent, Kenneth. See our hurting legs and arms?"

He passed his hand over the toddler's head tenderly several times. "At least you are alive." He hugged both, taking a closer look at his little son. "I hope soon some medic will pass by, Melinda. Give me a white sheet. I'll flag down the helicopter with it in case it'll fly low over our lot.... Now let me look around. I need to check on our few belongings, on food. I want to see what's left." He kissed Brandon's hand and her cheek.

Carrying Brandon in her arms, Melinda assisted him, pulling clothes from under the trailer's caved-in walls and collapsed roof with one hand. They found a few usable pots and pans from the former kitchen, a few cereal boxes, and some pairs of dusty shoes. They gathered everything in a pile some yards away for safety.

In a smashed shed, Kenneth found his buried tools and chain saw intact with a few gallons of gas in a dented container. He started sawing and cutting the collapsed oak and hickory trees on top of the mobile home, then pulled away branches.

Melinda gathered from the ruin more leftovers of groceries and soiled souvenirs while the toddler slept on a plastic sheet in the shade. Exhausted after hours of collecting debris on a pile, both parents plopped down on tree stumps, their scratched hands limply hanging down over their knees.

"The first thing we need after salvaging is shelter for the night. We can huddle together in the only bedroom left," Kenneth suggested. "I'll patch up the hole in the roof first of course." 'He wrapped his sore arm around her.

"At last something, away from the elements," she responded, sighing. "By the way, why are your pants' pockets bulging like never before?"

Now Kenneth could not escape. He had to stick to the truth. “In all the disaster I got lucky today. Imagine ..." He told her what had happened, ending as she gaped at him. "A rain of dollar bills. I urge you to keep the secret. Surely now we are in dire need of using the dollars for a new home."

"What an unusual blessing! Let's see whether it'll be enough for a mobile home. We've to replace this useless one." After counting several times and putting the bills on piles, both were flabbergasted about the high amount and decided to use it quietly for the purchase.

"I don't feel guilty to keep the money and not to return it to the bank," Kenneth stated. "To which bank anyhow? Maybe the Lord helped us like that, and we deserved this blessing."

"Nobody should get to know about our streak of luck," she concluded giving him a peck on his cheek.

“I had wished for a new tractor and for buying some land. But now we have to postpone such a purchase. The rest of the new money might be just enough for repairing the storm-damaged tractor. I've to puzzle out in the next days how to remove the tractor from the field. I must get it to a mechanic. Or the technician has to come to my non-functioning machine.", With the elbow on his knee and his chin in the palm of his right hand, he pondered the options until his wife started making order again with the rubble. She collected branches and broken building material. Every time she dumped everything on a pile for burning it later.

The next day, walking at the roadside towards Ashville and passing crews clearing at least one lane of the road, Kenneth got a lift to town by a truck driver hauling wire for another group of technicians restoring power. In Ashville, Kenneth purchased a doublewide mobile home as the first relief for his small family. As he paid cash for it, the salesman could hardly hide his surprise. He promised to deliver the trailer as soon as the only road in the Shoal Creek Valley could be used and would be free of debris.

In the next hours in town, Kenneth found a mechanic who took him back to his field for estimating the cost of repairing the tractor. "Not worth bothering with," the experienced technician judged the ruin in the mud.

"Oh good grief," Kenneth regretted heaving a sigh. He passed his hand over his forehead to get rid of the sweat. "One trouble alone hits you seldom."

"I'm sorry that my good intention to help you was in vain. This vehicle is not even worth hauling away." Open-mouthed and with furrowed brow, Kenneth accepted the disheartening news. Now the two men left discussing tractor prices as they stumbled over rubble. After minutes, the mechanic with his negative estimate dropped off Kenneth at his ravaged lot.

"Surely for the future work some neighbor will lend me a tractor at times. Perhaps I can rent one," Kenneth hoped. Seeing so many slaving home and farm owners along the road brought up a daze in Kenneth's mind.
He saw people look through their useless rubble and make order for bonfires. Kenneth could not easily come out of his stupor when he watched a farmer bury some of his livestock. "Federal disaster aid will take some time to arrive, no doubt," he reflected gloomily.

But moments later as he looked into the beaming eyes of his toddler, he thought gratefully, "At least the three of us are alive and can go on caring for each other. This duty and pleasure will surely build up my strength in the days to come." Smiling, he picked up his child, whirled him around in a circle, and, with delight, put him on his shoulders to walk over to their temporary ruined dwelling. Kenneth got hearty laughs from little Brandon and wife as he imitated a singing bird with an off-key whistle.

"The best things in life have nothing to do with money. A tornado can't destroy our spirit either," he assured himself again. "In spite of the disaster, our day lilies, daisies and petunias bloom over there in their precious way to praise our Creator."