Tornadoes and High School reunions

Our weekend trip to southwestern Kansas for Ken’s 40th high school reunion turned out to be an interesting experience.  After spending several hours on  Friday driving through the receding floodwaters of Salina and Great Bend, we made our way down the detour highway to the outskirts of Greensburg.  No one is allowed into Greensburg at this time unless you’re with a previous resident, so my first glance at this tornado ravaged town was from a distance of about a mile off.  Still, it was a horrible sight when all you can see sticking up on the horizon are trees completely stripped of their leaves and branches.  Even if you didn’t know a tornado had recently devastated the town you could immediately tell something horrible had happened.
We spent most of the day on Saturday helping Ken’s aunt and uncle sort through their belonging which have been stored in their son’s barn out on his farm.  All of the furniture had been left on the wheat truck and since harvest is right around the corner it all had to be moved off the truck and into a government provided container that had been moved out to the farm.   It’s a heartbreaking sight to see two people in their 70s trying to sort through the wind and water-damaged leftovers of their household and often we’d find Max sitting on a stool, going through a box of 50 year old school papers piece by piece, wondering what he should keep and what should be thrown away and not being able to decide at all.  The shock of it all has not worn off much yet.

That afternoon we all piled into the car and drove out to Greensburg to tour the damage and it’s true what everyone says: Pictures don’t begin to give you an idea of what it’s like to see a town where almost every structure’s been either completely decimated or damaged to the point where it’s uninhabitable.  Block after block of utter destruction is hard to describe except to say it must a lot like what Iraq looks like now.  I never want to see that kind of thing again.

Since this was the weekend of Ken’s HS reunion, we spent Saturday night at a get-together for his class.  Keep in mind that Ken is from a very small town.  His graduating class had a grand total of 21 people in it, so having a class reunion party in somebody’s back yard is pretty easy to do.  One of the people from his class, and still a good friend, is the owner of Greensburg’s John Deere dealership, one of its largest businesses, and many others had close connections to Greensburg residents.  The tornado was the main topic of conversation and what I found was that these folks still needed to talk it out.  One question could result in a complete retelling of each person’s unique experience that night. 

I wonder if the town will ever be able to completely recover.  The farming communities in Kansas are slowly dying as was illustrated for us by a 1937 graduate of Ken’s HS (Bucklin HS) in a speech at Sunday’s alumni banquet.  The year this gentleman graduated, Bucklin KS had 3 grocery stores, 4 hardware stores, a shoe store, 2 taverns, among other businesses.  The only businesses left in town today are a very small grocer, a gas station, a John Deere dealer, a bar and that’s about it.  Greensburg was a somewhat larger town than Bucklin, but it’s been on the population downswing for the past several years due to the decline in farm income. 

Still, I get a lump in my throat whenever I see the acres and acres of wheat surrounding these towns, knowing that harvest will start soon, no matter what.  Wheat farming terms like drilling and heading out have now entered this city girl’s lexicon, and observations about whether or not the wheat has turned don’t make me laugh any more.

Farm work doesn’t stop.  Not even for a tornado.


6 Responses to “Tornadoes and High School reunions”

  1. 1 poseidonsmuse May 30, 2007 at 8:26 am

    What a moving post. I was particularly touched by your comment regarding the elderly sifting through the rubble of what were once their homes. The immensity of such disasters truly remind us of how fragile we are. Yet, I am also amazed by the strength and courage of community (you spoke of this quite eloquently). In my experience, as well, farmers (and farm communities) are some of the most hardy, inventive and adaptive people on the planet. From life springs hope. I wish you a safe journey.

  2. 2 observantbystander May 30, 2007 at 10:36 am

    Thanks for the comments. There were so many stories of courage and hope told to me over the past weekend. Some of them made me think hard about our own disaster preparedness at our company since we’re also quite tornado-prone here in Kansas City. It really makes you take stock of things, doesn’t it?

  3. 3 V- May 30, 2007 at 2:24 pm

    poseidonsmuse said it much better than I could have. My comment was going to be “Damn…” with a sadface 😦

  4. 4 RubyShooZ June 20, 2007 at 9:12 am

    Our day for disaster too will come and there just is no preparing for it. All we can do is fasten our seatbelts and make sure we love what we have while we have it and make sure we let our loved ones know they are loved.

    Thanks for sharing your experience – and a bit of how Kansas really is….but it’s not even about Kansas at all now is it?

  5. 5 observantbystander June 20, 2007 at 11:32 am

    Ruby – after that particular visit, I finally “got” what it means to be part of a small community. Sadly, small towns like these are dying all over the US, and with it goes that sense of being interconnected.

  1. 1 Observant gets the Prize! « Ramblings from the Mermaid Tavern Trackback on June 19, 2007 at 12:16 pm

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