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.