By MARTY OETTING
(Marty Oetting is the director of governmental services for the University of Missouri, graduate of Missouri Southern State University, and former editor of MSSU's newspaper, The Chart.)
Debris and rubble tell stories. They give clues to what used to be and reasons to ponder what might again be in the future. I had occasion to think long and hard about these things over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend when I made my first trip back to the Joplin area following the May 22 tornado. I may live four hours away in Columbia, but a big part of my soul was deeply disturbed by the disaster, and I felt the pain and struggle from afar. I have been in Joplin, in spirit. I sensed the pain, even if I didn’t feel it physically like so many who were there.
I lived in Joplin in the 1980s, graduating from Parkwood High School in 1982 and worked at Red Baron Pizza on 20th street. (It was only there a of couple years.) I also was familiar with St. James United Methodist Church on 20th street as my father was a district superintendent for the Methodist churches in southwest Missouri. We lived on the corner of 28th and Illinois. More importantly, I drove up and down 20th street every day for many years. It is an important part of my memories of growing up. Shopping at Dillon’s. Watching trains at the 20th street crossing of the KCS. Watching little league games. Filling up at the Sinclair at 20th and Range Line. And just driving up and down that road every day.
I have always had a fascination with tornadoes and severe weather. When skies would threaten, my friends and I would hop in the car and chase severe storms, hoping to get a glimpse of a funnel cloud. While a student at Missouri Southern, we even did a special series on the anniversary of the tornado that hit Joplin in the early 1970s for the Chart newspaper. We never saw a tornado while I lived in Joplin.
But that was not the case on May 22, 2011. I had been visiting my parents in nearby Carthage that very weekend, and brought them back to Columbia to celebrate my son’s high school graduation. But this isn’t about my story of the storm and how I survived it. I was two hours away when it hit, and believe me, many of your stories in Joplin are so compelling that I feel my heart race and my hair stand on end when I read your accounts of survival.
And so it is – Thanksgiving weekend 2011 I find myself in the parking lot of what was left of the shopping center on 20th and Rhode Island that used to house Red Baron Pizza. It was leveled by the center of the tornado, most of the debris hauled away long ago. I walked around and looked at the foundation and rubble. Soon I realized it told a story. I began to see things begging for further inspection. I found a large piece of the instrument panel from a car. I found a CD billfold that held several home-made compact discs. I found a windshield wiper. I found a woman’s shoe. And not too far away, another woman’s shoe.
But then I saw two things that really hit me. The first was a child’s knitted glove. It was just lying on the pavement near the foundation. I wondered where the other glove was, and more importantly, where is the little girl who wore those gloves? I wanted to believe she was celebrating Thanksgiving with her family in a new location. But I also know there is the possibility she and her family are not all still here.
The second thing I saw was a string of Christmas tree lights. They were knotted up in a tight, tangled wad. I wasn’t sure if they were left that way from the last holiday celebration, or if they were tangled in the winds of the tornado. But I knew this – they would not be decorating a Christmas tree this year. Where did they come from? How far did they fly in the wind? Would that family have a Christmas tree this year?
I will always remember the Joplin tornado, and how it destroyed the physical location of so much of my childhood. There was Cunningham Park, where I went swimming and played tennis. And Main Street, where I visited different restaurants while riding around with friends on Friday nights. I think of my high school, which was so sad to see in a pile of rubble and twisted beams. My old house survived but looked forlorn, stripped of all trees and in need of roof repair. And then there was that old pizza restaurant with the salad bar that looked like a biplane cowling, now nothing but a flat foundation.
So I decided I wanted to keep some things found in the rubble, to remind me and others of the awesome power of Mother Nature and the struggle to overcome the disaster. I found an old brick in the rubble from Red Baron Pizza. I found a small shard of split wood framing. I found a shredded and twisted piece of siding. And I found a piece of metal flashing that was twisted in an odd shape from the wind. They all went in the back of my car and came to Columbia with me. I will arrange them in a display that will serve as a tribute to memories of the Joplin I once knew and the resilience of a community after tragedy.
And each Christmas, when I am getting out the lights to decorate, I will always think about my chance discovery of a string of lights in Joplin after the 2011 tornado. And I will wonder, will they have a Christmas tree?