Looking out my kitchen window at the swirling snow blanketing the area, I had to smile because according to the latest weather report, the storm was supposed to have ended three hours earlier. If there is one thing I have learned to be consistent with weather forecasters, it’s their ability to accurately be inaccurate with their forecasts.
Not to be daunted by the inclement weather, I made a cup of tea and pulled one of my journals from the shelf. When I was certain I was comfortable, I opened it to my last entry. I can’t explain it, but for whatever the reason, it was a place I frequented often and I always started the same way -- letting myself be transported back in time.
In the summer of 1967, a powerful tornado ripped through the state of Illinois destroying most everything in its path. Lake Zurich, however, was directly in its path and suffered major destruction. It didn’t take long for the news to spread and almost immediately, rescue crews and volunteers from all over made their way to help out in whatever capacity they could. I was one of them.
Arriving on the scene, I realized that I had by no means prepared myself for such massive damage and the number of people scurrying about, either an injured victim of the storm or a medical person trying to get the more seriously injured. A small parking area had been set up along with some tents and tables and I was given instructions where to go to learn what needed to be done.
Making my way through what was to become a makeshift hospital and around all kinds of debris, I found the coordinator. There was no doubt that he was seasoned to such catastrophes, yet when he spoke to me, it was with heavy sadness in his voice.
“Take one of those poles with the hook on the end, a whistle, one of the notebooks and pens and a canvas bag and make your way beyond that large pile of rubble across the way and begin sifting through the wreckage for papers, letters, and photos; anything with information that might help us find out who lived there. Be certain to jot down anything that will help us to locate what area you found it. Oh yeah, if you come across any bodies, don’t touch them; blow the whistle and wait for someone to come. Let’s pray you don’t find any.”
I just looked at him with what I’m sure was a horrified look in my eyes, then walked away hoping I wouldn’t find any bodies. I shivered at the thought of it.
As I rounded the large mound of debris, a tall man approached and directed me to an area away from where others were already sifting and sorting through piles of wreckage. I reached the spot assigned to me and stood for a moment absorbing the sight before me. The only thing left mostly intact, was the bottom of the fireplace; the rest of the house having been destroyed or whisked away in the tornado. It’s difficult to actually describe what I was feeling because my thoughts were swirling about as fast as the winds that had demolished the town.
I set about my chore pulling away broken boards and bricks in an attempt to have a clear working area where I could easily maneuver. Two hours passed before I took my first break. The sun had broken through the clouds and it was so strange sitting on a pile of rubble looking at the bright sunshine glittering on the shards of glass scattered all over the place.
To my right, I spotted a green broken bottle with a piece of paper sticking out from under it. I picked up the bottle and snatched up the paper. I turned the paper over and found myself staring at a young blond haired woman in a red blouse and black skirt and a little girl with curly blond hair in a pink dress. I quickly made my notations in the notebook and sat back down.
Looking at the bottle and the picture, I didn’t want to think about the family who lived here and what might have happened to them. Instead, I tried to imagine that the photo had been placed in the bottle and set out to sea where it was found and maybe placed on the mantel over the fireplace as a conversation piece.
As I started looking around, I couldn’t help think how ironic it was the way things had landed next to each other. To my right, I spotted a fishing rod and upon closer examination, I noticed a pair of fishnet stockings dangling from one of the eyes on the pole. To the right of the fireplace beneath a small section of wall a partially deflated basketball had come to rest against an oxygen tank. When I lifted the tank I couldn’t help smiling at a dirty red and white sign tucked under a board with the words, “NO SMOKING”.
I continued working my way through the mangled mess, logging all the information in the notebook and saving all the documents I found, whether they looked important or not. A fairly good distance from the fireplace, in an area I figured had been another room, I found a silver guitar pick. If it hadn’t been reflecting the sunlight so brightly, I might have missed it. Not far from the pick, I noticed what looked to be a pair of baby shoes and reached for them. They wouldn’t budge and I couldn’t see a way of freeing them from the splintered heavy beam.
I made a note in the book and continued to move what I could, when I came across an old rusty hand saw. I grabbed it up and made my way back to the pair of shoes where I proceeded to work on the beam. Surprisingly, the saw, although rusty, chewed its way through the wood fairly easily and half an hour later, I was holding the tiny pair of shoes in my hand.
Holding that tiny pair of shoes. I wondered if they belonged to the little girl and if the guitar pick was hers as well. The more I pondered these things, the more I started to feel the sick empty feeling of what might have happened to her and her family. What was their life like? How long had they lived there? These were just a couple questions that gnawed at me. I tried desperately to shut my mind down and not dwell on the family, but I couldn’t seem to close the door all the way and the mental picture of the girl and her mother pushed their way in and planted themselves in my thoughts.
I sat down on the rubble and cried. I don’t know how long I sat there crying, but I didn’t stop until I felt a hand on my shoulder and a voice saying, “C’mon son, call it a day. You’ve done enough here.”
I followed him through the temporary tent city and wondered if any of the storm victims being treated were the family who lived in the house I had worked. Before I could find out, I was in the main tent and had to go through what I had found, the nature of the scene and many other questions that had to be answered.
As with every other time, my hands began to tremble and my eyes filled with tears as I read the last entry in on the page. Mrs. Joanna Lindenstar and her daughter Krystal Ann had been found buried under a heavy section of wall that had been the master bedroom. Mr. Lindenstar had been killed in Viet Nam the year before.
I closed the journal and place it back on the shelf. After that entry, I stopped keeping a journal. The impact from that one day I had volunteered in 1967 is still having its effects on my life to this very day. That day drove home the point of just how precious life is and how I should never take it for granted that someone will always be there just because they are young.
Every so often I still find myself questioning, “Why? Why did a whole family, a young family, have to be wiped out as the Lindenstar family had been?” Naturally, I don’t get the answers and I know I never will and I have come to realize that maybe they keep coming back to remind me of how I should live my life, that is, to always treat others as though it will be the last time we share our lives.
September 13, 2013