C.W. Gusewell

THE KANSAS CITY STAR

Survivors display uncompromising grit in tornado aftermath

“Everything’s gone.”

That is the lament we’ve heard uttered most often by survivors of the relentless plague of tornadoes afflicting our region during this violent spring.

“Everything! Just gone.”

For those of us who’ve been spared the weather’s fury, it inspires a fresh appreciation of how fragile are the material lives we’ve managed to create and upon which so much of our comfort and happiness depends.

Of course the survival of family and friends is the concern above everything.

But the loss of all else must also be nearly unbearable.

One sees the pictures of those stricken folk picking through the rubble and hoping to find a photograph, a treasured book, a particular child’s toy – some small artifact of that time before a roaring wind swept away their lifetimes of memories and accomplishment.

What admiration one feels to hear them follow their utterances of despair with courageous resolution. “We’ll start over,” they declare flatly. Such strength as that strikes me as almost unimaginable.

My wife and I have lived all but a fraction of our married lives in this one house. On our bedroom wall are the pictures of our daughters in all their ages – from newborns until they graduated from high school and went on to college and careers of their own.

Their girlhood rooms still are much as they left them, their books still on the shelves and the beds made, awaiting their occasional visits or use by guests.

In various other rooms there’s our own library – a great many titles – some that bring back rich memories of the time and place they were first read, and others we often revisit for inspiration.

What else? Furniture that came to us from long-gone members of our families.

Photographs from our travels, with the images of ourselves in younger times.

And objects brought home from distant places, meaningful only to us.

I’ve been writing more than 60 years now, 55 of those professionally. Over such a span I’ve managed to fill up with words a shocking amount of paper, a small forest’s worth, and much of that’s been saved in drawers and filing cabinets, as well as a small collection of little notebooks with the daily entries from travels on assignments to far corners of the world.

My wife is a careful and extremely gifted editor, so this career of mine – especially during the 32 years of the column – has been a collaboration between us. More times than I could count she has saved me from error, not of style or fact but of character.

We’ve read in the tornado reports of documents borne aloft and deposited at great distances from their origins. And what if we should suffer such a misfortune?

My published books have been distributed widely enough that copies could be easily retrieved. Most of the columns and other journalism must be findable in some database and would survive, if that were of any importance.

But the very earliest efforts, the hopeful beginnings abandoned for some reason, now unremembered, the reams of material unpublished but saved – all of that might come fluttering down as so much litter upon some farmer’s field a state or two away.

As I look about me and consider such an event, I understand better why it is, when prying at the wreckage of what used to be their homes, people often say it’s photographs they’re searching for above all. Moments arrested in time by the camera preserve life as it was before the horror came.

Except for loved ones who made it through alive, the photos seem to be what greatly matter. The rest, they say, isonly stuff.“We’ll start over,” they vow.

Who can know if they’d have that kind of courage, unless they’re tested?