Defining the American spirit
September 27, 2011


JOPLIN'S SURREAL DISTRUCTION - While I shake my head and say, “wow” quietly, a big man with a thick beard who overhears me says, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”.....

by Joe Baker

It was evening when I drove into Joplin, and it was still beastly hot—at least for this Minnesota boy. I head for the volunteer operations center on the Missouri Southern State University campus, eying the grounds for a place to camp out.

It was there that I met 'Sconny, a kid from near Eau Claire, Wisconsin, who also had come to help. He had put his last dollar in his gas tank somewhere this side of Kansas City. He told me he had been in Joplin for more than a week now and was thinking he might just stay and become part of the "new Joplin." Another guy sets up a hammock nearby others whose conversations could be heard in the still night. He had had the foresight to bring a decent chainsaw with him.

As I lay awake I wondered who these people were, and what led them to a corner of a parking lot at the edge of a disaster area. Who were these people that I would be working with in the morning?

Americorp staff were up early, busying themselves for another day in the field, another hack at the destruction left by a few minutes of an unimaginable force. Many wore work boots, bandanas, ponytails and beards; all were committed, and all were sincere.

We were told how to sort the debris and how to be sensitive to the personal effects of the victims. With gloves, granola bars, bottled water and too-few tools we wait for our assignments and bus transportation. some people engaged in banter in loose groups, others stood alone. A man I got to know later as Roger was sharing his belief that we were all citizens of the planet, no matter from where we had come.

Eventually we get assignments and board our buses. To this point I had not seen any of the effects of the tornado, but as the bus carries us towards south Joplin, I begin to see toppled trees and missing roofs. While I shake my head and say, “wow” quietly, a big man with a thick beard who overhears me says, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

I come to know him as The Okie From FLA, a surfer on winter hiatus, or maybe a rambling guitar picker. He was right. As we drove deeper into Joplin, the level of destruction became more and more complete and shocking to the senses. Everything was leveled—leveled.

The largest trees that managed to remain standing were now only thick trunks stripped of their limbs. Some homes were still distinguishable but most were mounds of flattened debris. It was spooky, unearthly, and it went on like this block after block after block—for miles, someone even informs me.

On my first day we pull pieces of homes and personal property out of scrub trees. We cut our way through tangles of twisted trees. With a shortage of tools—a wheelbarrow is as valued here as a hammer to a carpenter—we cannot be as effective as we might hope, but every effort becomes a small step toward recovery.

A woman pulls back a large sheet of roof tin and uncovers a coiled black snake. Several take hurried steps back, but she lifts it by the tail and carries it off to release it in the woods. It is longer than she is tall.

We down water regularly throughout the long morning, and at noon we are fed sandwiches, beans, and salad out of the bed of a pick-up truck. We talk casually and I sense that we are bonding.

Afterward we leave the shade of a tarp and walk out into the hot afternoon, across the street to another wreck, another pile of lives viciously torn. The work is hard, but my workmates never stop: dragging debris, cutting trees. Then suddenly all work ceases. Coordinators approach and announce that chefs from the Big Easy will be preparing food for a party at a nearby park for all the workers. We collect our tools and make our way back to the bus.

I learn that Samaritan’s Purse is providing showers at a church a couple of miles away for anyone who wants to can get cleaned up before heading to the park where several stands offer a variety of New Orleans cuisine while a lively zydeco band keeps a happy rhythm. Familiar faces now look refreshed behind sun reddened flesh and a clean change of clothes. They are all smiles.

A group of young Marines, men and women, run out onto the grass in front of the stage and dance to the encouraging applause and shouts of the crowd. I lay in the grass under the shade of a sycamore and soon I am napping. The sun is getting low but the party is still going strong as I find my truck and head back to the lot at operations headquarters.

I am up at first light. The Americorp gang has prepared breakfast, and I eat a little before getting organized and ready for the day. The lot begins to fill; the buses pull up and the crowd thickens. I greet familiar faces and after noticing a man with a strong accent, I ask him from where he hails. He tells me he is from Switzerland and is in the second month of a four month U.S. tour. He tells me he heard about the tornado and adjusted his plans to help out with the clean-up for a while. He says his travels in the States have been great and he has met kind people everywhere.

"Swiss" (sorry I'm not good at remembering names) and I end up on the same bus. This day we head into the heart of a vast landscape of twisted debris as far as the eye can see in all directions. Somebody points out the hospital in the distance. It is the only structure that has any shape or height, but its steel girders are visible anywhere that the exterior walls have been torn off.

In spite of the visual horror, I am beginning to feel that among all the wreckage, the American spirit is here, all around me, in these people I am meeting. I work with a man hauling sections of roof to the roadside and learn that he operates a motorcycle racing outfit. I had overheard earlier that he found a place to buy a bunch of wheelbarrows and was working on getting them to the work sites. He is known as "Cycle Man," and I learn that it was his company van parked at the party the previous night on which people were encouraged to write their well wishes to Joplin in permanent marker. I suspect this man is a mover and shaker in his own element and, perhaps, a wealthy man, now working and sweating in the 102 degree heat. His generosity runs deeper than we know, I also sense.

A woman "With The Orange Bucket" just keeps going and going, filling it with shards of glass and hauling it to the roadside. She is also our local expert on the area flora and fauna—including snakes.

In this short time of long, hot days we don’t get too mired in our own stories. We joke and laugh, but because the grimness of the situation is always one glance over the shoulder we usually fall back into the work silently.

Drenched in sweat, hauling another load, is a guy who tells us he has been off meth for two weeks. Cycle Man encourages him to focus on the long term, his health, and his promise. The Okie From FLA is off in the distance, opening a new front in another pile of debris.

Although the work is menial and repetitious, it is never forgotten, even for a moment, that every board and brick, every shard, is a piece of the lives now so shattered. Among the ruble is baby clothing, birthday cards, the case of a video that may have been a prized favorite to some child, kitchen utensils that may have recently been used to feed a growing family.

I meet a broad, tough looking guy in a hard hat with a big smile and a sure voice. He is from El Paso and he carries tremendous loads with apparent ease.

There is Dana, a recent retiree from Wichita and one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. The heat wears him down, but he’s back, day after day.

The ubiquitous young Americorp staff were always busy. The young Marines were serious and efficient. Are these characteristics part of the spirit of America? Is this what our Swiss visitor saw, I wonder?

It is a morning like the others—hot, humid with good cheer tempered by grim surroundings. Today’s crew is a new mix of familiar and new faces.

With tools over our shoulders I walk with a local man to the morning’s work site. He is of average height, thin and muscled from a lifetime of work. His hair is long and pinned back by dark wrap-around shades. He has a thick goatee peppered with gray, and his cheeks have three days growth.

We work in the same group and I quickly see that this man is no stranger to a work site. He is quick to assess an approach to the work, and is efficient in his efforts. He understands leverage and physics, probably from this lifetime of work rather than college, and is well conditioned to maintain a high pace. He is sparse in speaking—has a way of boiling away the fat and getting down to the meaty truth in a short sentence or two. While others banter and speculate, he is silent, but when something has to be said he is the first to speak. He understands getting at truth: I suspect he has seen it from many sides. He believes in his abilities. He doesn’t have a lot, but he is satisfied. He knows life is work and work is life, and has gone where life has led him—maybe farming, oil fields, steel work, mines, military. He may have done a little jail time. He knows exhaustion, and knows it will pass once the need has been met. He has picked up and left, and started over more than once. He’d rather laugh than fight, but if you push him he wouldn’t hesitate in kicking your ass. I believe that he is a major part of the spirit, the backbone of America.

America is represented by caricatures of "The Ugly American," but it is upon people such as this man— a part of the masses, the unseen backbone that moves the American way of life forward. In other times he would have been a frontiersman, opening up the west, a fighter in the war of independence, a cowboy in the untamed lands. His is the spirit that would, with fear in his heart, rush the beaches of Normandy, or up the fiery stairs of the World Trade Center towers, because he believes that it is his duty, but there is more—he believes it is what he owes to the American ideal and the freedom he has enjoyed. And now he works in Joplin, Missouri, one shovelful, one wheelbarrow load at a time. He has built America, and he will not let her fall apart.

Joe Baker is from Blaine, MN. He is the northern division supervisor Anoka County Parks and Recreation.

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