Sunday, December 13, 2009

ENG 101 95 Week #15 Practice Final (December 6, 2009) Disaster

WEEK 15 PRACTICE FINAL (December 6, 2009) Disaster. It has many faces.

Disaster. It has many faces. Webster’s dictionary defines disaster as a ”sudden, calamitous event bringing great damage, loss, or destruction.” I have looked disaster in the eye at least three times in my life. One time the disaster was due to a lack of good judgment on my part, on another occasion, I was the victim. And thirdly, when disaster struck, I was a bystander, and I could only stand back and witness the disaster as an act of God.


As a teenager, I enjoyed horseback riding. On day in July, I arrived early for my weekly horseback riding lesson. I watched from a distance as the 3:00 PM class returned from their trail ride, dismounted and lead their horses back into the barn. My enthusiasm was dampened as I observed the steam rising from the horses’ backs and the tired look in their eyes. As my instructor walked towards me I said to him, “This week, can I have a horse with a little spirit?” Troy handed me the reins to his horse and disappeared back into the barn. It would not be long before I would come to regret ever uttering those words.

He returned minutes later, riding a sixteen hand thorough bred which I recognized as Lightning, a five year old gelding that belonged to the owner of the stable. He passed right by me and I quickly realized I was to follow him. I mounted and headed off attempting to catch up to him. But, my horse had other ideas. He reared and circled like a cat trying to catch his own tail. I tightened my grip on the reins, forced my toes to dig deeper into the stirrups, and in desperation pulled my knees together tightly against the saddle to hold on. This last command was the wrong judgment call on my part. To a horse, this meant go faster. I was no longer in control and that could only mean disaster.

I lowered my posture and synchronized my rhythms with this wild animal when I saw the fence just ahead. I knew he was going to jump, something I had never done, nor anything I ever aspired to do either. I braced myself for the inevitable. I unwrapped the reins from around my fingers. It was something I remembered seeing in a Clint Eastwood movie. I did not want my fingers severed when I was thrown off. My eyes shut tightly and I saw flashes of shapes like lightening rods. Suddenly, the saddle horn impacted against my ribs and my whole body was abruptly thrust backwards. I heard my neck crack and felt my teeth clamp down on my tongue. I tasted blood as the strap of my helmet whipped across my face. There were to be two more jumps before my horse would break into a cantor and head back towards the barn. Each jump was more frightening than the previous. I had lost my helmet after that first jump and I was scared.

By now, I had an audience and I was a little more collected. I was talking to my horse by the nickname I had given him. My instructor caught up to us and complimented us both. I told him I would be calling his horse “Thunderhead” from now on. He suggested we take “Thunderhead” and “Lightening” back out to retrieve my helmet but I shook my head from side to side. I looked my horse straight in the face. My better judgment spoke out and said, “No way, not today. That could only bring disaster back.”

As a military family, my husband, three-month-old daughter and I, arrived at Fort Walton Beach, Florida in the summer of 1971. Temperatures were consistently over 100 degrees, but the central heating/air conditioning unit was always on in the house we were renting so we were always quite comfortable.

Being on a SAC Base, I knew my husband could be deployed to South East Asia at a moments notice while at work in the field, maybe not even being allowed to come home to pack. That day came in November just before Thanksgiving. Then, as the days passed and the weather got colder, my daughter and I drew in to ourselves not knowing many of the other families in the area. The central heat was on more now than not and my daughter and I settled in for the long winter together.

We had our routine. As usual, a half hour after I put my daughter down for her morning nap, I would tip toe back into her room to check on her. She usually slept for two hours, but I was a new Mom and with my husband gone, I was her sole caregiver. I was consumed with her needs and very protective. On one such January morning, I opened the second hall door leading to the bedrooms on the other side of the house to check on her.

All of a sudden, I was engulfed by pillars of raging yellow and white flames striking the ceiling and gusts of hot air forced me backwards. Without hesitation, I grabbed the crocheted blanket from the back of the couch beside me, rolled it up and stuffed it under my shirt. I ran head down back towards the blazing inferno. Although I had walked down that hall a hundred times, every step was foreign to me. My eyes were stinging. I blinked repeatedly to try to see more clearly through the billowing gray smoke. The smell of scorched cotton, nauseating plastic and the sounds of crackling pine pitch alerted me to the reality that I was approaching the den, the room we converted to be the baby’s room.

I touched every surface I passed, trying to stay orientated. Although I was knocking pictures off the walls as I made my way down the hall, it kept my sense of direction. I moved more rapidly as the surfaces now became too hot to touch. Finally, my fingers fell upon the hot metal rails of the crib. I grabbed the blanket from beneath my shirt and wrapped it tightly around my daughters sleeping form.

I walked backwards, hunched over the bundle I clenched with in my arms and attempted to find the doorway again. The walls were now sticky from the hot pine pitch and I could feel the heat on my back. I prayed. I thought about my husband on the other side of the world. I thought about the three of us as a family and I was determined to keep moving, not knowing where I may be going.

I felt the hall’s second doorframe, and then imagined the front door being approximately fifteen feet away. The living room rug was 12 feet square and it fell just short of the front door, I remembered. I counted my steps. My eyes were now burning and my tears flushed them with some strange yet cooling relief. I stumbled onto the porch and through the screen door to the sidewalk. I fell to my knees. I resisted as I felt something pulling my child from my arms. I thought it was Death and I would not let go of her.

I unwrapped my Baby as I knelt on the sidewalk. By now, I too had been wrapped in a blanket. She stirred and her clear, bright, blue eyes looked up at me. I sobbed tears of joy. I looked up and saw Torray, a young girl who lived next door. She asked if she could hold my Baby but I declined. Then, she proceeded to hold us both.

The fire marshal surveyed the damage. He concluded the heating ductwork had been improperly installed and maintained by the owner. None the less, the damage was done. Some experiences leave charred embers forever burned into our minds.


I had heard of expressions like “tornado belt, tornado alley, and funnels”, and living in Arkansas, I witnessed first hand the path of devastation a tornado carves through a town. The local radio broadcasts upgraded the imminent storm from a tornado watch to a tornado warning. I knew the drill. Move everyone to a shelter or at least move everyone to a room in the house which faced the opposite direction the wind was blowing. “If the house is going to get blown over, let it blow over behind you“, an old timer once told my husband and I.

I looked out the picture window and there was a dead, still calm. The sky was clear. The wind chimes on the patio hung silently. The pecan trees stood motionless. Neighbors’ children were playing between the houses just as they had done the day before, running, laughing, chasing one another. Within minutes, however, parents were frantically calling there children to come home immediately. I was one of them. On the horizon, a dark cloud was approaching from the southwest. The trees were beginning to lean towards the northeast. We were now in the squall line.

We had practiced the drill with our three children many times before. Yet, somehow I knew, as I panned the backyard as they came running through the sliding glass door, I was looking at something for the last time. My oldest child must have sensed the impending doom as I ushered her and her two younger siblings towards the closet at the end of the house. She barely glanced down at her dollhouse on the floor and went straight to my china cabinet and picked up the yellow porcelain figurine my husband had given me when we were dating. She brought it into the closet with us.

I tested the flashlight and closed the door behind us. I immediately began reading a story to the children. Minutes later, I stood up and told the children I had to get something. I also told them under no circumstances were they to follow me or even open the closet door after I left. I told them I loved each of them and closed the door tightly behind me.

I walked through the house and opened each of the windows several more inches. The glass was beginning to bow and I had to equalize the air pressure. My ears were beginning to block. The wind had picked up and the leaves of the pear trees on the side of the house were now blowing to the east. Then, I heard a whistling sound like an approaching train but there were no train tracks for miles around. I looked out the sliding glass door into the backyard and then I saw it.

The sky was charcoal black and a long, gray tail coiled its way towards the ground. The air rushed out from behind me and my hair blew forward into my face. I watched as the funnel cloud entwined itself around buildings, trash barrels, bicycles, trees, and vehicles and snatched them up like a vacuum cleaner picking up crumbs on a carpet. I held onto the wall as my furniture began to be dragged across the living room and papers went flying everywhere. I was no match for this intruder and I fled to the closet once again.

Huddled inside the closet with my three children, I spoke loudly about frivolous things to mask the noise on the other side of the door. The walls were shifting and my back was rocking against them. The children noticed this too and began to cry. I asked God to spare us and the other families in the neighborhood too. My prayers were heard for some of us. Rain began to drip from the cracked ceiling. I knew we were now on the backside of the storm. I opened the door of our refuge.

We walked solemnly through the debris and soaked clutter heaped in piles in a place we once called home. We stood in an opening that once had a sliding glass door. I looked beyond and tears flooded my eyes. I had witnessed a crime and all the evidence was gone. Only two slab platforms remained as markers to where two homes stood only minutes before. It was surely a disaster well beyond human control.

Now, when I hear someone say something is a disaster, I wonder if it is so because of a lack of good judgment on their part, or are they a victim of circumstances, or is it an act of God ? In any form, they are all hard to face.

1 comment:

  1. Hello John,

    I tried posting the "Practice Final " here again tonight and the computer accepted it. I realize you received it already vie email. I am doing some "housekeeping" with my checklist for this class, and this is where it belongs.

    I have just sent you an email with an attachment for the course "checklist" you reguested.

    ReplyDelete