Saturday, March 10, 2012
Imagine a flat country with only the occasional hillock and stand or row of trees, with modest farm houses and silos, with wide expanses of farmland. Imagine lazily meandering streams, visualize channels that are as straight and as long as the eye can see. Those are for water management, to keep the seemingly harmless rivers in check. Picture small towns with lots of fast food restaurants, gas stations, Walmarts, a few quaint local color-type shops, and the occasional minor manufactury that’s actually not farm-related. Oh, and churches. Lots and lots of churches. And the people are overwhelmingly paleface farmers. Just the kind of thing to give the willies to certain people who stuffily self-describe as “evolved.”
That’s southern Illinois for you. I never imagined it would be anything more than farmland, but it’s also mining country. It really is. Surface mines, vertical shaft mines, diagonal shaft mines are everywhere. The occasional hillock you see is more than likely a heap of old slag, covered with topsoil and now overgrown with grass and trees (so I found out later). This country never ceases to amaze me.
The drive to Harrisburg was so easy, even a social worker with two postgraduate degrees could do it. I got on I-64 West in Virginia Beach and didn’t get off until I crossed the Wabash River that separates Indiana from Illinois. And it’s a good thing, too, to have that river right there, since the countryside looks pretty much the same on both sides. The Wabash keeps things neat and organized.
I took the very first Illinois exit off I-64, and an hour’s jog along Highways 1 and 45 took me into Harrisburg. I arrived on Saturday, March 10th, a week and three days after the tornado had touched down in town.
Just after I got off the freeway, I called Louise, the local bigwig with Operation Blessing (OB), under whose somewhat hesitant auspices I was traveling. I immediately liked her voice and decisive manner, but was frankly surprised when she told me that they didn’t work on Sundays, and so I was on my own tomorrow. But it took only a little time for me to put two and two together and come up with the following: (1) Christian relief organization, (2) Sunday is the Christian sabbath, (3) ergo, no work on Sunday. And since OB and several other relief organizations had been there for over a week now, then I figured that (4) all the truly emergency work had been done already. Thus two plus two equals – wait for it! – four!
I should mention, perhaps cattily but with a great deal of schadenfreude, that the one relief organization that was conspicuous by its absence was FEMA. I was told later that they had come by but sniffed that the disaster was not serious enough to warrant their attention.
Louise directed me to the Little Chapel Church (LCC), a few miles us Highway 34, where volunteers were being bedded down and fed. The name is a misnomer: the place actually consists of two warehouse-sized buildings joined by a long breezeway. It was pleasant, airy, well-designed and immaculately clean. The accommodations consisted of a mattress on the floor of one of the classrooms, plus my sleeping bag: just fine for an old seafarer like me. The only thing that soon got on my nerves was the constant “Jesus muzak.” It wasn’t loud, but you couldn’t get away from it. And believe you me, it warn’t no Haydn nor Mozart, nohow, just some guitar-wielding would-be crooners belting out endless variations on the theme that Jesus is worth it. Oy vey!
However, the church was alive with volunteers, all genuine mensches, and that overshadowed any other consideration. Honestly, I would gladly be in such company any time, any day.
There was always a tag team of local ladies on duty to serve food and generally to be nice and welcoming to people. These intrepid women from any number of local churches would rise at three or four AM to cook yummy food and then shlep the pots to the church. Then most of them would go to work, and another tag team would drag in supper. They were organized so well and made everything run so smoothly, they should take over the federal government!
Prominent among the volunteers was a large contingent of Greenville College kids on spring break who, instead of heading home, had come here to work their spring break away.
Local high school kids were swarming in the kitchen (under adult supervision), preparing food.
There were many adult volunteers who had spontaneously driven in from all over Illinois, Wyoming, Texas, Louisiana and other places. Everyone was ready and willing to help, and I didn’t come across anyone I didn’t like – quite the contrary. In just a few hours, I saw each and every one of them as heroes who would remain unsung and not be bothered by it nor demand any recompense, because they knew that they were doing the right thing.
In the evening, I drove out to the Harrisburg hospital to see if they needed any help. The young man on call in the ER said – and I’m not kidding – that things were pretty much dead. I returned to the LCC, where I met a grizzled old codger with a white Santa-Claus beard and hair, with a USS FORREST SHERMAN ballcap surmounting it all. He turned out to be an old squid: an RM, in fact. We swapped sea stories long into the evening. Around eleven PM, I finally decided to inspect the inside of my new sleeping bag.