To Joplin, Missouri – A love letter

Joplin, Missouri

by Gary Spina
(Copyright 2011 by Gary Spina)

Are you listening, you Joplin city leaders – because there’s a story I want you to hear – about Joplin and a girl I love.

The girl in Joplin is a pretty girl who years ago won my heart. She’s a Joplin school teacher, relatively new to your town, but a Joplin gal as true as sunshine and rain and the wild winds that blow.

When the tornado hit your town at 6 P.M. on 22 May 2011, it sideswiped the Park Plaza Christian Church where my girl and a congregation of friends were praying. The tornado stripped a cruel and deadly swath a mile wide and six miles long and leveled a third of the town. When it was all over, ten of your seventeen schools were damaged or destroyed, along with one of your hospitals, completely gone. Whole city blocks of homes and major shopping outlets – gone! But you leaders – you town fathers and mothers – you know all that.

And you know that more devastating was the loss of the things that cannot be measured in brick and mortar, feet and inches, depth and breath, weight, and monetary value. My girl lost a friend –one among the 159 victims who died. Many in Joplin lost the things that feed the human spirit, that fill a joyous heart – the things that swell the human psyche in confidence and optimism and a sense of security, community, family, and future. The tornado blew all that away.

But early that next morning after the twister had wreaked its evil and cruelty — shaken and scared and confused and overwhelmed, my girl did what thousands of other Joplin folks did. She went out at first light and began digging out her neighbors and comforting the wandering homeless. No one told her to.

She didn’t wait for FEMA or the National Guard or the mayor or the governor or the president. She didn’t need to hear there was a state of emergency declared. She went out and started digging out her neighbors, clearing debris, and opening streets and roadways for emergency vehicles to pass. She and dozens of “strangers” gathered at the Emergency Command Center at Missouri Southern State University and made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and ham and cheese sandwiches – two thousand sandwiches, three thousand sandwiches.

By the thousands, the residents of Joplin – those who still had homes — came out of their homes to help. The line of waiting volunteers went out the door of the Emergency Command Center and down the block – so many volunteers that the professional emergency agencies there – the Red Cross and all — did not know where to assign them all. So, my girl began to organize the teams of rescue workers.

When aid came pouring in by the trailer load from around the country, she joined others sorting fresh water and food and clothing and distributing these to the endless lines of homeless, shattered families who passed through the shelters with vacant, hollow, shell-shocked eyes – some so shaken they didn’t even know enough to hold out their hands. And watching them, she cried.

She cried when she thought she had no more tears to cry. She stood among flattened, scattered bricks and siding and roofs that stretched as far as the eye could see, and she sobbed as she pulled a battered family photo album from the debris – and a child’s clothing torn and tangled in the branches of a tree that the winds had stripped of its very bark. Endless, flattened wreckage – a war zone – a wasteland. No homes. No moms, no dad, no children, no pets – only the remnants of shattered lives strewn across a vast, surreal landscape.

Still, every day she and thousands of other Joplin folks came out and worked from sun to sun at whatever job they were asked to do. Before long a few dogs and cats were spotted in the rubble wandering lost and aimless and in as much shock as the creatures walking upright. My girl went to the animal shelter and gathered up the pets and washed them and fed them and recorded their breed and color and size and gender, and the numbers on their collar tag if they had a collar.

Now in the aftermath of the deadliest single twister in American history some folks are leaving Joplin, never to return. And that’s as it is. But my girl is not one of them. She is in Joplin to stay, her resolve unshaken.

Like her, most of the folks in Joplin have gritted their teeth and dug in. They are not leaving. They are rebuilding. And now you city fathers and mothers – you elite town planners — have a problem. For I hear you may not want to restore Joplin. Rather, you would like to build a new Joplin – a stronger, sounder, safer, twenty-first century Joplin – as if anything on God’s earth could ever be made indestructible. The last people who tried that were the folks who built the Titanic. Remember the unsinkable ship – remember those shipbuilders who in their hubris flew in the face of God Himself?

You fools! You want to remake Joplin, as though Joplin needs to be redefined and reintroduced. Don’t you realize that Joplin’s bigger than you — grander than you or I will ever be? Joplin has become a statement for America and the rest of the world. Joplin and its people are America in its finest hour.

No, Joplin will always be that little town with the big heart – the second town named in the old “Route 66” song. So, you go ahead and rebuild it – but you rebuild it as it was.

And that girl I love in Joplin – the pretty girl who years ago won my heart? Oh, she’s a spirited one, all right. Wild and free and fearless and spirited like Joplin itself. And in spite of that and because of that, I’ll love her always.

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