Monday, May 07, 2007

Memories of Greensburg


Saturday morning, I woke up and went downstairs to start making breakfast. Sleepily, I turned on the radio to listen to the news. My head was in the refrigerator when I thought I heard the announcer say that Greensburg, Kansas, had been destroyed by a tornado.

I popped my head out of the fridge and listened some more. Yep, a gigantic tornado had indeeded practically wiped the town from the map.

I live in the Midwest, and I'm used to stories about a small town here and there being heavily damaged by wind or tornados. A few years back, heavy winds took apart St. Peter, Minn., and the grim joke around here is that God hates trailer parks, because they seem to get hit so often.

But Greensburg was different. Because I've only been to Kansas once, and Greensburg is the only town in the state (besides Dodge City) that I actually visited.

In June 1989, I had just graduated from college and bought my first car. I was at loose ends, trapped in professional limbo. The five-month Armor Officer Basic Course didn't start until November, and I still held out hope of landing an active-duty slot, so there didn't seem to be any point to starting a civilian career just yet.

So in July I headed out on a road trip to celebrate graduation: West through South Dakota to Mt. Rushmore, then down through Wyoming and Colorado to Rocky Mountain State Park, then to Oklahoma to visit relatives, and back up through Missouri and Illinois to see my parents in Wisconsin before returning to the Twin Cities. I brought a tent and camped the whole way to keep costs down.

I had to cut through Kansas to get from Colorado to Oklahoma. My initial impression of the state was that it was hot, dry and flat, an impression reinforced by the severe drought that hit the region that year. Kansas has a whole series of manmade fishing lakes, and my plan was to use them as campsites. I stuck to that plan, even though most of the lakes I found were entirely dried up.

Then I hit Greensburg.

At this point, I'll switch to quoting from my diary entry of that day, edited to leave out juvenile musings and at least some tedious detail.

"SUNDAY, JULY 30, 1989

I intended to take 183 south just outside of Greensburg, but decided at the last moment to go on into town to see 'The World's Largest Hand-Dug Well' and a Pallasite meteorite.

The well and rock were both mildly interesting, although I declined to pay to go down into the well, contenting myself with peering into it from above.

On the way through Greensburg I had seen a sign for another fishing lake, and decided it might make a good place to camp. This time the lake was actually there, and though there were no facilities the price was right: free.

I pulled in and parked in the shade of an elm tree. It was by now probably 2 p.m., and far too hot to do anything. I pulled out "The Civil War" [I was reading Shelby Foote's three-volume series] and started reading. It soon became too hot even for that, so I made a run into town to buy some Gatorade and started running the car occasionally to get some air-conditioning.

When it had cooled off a bit, I went out on a nearby pier to watch the people around me. Apparently the lake was a popular social center, because people of all ages drove repeatedly around it, cruising.

Pretty soon three girls came walking up -- Leabeth, 16, Venus, 13, and Samantha, 7. They were supposed to meet a couple of guys there on the pier, and while they waited we started talking.... [Leabeth and Venus] told me about drinking, defying their parents, and boys, more or less in that order. There seemed to be nothing to do but hang out, swim, drink and party. Both seemed to accept the fact that they were not leaving Kansas.

After waiting for probably 45 minutes, I offered to give them a ride wherever they needed to go. We piled into the car and were off.

Things were going normally until I took a railroad track at slightly high speed and got momentarily airborne. I don't think I did any permanent damage, but it inspired them to show me 'Piss Road,' little more than a dirt track out in the middle of nowhere. That posed further challenges to my suspension, as well as lodging dirt and grass all along the underside of the car. We survived it, however, and finally I dropped them off, returning to camp much worried about my car but otherwise in a good mood.

Once back, I set up the tent and ate dinner. As I ate a carload of women pulled up t the pier and sat on it for a while, talking and watching the other cars. When they left I waved at them.

Taking my diary, I wandered out to the pier to finish the day's entry before dark. Soon two of the girls from the car came walking back, looking for a lost earring, and we started talking.

Tanya and Estileda (who was from Honduras) both lived in Pratt, had both graduated from high school this year and were both going to college in the fall. Tanya was interested in accounting, while Estileda was looking at human resources.

Seeing my diary, they asked if I was a writer, and we talked for awhile about college, Kansas and Minnesota. Then having failed to find the earring, they said goodbye and left.

The bugs on the pier were becoming intolerable, so I retreated to the trunk of my car. Several more cars -- filled with males, this time -- passed, and I got rather thorough lookovers from them.

Presently Tanya and Estileda returned, explaining that they had found the earring and asking if I wanted to go cruising with them. Having never been, I said yes.

We took off and went cruising, which consisted of driving all through Greensburg -- 'a retirement community', they called it -- while fiddling with a balky radio. Tanya, who was driving Estileda's car, was quite talkative; Estileda was far more shy and quiet.

We drove around until 10 p.m., talking and having a good time. Then we ran into some friends of theirs -- Kristina and Sarina -- on the main drag and pulled over to talk. Pretty soon other cars had pulled over and for a while a lively social gathering was underway -- although I missed most of it, being confined to Estileda's back seat. I learned a lot about small-town high school life: sex ed, or rather the lack therof (this is a mighty Baptist community), drinking, boredom, etc. Pratt Community College lets you major in rodeo!

This went on until nearly 11:30, when Kristina and Sarina left, stalked by three stray kittens that had wandered by. Tanya and Estileda drove me back to the lake and we said goodbye.

The night was beautiful. Overhead was clear sky, but all around on the horizon were clouds and repeated lightning strikes. I watched for a while, then fell asleep. I woke once, when a tremendous thunderstorm broke overhead. The deluge went on for a long time, and I listened and enjoyed every minute of it.

Kansas may be harsh, but I've grown to like the people."

That was 18 years ago, and the girls I met are all adults now. Tanya and Estileda would be 35 or so; even Samantha would be 25. They may not even live in Greensburg anymore. Nonetheless, I hope that they and everyone they know are safe, and that the town finds a way to rebuild. They might have been teenagers, but they gave a much-needed dose of friendliness and community to a stranger on a lonely trip. I'll always appreciate that.

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