Empire Electric saw its load drop by over a third in seconds as transmission lines and substations vanished from the grid. Veterans said it really looked like a bomb went off; it was like a mower went through it, chewing everything up. This is a close-knit town. It’s very wholesome, you know, it’s part of the Bible Belt...
—From area news accounts, one month after the most
destructive tornado in U.S. history
I was born in Joplin, but I am not a local. Since my parents divorced and left when I was three, I’ve lived in Tulsa, the Hague, Immokalee (Florida), Albuquerque, New York City, Chicago, Seattle, Santa Fe, Asheville, Oakland, and China. My worldview is not like the Joplinites. I’ve long since renounced any belief in theism or supernatural determinism, and don’t believe that tornadoes or anything else for that matter are acts of God, unless you mean it metaphorically. I see twisters as the result of extreme meteorological forces that are due in part to intensifying human causes like industrialization—and Joplin and Tornado Alley are firmly in their path.
People who aren’t from this area have no reason to know of the almost supernatural beauty of the skies and the intricate cloud formations produced here by a collision of cool air from the north, warm moist air from the south, and dry air from the Rocky Mountains. As I approached the town in the morning, there was exquisite light play through several different types of clouds.
I first drove by my aunt and uncle’s house. My estranged father, once a prominent D.J. in town, died on the porch of this house last year, felled by a heart attack while mowing the lawn just two weeks after his long-awaited retirement. The house appeared fine, and I acted on an impulse to follow my aunt in her white van as she was pulling out of their driveway. She hadn’t seen me, and I hadn’t actually planned to say hello on this visit. Moving so far from my roots has not been without its costs. So I followed her at a good distance, for about an hour, while she drove through the parts of Joplin that no longer exist. A lot of Joplin residents were touring the ruins of their town. Everywhere, American flags were planted in the wreckage.
The tornado hit without warning on May 22, at 5:41 p.m., ultimately claiming more than 155 lives. People were getting home from work, firing up the grill, or sitting down to eat. Everyone I spoke with said houses were already imploding and disintegrating before anyone heard a siren, which is unusual, since tornadoes tend to descend from highly visible approaching thunderstorms.
When I went by St. John’s Mercy Hospital, where I was born, a nurse was out in the parking lot, taking pictures and looking dazedly around. It’s disconcerting to see a nurse in shock, agape at circumstance. “I was here when it happened,” he said. “I found my car 12 blocks away!” He confirmed the reports that I’d heard, about people literally being whisked from hospital beds, out into the whirlwind.
Throughout my day in Joplin, people told me stories of unfathomable transport: the widely reported story of the teenager who was pulled from his SUV sunroof and found almost 40 miles away, dead, but largely unblemished, all clothes intact, wallet in his pocket, hair even still slightly styled. Another grislier story involved the eventual discovery of just enough skull to make a positive ID based on dental records.
Juxtapose these scenes with the many pieces of Wizard of Oz paraphernalia I found during my day of sifting through destroyed homes. In the middle of an absolutely demolished children’s apartment complex playground, I stopped to contemplate a flat cutout of a pumpkin on the ground with words upon it: “Don’t make me summon my flying monkeys.”
I was taking pictures of one particularly spectacular destroyed house when a guy called out, “You like what I’ve done with the place?”
This was Larry Allen. A research scientist at the hospital, he explained that he was picking through the ruins, looking for a precious machine he’d been working on for over a decade. It was, he claimed, a device that could predict a heart attack as much as two weeks in advance. He’d been given the machine by a colleague whose health had failed him, who had made Larry promise he’d see it through to market.
Larry was sorting through the rubble in his bright blue shirt and glasses, as a bulldozer sat 20 feet away waiting to help him push his house into different searchable piles. He recalled that his windows started bowing outward and he ran for his inside stairs, to his laundry room, to stick as many of his vital parts into his dryer as possible. As he stepped onto the stairwell, the two walls on either side gave way, and the stairway collapsed. He discovered that his leg was pinned, and after failing to free his foot, he looked up and saw the metal railing from the stairs bowing out in the wind, then bending rapidly towards him.
“I’d given up,” Larry said. “But then it stopped about two feet in front of me, and the only thing that kept me from getting swept up was my leg was pinned!”
Just before I left Larry, the bulldozer started in, moving past a washer and dryer the tornado had crumpled like tin foil and left strewn across the front lawn.
I spent 12 hours in the ruins of Joplin, and the most prominent stray items I saw in the detritus, in order of frequency, were Miracle Whip, stuffed animals, kids’ bicycles, musical instruments, and books. It was odd how little food could be seen. There were many thrown-open refrigerators, with no food inside. So why the hell was Miracle Whip the food item I saw everywhere? There have been hawks and vultures and other carrion feeders circling, and I imagine they’d eaten a lot of scraps in the month before I arrived. It would be poignant if vultures, who can eat anything, who are crucial agents in nature’s clean-up brigade, and whose excrement is so vile it kills whatever it touches, would not go near Miracle Whip.
Amid the American flags, pieces of clothing flew like extra-national flags from tree branches devoid of leaves or bark; pieces of sheet metal were twisted and folded like cloth around the same branches. Mangled and serrated birds were wedged into horrible places, like the most acute angle of a staircase, the corner of a window frame, or strung through the twisted spokes of bicycle wheels.
The saddest thing I encountered was a thrown-open bedroom with a shelf full of books about mythology, pagan ritual, and eastern metaphysics, and with a tarot altar with several decks and some homemade trinkets of veneration on top, untouched despite two walls of the room being gone, and with only sky above. This was on the west side of town, where the tornado touched down, where no one would have been warned. Next to the bookshelf was an old Houdini poster from the Literary Digest—“Buried Alive! Egyptian Fakirs Outdone—The Greatest Necromancer of the Age—Perhaps of All Times”—also still intact. In the next room was a completely demolished crib. It isn’t easy to be a non-conforming seeker in Joplin or anywhere in the Midwest, and the pain I felt for this now-departed mother and her child stung my already raw eyes and made an angry fish of my heart.
I went by the house of some old friends. The house was there, but they’d moved. The new owner of the house, an Australian woman named Victoria, invited me in and gave me a generous tour, of the house and of the backyard and her four beehives, which had been hit but had survived. The bees were scattered, and presumably caught in the maelstrom, but more than half returned within a day or two. After several hours of sifting through ruins, as I was photographing an impressive cluster of comb on the underside of Victoria’s hives, a swarm of bees poured out and all around me, humming happily like some ambient electric cloud dispensing a natural blessing. It felt sublime.
After the long luminous light of the golden hour had passed, I was exhausted, and retired to a country bar called Guitars to write everything down. Someone had told me they had a free barbecue buffet during happy hour, and that it was the place where I might see how the 20- and 30-somethings of Joplin hung out. My earliest memories in the world are of my aunt and uncle taking me to McDonald’s here, getting me a Happy Meal, and then climbing up into Mayor McCheese’s head before sliding back down out of his mouth to the astroturf below, then doing it all over again. Weakened and sad from the day, and perhaps not unrelated to my earliest memories and their imprint in and upon me, I gravitated to a feeding trough full of meat and potatoes. Hell, I went back for seconds and thirds, until the pain in my stomach quieted everything else.
There was a break in the country music, as the D.J., standing in front of a 16-screen image of a robustly wind-waved American flag, offered commiserations to those afflicted by the tornado and its aftermath.
“And now, y’all know what time it is,” the D.J. said in front of his TV-flag.
I didn’t, but it soon became clear as the wall opposite the D.J. lit up with another video screen of a flag, this one framed by neon beer logos and a motorcycle underneath. Everyone in the place now stood to salute and sing the National Anthem. I did not rise to perform this shared ritual, and honestly thought that I was in a dark enough corner not to be noticed. But after about 20 seconds, the room was silent, and I realized, seated and unobservant, that everyone was pointedly waiting for me to join them.
There are battles and there are wars. I did not stand, but I put my hand over my heart so the room could proceed, thought of the Cherokee side of my family largely wiped out by America, and of our current, never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
After the anthem finished, the D.J. moved on to asking if there were any birthdays in the house. There were, and the D.J. instructed the birthday boys to sit in a chair in the middle of the dance floor. If their girlfriends hadn’t accompanied them, the D.J. requested a female volunteer from the audience, who was then instructed to kneel in front of the birthday boy, and to simulate giving a birthday blowjob.
“That’s right!” the D.J. roared as the crowd clapped, “Grab her head!”
I thought of my D.J. father, who once sickened me when he tried to bond with me bizarrely by sharing that he had a “30-something broad who [came] around about once a month to take care of the ‘D.J.B’; when I reluctantly asked what that meant, he explained that it was the “Dreaded Jism Build-Up.” I realized that this town of Joplin was the water he was raised in, and felt a loosening somewhere inside myself towards him, and a sadness for my mother, albeit long after it could do anyone any good.
The music shifted, from country to Billy Squier’s “Stroke Me,” and amidst the pain I felt for the losses of everyone here, I had a revelation: time travel is real, and does not require any speculative physics. It just requires a culture with clearly defined market segments.
I slept outside of town that night, on the side of a stretch of dirt road referred to as Devil’s Promenade, where a meteorological phenomenon some call the Joplin Spooklight causes ball lightning to dance unpredictably down the road. Locals with stories of seeing or feeling the Spooklight are commonplace. I’d like to think it’s the manifestation of something unearthly and supernatural, and that it dances its way down this road taking mirth in the fear and consternation of the homunculi who witness it. I’d like to believe in karma, too, or reincarnation. I’d like to believe my thoughts can change the molecular structure of water, that my emotions can bind themselves to a great universal pattern that’s moving towards enlightenment, or that people tend overall to learn from our mistakes.
I’d like to believe a lot of things. But that doesn’t make them true.
BRIAN AWEHALI lives on the West Coast and writes primarily about nature, capitalism, and predictable disasters. He is a tribal member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and makes his online home at LOUDCANARY.com.