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Every October, 31st as the sun sets for the night the streets gradually fill with little ghosts, goblins, zombies, and demons. They roam the neighborhoods visiting house after house armed with bags, buckets, and my favorite, pillow cases. They ring the doorbell and chant, “Trick or treat” in unison to demand that the occupant bestow them with candy or be the victim of a dastardly prank. The houses are adorned with cobwebs and candles. Jack-o-lanterns, perched on the porch with flickering eyes and glowing grins, light the way. Creepy carcsses rise from the dead. Grave stones and gremlins litter the lawn while witches watch from the trees.
When I was a kid Halloween was right up there between Christmas and the 4th of July. In the weeks prior to this most evil night, my friends and I would boast about who would bring in the biggest booty, the largest loot, or in other words, more candy than you. Candy collection was a fierce competition, not only for the most candy but for the choicest pieces. Chocolate was of higher value than a box of raisins or an apple. A whole pack of just about anything was better than a single piece of something. Full size beats bite size. And anything edible always trumps a toy. But the ultimate goal, no matter what the treasure, was to fill your bag, bucket, or pillow case to the brim. Often we would double back to the houses with the most generous givers hoping not to be recognized as being a repeat customer.
Preparation for this wicked night was always filled with anguish: What costume would I where this year? (For me the home made costumes were more realistic looking than store bought ones.) What route would yield the most candy the fastest? What group of friends would I travel with? And how do you know when it’s dark enough to begin your quest? Is it OK to start just before the sun goes down or do you simply wait until you see other vampires and mummies on the move? A carefully planned route would ensure that you get the best candy before it’s gone. (There are a lot of other spooks and specters out there after your candy.)
In recent years I’ve noticed a radical costume trend shift. What happened to the crepe paper mummies and the oversized thrift store suits that made for an excellent Frankenstein’s monster, with the addition of a little of Mom’s makeup? In fact, it’s difficult to find a Halloween ghoul at all let alone a self-made one. The trend today has moved away from the freakily frightening and more toward the cute and cuddly. Vampires, witches, and werewolves are being overrun by ladybugs, pixies, and puppy dogs. Some of the older kids don’t even bother dressing up anymore. The threat of “trick” instead of “treat” is almost nonexistent. Doorbells ring, candy is deposited in small pumpkin shaped buckets, and the princesses and pixies calmly move to the next house. Fewer and fewer homes are decorated to their maximum potential which makes for a dull night of haunting when it used to be so much fun. The good old days are all but gone.
Halloween will live on, though. Whether it’s demons or Dora that lurks in the night they will always get their fill of candy and treats on this non-official holiday just for kids.
Early one Monday morning Lisa is awaken by her mother. It’s time to get up and prepare for school. Lisa doesn’t want to get out of bed, she was up late last night playing her Nintendo DS. A while later she finally manages to crawl from beneath her blanket, slip on her house shoes and robe, and lazily stride into the kitchen where her mother and father are sitting at the table having coffee. Before she can take a seat at the table her mother commands, “Go brush your teeth, Lisa”. In the bathroom she laces her electric Sponge Bob Square Pants toothbrush with bubble gum flavored paste that is supposed to fight cavities, and brushes her teeth.
That same Monday morning Nell is awaken by the crying of her younger brothers. They are a hungry three year old and one year old who depend on their older sister for everything. She throws off her tattered and dirty blanket and wraps them in it to stop their crying. It doesn’t work. From the fly covered kettle that still sits on the fire pit just outside the tent door Nell scoops a bit of cassava root soup with the wooden spoon used to stir the pot and feeds it to her little brothers. A few more scoops and they are quiet… for a while. She takes a few scoops for herself to ease the hunger in her own stomach.
Later that morning Lisa is dressed in her school uniform; tan khakis and a blue Polo. Her stomach is filled with microwaved waffles, scrambled eggs, toast, and orange juice. She doesn’t like the crust on her toast so she carefully peeled it off and left it on the plate for trash along with some of the egg. She wishes her toast didn’t come with the crust, that way she wouldn’t have to bother with peeling it off. With backpack in hand Lisa and her father climb into the family sedan and drive the half mile to her school where she routinely receives the highest marks in her sixth grade class. Lisa has lots of friends in her school and all the teachers know and love her. Last year she made the principal’s list for academic excellence and for perfect attendance. Her father kisses her good-bye and heads off to work.
After feeding her brothers cassava root soup which her mother taught her to make before she and her new husband abandoned the children, Nell lulled them back to sleep so that she could walk the two miles to the river to collect some water. Nell can’t take her brothers with her to the river because she can’t carry the bucket of water on her head and hold their hands at the same time. When she arrives at the river the sun is already very hot and there are people all along the banks collecting water and bathing and washing clothes. Nell knows that she is one of the youngest in the crowd and she knows that it can be dangerous for her so she finds a place near a group of women and away from most of the men. She finds comfort among the women… most of them. The women give her no special greeting but they acknowledge the twelve year old and give those men, who seem to be interested, looks that keep them at bay. Looks that say, “We are watching you so don’t you try anything.” Knee deep in the river, Nell holds an old shirt over the mouth of her bucket to filter the water as she dips it in the river. The shirt will also serve as the buckets cover on her journey home.
Lisa had been waiting all weekend for today to come. Today is when her class is performing their dance recital. They have been practicing for a long time and are eager to perform for their parents. Lisa loves to see her mother and father in the crowd while she’s performing and they have never missed a single recital. They are thinking of enrolling her in a performing arts high school when the time comes but for now they will continue to encourage and cheer her on.
Nell has rested from her trip to the river and must now leave her brothers again to go into the market place to beg and steal. If she didn’t have to care for her brothers she could survive without going to the market, or at least get there earlier before the other children beat her to the best pickings. The market is a dangerous place for a thief adult or child. The merchants will have no mercy on her if she is caught so she only goes once or twice a week. Nell only steals food or small trinkets that she can sell to passersby on the way home. Some of the other kids make a living by picking pockets and working in groups. This is too risky for her, besides she doesn’t like having to steal anyway.
On the way home from the recital Lisa’s reward for an awesome job was a peperoni pizza dinner which she devours, except for the crust. It’s been a long day for her and she is very tired but she fights her sleepiness anyway. In her bed she plays her Nintendo until she falls to sleep to be ready for another day.
Nell can only stay away from her brothers for a short time so nothing will happen to them, so she often has to leave the market empty handed as she does today. She has to feed her brothers and cook more cassava root soup because the kettle is nearly empty. She will use some of the water she collected earlier to bathe the boys before night falls. Nell hates the nighttime because she is small and cannot defend herself against the badness of the night. She prays before bed every night, usually for her mother to return someday.
Tornados, hurricanes, tsunamis, floods, and earthquakes all can seem like the wrath of God to those who witness their destruction from a far. Pure evil to those who survive them and must deal with the devastation left in their wake. I don’t claim to have lived through a natural disaster or even witnessed one from a far, except on TV, but having lived in California my entire life I have danced with the occasional earthquake. But when I see the destruction that wind can unleash I can’t help but feel a little lucky. Not just lucky to not have been there, but lucky that I have not had to endure the aftermath of it all. Grief for the fallen, the displaced, the injured, and the alone. Lucky not to know what it is like to have your whole world literally in ruins.
I imagined: Waking up to roaring thunder and flashes of lightening that illuminates my bedroom. A storm is coming. I turn on the local news for details only to find that my life may be changing soon. A twister has touched down two counties away and is hop-scotching its way here.
I hurry outside to secure the storm shutters. The rain is heavy and the thunder is loud. I didn’t realize just how many windows there were until now. Back inside, my wife and I warm ourselves with coffee and flip between the local news and the national weather channels. This is real! An F-4 and expected to grow. We decide to head down into the basement, the safest place in the house to be if the worst should happen.
Even in the basement we could hear the rain pounding harder and harder and the wind howling as it grew closer. The speckling of debris against the house was a terrifying gage to judge the storm’s proximity. Not just the house but the earth began to tremble as if a freight train was running through my house. We huddle in a corner and plead with God for our lives and our home and for the wellbeing of the whole community but we are interrupted by what I can only describe as our house exploding around us. This is that serene moment when you except your fate and prepare to die. Time crawls and what is in reality only a few seconds, seems to never end. The tremendous noise and destruction around you seem to fade into oblivion as you await the inevitable.
I wake up this time to silence. I cannot move or see anything except a small blotch of sun light that must be coming from above. The tornado has moved on to destroy lives in another town. It’s cold. I’m wet. I can taste blood in my mouth. Where is my wife? Pain is the last sense to come online. I think my arm is broken. Where is my wife? I muster up the strength to call her name. Nothing. Have I lost my beautiful wife along with our home to this monster? Why could it not have been me instead? Will someone come and rescue me or will I slowly starve to death buried in what used to be my basement? Am I even still in my basement? I have heard stories of people being carried away by the fierce winds of a tornado. Is this punishment for my sins? I can do nothing but sit helpless and evaluate my life and hope and pray that this is not as bad as it seems to me now but I know that in all likelihood it’s much worse.
I hear something moving nearby. I call her name again. My wife moans and answer. She’s alive! No matter what else the storm has taken from me it did not take my wife. No matter the devastation to ourselves, our home, or our town, we are alive and will get through this disaster. I call for her to come to me but she cannot. We are trapped not five feet apart but I cannot see her. We take comfort in that we are together and we know it’s only a matter of time until someone comes looking for survivors.
Almost forty-eight hours had passed, pinned in the most awkward position possible, before we could hear the rescue party in the distance. We held each other emotionally and cried because we knew that the two day long nightmare was coming to an end. We gathered strength from somewhere we could not fathom and called for help until a rescue dog heard us. I was never so pleased to hear a barking dog in all my life. Freed from a brief stint in our own personal purgatory, the devastation that was left in the wake of the storm incomprehensible. Not a house, nor tree, was left standing. We were among the fortunate to have only lost things. Corpses being dragged from beneath rubble made that very clear. Neighbors were sifting through trash heaps that used to be their homes while clinging to bits of their former lives.
Some would clean up, rebuild, and move on while others would relocate to where the windy monster does not feed. But there are few places on earth without some form of natural disaster. We live in Tornado Alley, atop seismic faults, and at the bases of volcanoes. We are aware of the pending danger and do our best to prepare and prevent but in the end we are all subject to her wrath. We take what Mother Nature throws at us. We learn from it and we get stronger. Most of us will never know her wrath first hand but those who live through it will forever be changed by it. The rest of us lucky enough to miss the destructive power of Mother Nature should be ready to lend a hand, or a dollar, at a moment’s notice when she strikes the less fortunate. It could be you or someone you love.