Not just any old tragedy will do. Instead, I'm all agog about cataclysm on a truly epic scale - hurricanes and earthquakes and such. Sappy 'how I survived' movies on the Hallmark Channel and that sort of ilk are not my thing, but I love to learn about the actual history of big bad stuff and how people and cultures endured and rebuilt.
The first time I became aware of my inclination towards mishap, misfortune and misadventure was on my very first visit to Galveston. The 1900 hurricane and resulting super-human recovery effort absolutely fascinated me. Immediately upon returning home, I went to the library and read everything I could about it. (The notes from the weather service employee the night the storm hit are really cool.)
This past weekend I got to indulge the allure of the macabre once again while hanging out with Janet, my best friend from college. (Now you have totally the wrong picture in your head and you'd never, ever be able to pick us out in a crowd.) Curiosity in tow, we took a mini road trip to New London, Texas.
Anyone know why? Know what happened there?
New London was the richest school district in America in 1937 due to a massive influx of oil company tax money. They built an immense stone and steel Elizabethan school building. The county was populated by depression-era immigrants from all over the US, coming in search of oil field work. They lived in company camps and sent their children to the local school.
At that time, natural gas was odorless, colorless and free for the taking. The rotten-egg smell is an additive, which wasn't used until later, to make leaks easier to detect. Oil companies gave the gas away for free to anyone that would run a pipe for it. The school and most every other building in town was heated with gas radiators.
You can see where this is going, right? March 18, 1937 was the occasion of the largest school disaster in the history of the United States. Between 400 and 600 people died, wiping out an entire generation of children. To this day they don't have an accurate count of the dead because parents were the ones wrenching the bodies out of the rubble. When they found their children, they often put the bodies in the back of the family truck and took them, along with the rest of the family, back home - wherever that was - for burial. Many never returned to East Texas. When school eventually reconvened, it was unknown how many of the missing were siblings of the dead who'd left the area with their family.
Janet and I spent a couple of hours on a private tour of the museum. Judy, a spit-fire volunteer, (whose picture on the website does not begin to do her justice) told us the story. (Janet calls her my new BFF, which is probably true. She'd be a hoot to hang out with.)
What really hooked me in this story is the fact that the parents and townspeople completed the super-human task of clearing away 4 millions tons of debris, much of it by hand and peach basket, and processed 500 or so bits and pieces of dead children in only a few days. Then, they closed the book.
On the first anniversary of the explosion, a memorial service was planned. It was cancelled because the grief was still too fresh - the families weren't ready for to reopen the wounds. They closed the book more tightly.
It stayed closed for 40 years.
I could go on and on about this. In the 1970's, when the long-delayed memorial service was finally held, the survivors began to tell their stories. The stories - the coincidences that saved lives and took them - will suck you in. That's what I love about these events. The real stories of how people cope just fascinated the hell out of me. Sometimes they react just like they would in the Lifetime movie of the week. Sometimes they don't.
Real people aren't movie characters, but they are always amazing.
Did I mention that you should read the website? You should. Then pack your bags and go. See with your own eyes and listen to real people tell you the stories.
And then eat lunch in the museum's "tea room".
Oh my god, was that ever a misnomer. The "tea room" is a bad-ass soda fountain with a killer soup and sandwich menu. The only paid employee is the cook. Even the tips are donated back to running the museum. The tea room's main customers are the kids from the rebuilt school who cross the street every day for lunch, and the elderly citizens who are there for the memories. And there are a few folks like Janet and I who never pass up a good chunk of the macabre or a ham sandwich. Seriously - eat there. It was so good I thought long and hard about licking my bowl. I'm salivating while writing this.
And that wasn't the most interesting part of my weekend.
Neither was going to "Storage Wars: Texas" star Victor Rjesnjansky's store in Tyler and buying an itty-bitty Wonder Woman. (He gave me the autographed 8 x 10 for free.)
No, the really interesting part involved going to First Monday Trade Days in Canton. Perhaps you've heard of it? With the 28 miles of aisles? I bought stuff - a big, metal, scowl-y vulture, a huge (big, big, big) metal bat, an alligator topiary frame and some other stuff. Cool stuff, but we found the real prize when we went searching for lunch again.
Lunch was good to us on this trip.
While I stood in an interminable line at one of the food booths, Janet saved us a couple of chairs at a communal dining table. She struck up a conversation with the guy sitting across from her. His wife was in line and he was warming the seats. Janet asked where they were from.
When I returned with the comestibles, she introduced us. Being a good southerner, I immediately began to think of people we might know in common. We can't help it - it's all about who you know around here and we are taught from birth to find mutual acquaintances with strangers.
"My brother used to live in Antlers," was my opening gambit in the I-know-people-you-might-know game. "He was the newspaper editor there for a couple of years."
We determined that although they didn't remember my brother, they were friends with the paper's publisher, my brother's boss, whom I'd met while visiting there. Connection achieved!
Then I had to tell them about my all time favorite photo. It was my very first Christmas card photo.
While visiting said same brother and newly acquired sister-in-law in the eastern Oklahoma mountain town of Antlers (Yes. Mountains. And gorgeous mountains they are, too.) my brother's scanner erupted with news of a fire. We grabbed our cameras and headed to the scene - he to get pictures for the newspaper and me to just mess around.
The burning building turned out to be an old two-story Victorian mansion converted into an antique store and it was enraged with flames when we got there. We stood a half block away and could still feel the heat. As I watched, the roof of the lower floor fell in and the resulting flash illuminated something in the window. I snapped a photo. My all-time favorite photo as it turned out.
While I told this story, tears started to form in the woman's eyes. I quit talking, wondering at the intensity of her reaction and thinking maybe she wouldn't appreciate that the Christmas card caption was "Keep the Home Fires Burning".
Turns out, she was the store's owner.
She and her husband sold real estate and the antique business was her hobby. She told me about the fabulous treasures that were lost, including the beautiful porcelain stove that melted in the blaze. She'd been there that afternoon to drop off a new load of inventory and then left to spend the rest of the day with family. The call from the fire department came late that evening and she made it the eight miles into town in less than five minutes. A neighbor had to physically restrain her from running inside the burning building to try to salvage those things she loved so dearly.
I worried that she would be appalled by my picture taking, but I needn't have. She thought the idea was fabulous and by the time we finished lunch we'd exchanged addresses and a promise for me to send her a copy of the photo.
I took that photo sixteen years ago. It was another of those amazing coincidences that make life so interesting.
"Coincidence is logical." - Johan Cruijff
"I am not Spock." - Leonard Nimoy
"I am not Spock." - Leonard Nimoy