I’m pumping gas at the Shell station alongside Hwy 43 in tornado-ravaged Hackleburg, a small town tucked among the hills and hollows of Northwest Alabama, not far from where I spent much of my childhood and where my mother now lives.
I’m hearing the lone sound coming from a shirtless man atop his tarp-draped roof as he rhythmically, methodically hammers in the hot August sun. The tornado cleared out the thickets of pines which would have muffled such sounds that now drift unimpeded to me, a subtle hint of the storm’s affect among many more obvious ones.
It’s been a few months since the late April twister obliterated Hackleburg.
My mother’s neighborhood was spared, but not much else was. The school, the one grocery store, the pharmacy, the bank, the dollar store, and dozens of homes reduced to rubble in a matter of furious moments.
I’m struck by the silence. I guess I thought it would be different. I expected the town to be a hubbub of activity. I envisioned teams of volunteers here helping victims pick up the pieces, big trucks with FEMA plastered on the sides rolling down the road. I’m realizing that recovery is a slow process, one hammer and one nail at a time. Now there’s a chain saw buzzing far away in the distance.
This would make for a better story if I could describe Hackleburg as a quaint and charming town, but it’s not. In fact, most of the buildings downtown here have been empty and deteriorating for many years. It would be hard for an outsider to distinguish which were destroyed by the tornado from the ones destroyed from a generation of neglect. I’m thinking most owners of these buildings will be more likely to pocket whatever insurance money they can collect than rebuild and that no one would blame them if they did.
The good news is that the Wrangler plant announced it would rebuild. That’s been the chatter among locals the last few days. The factory was by far the largest employer in town and the news was welcome indeed and makes it much more likely that the Piggly Wiggly and the hardware store will rebuild too.
Earlier in the day, I drove down to the place I claim as my childhood home. Time is a funny thing. Is it really true that I only lived here for six years, I think to myself and redo the math in my head. Six years fly by in leaps and bounds now but back then they inched along at a snail’s pace. I was antsy to escape the woods and childhood, now I long for both. My best and worst memories reside there: learning to drive and to shave and falling in love and getting my heart broken for the first time and being terrified by the ghosts that lived inside the house that would eventually burn to the ground not long after we moved away.
The patch of land where my daddy planted rows of peas and corn has been overcome by pine trees and kudzu. The pond where I used to walk to is gone too, the result of one too many summer draughts I suppose. We always said that pond was haunted and I prefer to believe that evil spirits just decided to make it disappear one Harvest moon midnight.
I realize for the first time that I’ve lived long enough to notice a significant change in landscape. And I’m not sure what to make of that. I realize that the world changes, nature she has her way and that it doesn’t take a bulldozer to alter the scenery, that the world is an organic, fluid, evolving thing.
No matter what one does to try and slow things down, time marches on. And time changes things.
Back at my mom’s house, it’s her 86th birthday and my two little girls are here with me, making decorations and presents for her. Mother’s tired eyes sparkle when my girls bound into the room. I catch her staring at them and I speculate that her mind has wandered to the days of her own childhood and I wonder if she’s thinking to herself, “my how the time has flown by” and I wonder if it’s comforting to her to think that the day is soon coming when she’ll be reunited with my daddy in heaven and I think of a thousand other things in a blink of an eye but mostly I’m just glad that circumstances have allowed me to be here for this moment in time with the most important people in the world.
Outside, the August sun settles in the west and the familiar smells of honeysuckle and mimosa and chicken houses mingle with the sounds of hammering and a chainsaw across the hollow.