Yesterday, a very nice person found out I was a writer who worked as a reporter for the Charles City Press, and she seemed unusually excited about that.
“Wow! A newspaper reporter!”
She seemed like it was a big deal to her, and had all kinds of questions for me. She was very interested.
I guess that reaction surprised me because that’s not typical. These days, when I tell people that I am a journalist or work in newspapers, I often get a sneer and snide comment along the lines of “fake news” or “liberal media.” These people don’t know how close they are to getting punched in the face or kicked in the groin when they say things like that to me.
And I’m not kidding. It’s remarkably close. Fortunately for everyone, including me, I was raised to not kick or punch (or shoot) people unless there is no other alternative. So I don’t do those things. It isn’t nice. I try to be respectful and kind, always, even when I’m personally offended.
Anyway, this equally kind and respectful person, who was adorably thrilled to talk to a newspaper reporter, asked me what my favorite newspaper to read is. She was probably expecting me to say the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, or maybe even the Des Moines Register or the Waterloo Courier.
I didn’t have to think about it for more than a minute before I told her.
It’s the Charles City Press. And not just because I’ve written for it for the last year or so (although that helps), but because it’s a darn good local newspaper. It should be your favorite paper, too.
Of course, it was an awfully busy weekend at this community newspaper, and that was fresh in my mind when I was talking to this interested person.
It was Memorial Day weekend, of course, and also the Class of 2019 held commencement ceremonies. A couple candidates running for president of the United States showed up in town, at nearly the exact same time. I knew we would be covering those things here at the Charles City Press well in advance.
I didn’t see the tornado coming — and I guess no one did, not even the National Weather Service.
The message came out over the scanner that a tornado had been spotted on the ground west of the fairgrounds at about 12:20 p.m. Monday. Even though I know we’re all supposed to do the intelligent thing and take cover, newspaper reporters (even us “liberal” ones) do the far less intelligent thing and rush out to our vehicles and speed out to see it for ourselves, camera in tow.
Halfway there, the National Weather Service was finally repeating what the weather spotters had reported a few minutes earlier — tornado at the fairgrounds.
By the time I got there — in what couldn’t have been much more than five minutes — the tornado was gone.
The mess left behind was heartbreaking. So many buildings down, one couldn’t tell from the scattered wreckage how many buildings had been up.
My heart sank, but my spirits were lifted by the thought that it didn’t appear that anyone was killed, or even hurt. I thanked God for that, and took as many photos as I could of the devastation before me, until the emergency personnel started to shoo me out of there.
I said to myself that the people of Charles City will come together and fix this. In my short time here, I’ve found the people to be tough, kind and resilient. Charles City residents persevere. Much like the folks in my original home town, long before I moved to “America’s Home Town.”
I’m not from Charles City originally, I grew up in Oelwein — not too far away.
Of course, Oelwein and Charles City share a common date in their collective history.
May 15, 1968.
The worst day for tornadoes in recorded history. One of them hit your home town, while at the same time, one was hitting my home town. Both of them were absolutely devastating, and they changed the course of history, for both of our cities.
I wrote about those tornadoes when I wrote my very first column for the Charles City Press a little over a year ago, but I think what I wrote then bears repeating now, because of the tornado that hit the fairgrounds this weekend, and also because you might not have read that column.
I was just two months old when the twin tornadoes hit Oelwein and Charles City, so I don’t remember a thing about them.
But I grew up with a whole bunch of people who were born the same year the tornadoes came. One old friend and teacher once told me she thought our class — the Class of ’86 — was strange and unique because when we were all babies, either in the womb or just out, we’d been “all shook up.”
There may be some truth to that, but I also think that we were strange and unique because we all grew up in the aftermath of that tremendous shaking. We were told about the tornado persistently. We saw the concern in our parents’ gazes as they watched thunderstorms approach in the western sky. Our entertainment came from nursery rhymes, Sesame Street, and storm safety handouts.
The city we grew up contained an eclectic mix of tired old buildings that had survived the tornado, brand new buildings that replaced the ones destroyed, and heartbreaking stories of wonderful buildings, now shadows of spirits, that no longer stood. We were forced to learn to love the old, embrace the new and appreciate what once was.
And it seemed like we had a tornado drill every week at school. With each drill came important lessons:
- Know where the strongest structure is, with the sturdiest walls.
- Get there, as fast as you can, as orderly as you can.
- When it’s an emergency, it’s OK if you’re a boy and the strongest structure is the girls’ restroom, and vice versa. Just get there.
- Keep track of all your friends and classmates, and make sure they get there, too.
- You have a buddy. Even if he’s not usually your buddy, he’s your buddy today. Don’t lose track of him. Look out for your buddy. Trust that your buddy will look out for you.
- Stay calm, stay low, listen to your teacher, and huddle together.
- It’s OK to be scared, it’s OK to cry, it’s OK to laugh, it’s OK to sing, and it’s OK to pray. It’s also OK to do none of those things.
And so, after all those lessons in my formative years, I’m big on strong walls, doing your own thing, staying calm, huddling together when it’s necessary, and looking out for my buddies.
Some buddies are buddies for life, and some are just buddies at the moment. Either way, it’s important to look out for them.
I’m big on understanding that sometimes events lead you to places you never thought you’d go. Sometimes that’s the opposite-sex restroom. Sometimes it’s a tornado at the Floyd County Fairgrounds. When the time comes, don’t worry about it. Just get there, as quickly and as orderly as you can.
I’m also big on listening. And in my year of working here in Charles City, I’ve gotten the opportunity to listen to a lot of your stories. Happy stories, sad stories, interesting stories. And yes, a lot of stories that were none of the above, but still needed to be told. I’m happy to do my best to tell them to you.
Hopefully, there will be many more to come. I’ve worked and lived in a lot of different places, but Charles City has felt like home to me quicker than any of the others.
Thank you for helping me keep track of you, and helping me learn to love the old, embrace the new, and appreciate what once was, here in Charles City.
More storms will come. Let’s keep looking for the sturdiest structure together.