My wife, Maria, and son, Max, had gone with Laurie, her son, Nate, and others to deliver supplies to a church in Oklahoma two days earlier, and I felt I should go as well.
I attended both first and second service Sunday because I'd been there since 7:30 a.m., helping in the kitchen. I'd offered to volunteer there because I figured it would give me easy access to the biscuits and gravy and donuts. Also, it would give me a chance to know people better and make new friends.
Debbie, a fiftyish woman runs the kitchen, for example. She helped cook for people in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. She also volunteered in Greensburg, Kan. after that town was hit by a tornado two years later.
Her husband, Dave, was also helping in the kitchen. A blunt, tough guy with a husky build and thick Okie accent, Dave did whatever Debbie told him was needed in the kitchen. He was a pretty cool guy.
A little after 6:30 a.m. Monday, Memorial Day, I drove by Brenda's house. (Maria had sent me a text with the address.) She hopped in my car, carrying a backpack with a change of clothes if needed, a first aid kit and steel-toed boots. Oklahoma City wouldn't be Brenda's first disaster. She talked at length about her volunteer work and training with the county emergency preparedness department -- helping to direct traffic and learning how to spot guns and other weapons; classes in storm spotting, ham radio, hazmat and a slough of others.
"Sounds like the whole thing could be a career for you," I said.
"No, just a hobby," she replied.
We were the first ones to pull in to the church parking lot, arriving at roughly 10 minutes 'til 7 a.m. Next Paul arrived with his son Nate. Laurie stayed home to watch the two pre-school aged foster children she and Paul are caring for.
Dave drove up, followed by a woman and her look-alike teenage daughter. I had seen them around church, but didn't really know them. The woman introduced herself as Phyllis. The girl's name was Makena. She was 15-year-old gearing up for her sophomore year of high school -- and driving.
Our group of nine split into two vehicles. I rode in the SUV,
driven by Phyllis's boyfriend, Rory. Makena and I sat in back.
"What 'ya readin'?" she asked me after we'd gone a few miles past the toll booth. I pulled the front flap over to reveal the cover portrait of a fat Henry VIII. I told her it was a book about the Tudor Dynasty.
"Sounds like something I'd have to read for school," she said.
"It may sound boring and academic, but it's really pretty interesting," I said. "They had a lot of the same political manipulations and backstabbing we have today."
Her bold eyes got bigger, lips taking an intent form as her face revealed new interest.
"But The Church was really involved in government back then," I continued. "So you had a lot of corruption in both religion and politics. It wasn't uncommon for people to get burned at the stake."
Later I asked Makena what she was reading on her Kindle.
"Some vampire romance," she said, adding that she'd watched the Twilight movies. "They were dumb. I didn't really like them, but I watched anyway."
This girl would fly through my book on the Tudor Dynasty. She'll fly through high school with her consistent spot on the honor roll and receive scholarships, possibly for dance. She's on the Jett High School Dance Team, goes for private lessons at some studio in Wichita and her future is brighter than a row of halogen lights. I'm happy for her.
'I feel like a milionaire'
The neighborhood was destroyed. Not a house was left standing. Trees were cut off at the branches and trunks. Cars were twisted. Bricks and boards that once held houses in place were now lost in the rubble strewn about the ground.
Here I was, only there for a few hours of the day. Didn't know if I'd be back. Meanwhile the clean-up and rebuilding was going to take months, maybe over a year to complete. I felt guilty about checking my watch and wondering when we were going to leave. Working alongside us, shoveling out the remnants of their fallen house, there was a family that would be here for the long haul.
Ramon and Lara had lived in the house for around 20 years. Their three daughters -- who looked to be between late high school and early college age -- had grown up in the home. All of them were outside working. This was a family -- a close-knit group, held together by grace and dignity.
Not that they weren't sad about their house. "It was pretty awesome," one of the girls said, while clearing trash from what used to be her bedroom.
"It reminded me of the Foreman house from That '70s Show," one of the other girls said.
They were Hispanic, and while the parents struggled some with their English, their daughters were obviously Americanized. Wet, discolored prom pictures and college course syllabuses on the ground revealed the active, American, growing up lives these young women were living.
After three to four hours of work, we stood in a circle, holding hands while Paul said a prayer.
Lord, we thank you for this family and the way they have inspired us.
They must be Catholic. One of the girls, I noticed, made the sign of the cross after the prayer. I love that. Paul was raised Catholic back in New York where he grew up. He knows that culture well.
We all connected with one other. It feels like friendships were made.
I feel like a millionaire, Ramon said.
Pastor Laurie, Maria, Max and others before leaving for OKC.