Like many of you, I watched that wall of water wreak havoc in Japan. Cars piled up like Hot Wheels in the dirt mound tracks we created behind my cousins’ house. Ships plowing into bridges like rubber ducks floating in a toddler’s bath.
Every time I see pictures like that on television, I’m 17 years old again, hearing sirens warning us to take cover on a Tuesday evening of my last spring break of high school. I’m walking by flashlight through the same debris from houses blown apart, trees uprooted and cars overturned in what used to be driveways on a street you can no longer drive down. A street where friends live and you can hear the live wires fallen from above crackling on the cement – someone crying – people calling out to each other in the pitch black, waiting an eternity of seconds for a response, to see if neighbors are alive. No street lights, no lamp light from a den, no fluorescent light from convenience stores or supermarkets. Only darkness. No suppers cooking, no frozen food, no television, no air conditioning. No baths, no water to drink for weeks. No telephone, no way of communicating. No way of knowing whether your friends are dead or alive, except to go on foot to what used to be their homes. Homes where you ate and giggled and stayed up late to watch Wolfman Jack host The Midnight Special when you slept over on Friday night. No more. On that night I fell asleep listening to my radio, praying the batteries would last, trying to get any news about the F5 tornado that had just altered my world.
When I went off to college four months later, people learned where I was from and asked if we were all cleaned up after the tornado. They didn’t know. You can’t unless you’ve watched them bulldoze the streets so that you can drive again. Some people tore down what was left of their home and rebuilt. Some just left the mess and moved on. The National Guard came in and cleaned up yards and guarded against looters, and a couple of them even climbed a tree to get my friend’s prom dress down from the top branch. It took a long time, but eventually things began to look normal again. After awhile, driving down the street didn’t remind you of the pictures of Vietnam we had all seen on the news growing up. But even now, 32 years later, you can still spot concrete slabs where somebody didn’t come back.
The broadcasts from Japan will stop soon. We won’t see the pictures any more and the potential nuclear disaster won’t be a threat to us and we’ll quickly forget. The families who loved the drivers of those cars, though, will still be clearing slabs. And they will be for a long time.