The Volunteer – by Andrew Bunk

Rita Esterly District Governor

The Volunteer
by Andrew Bunk

Inspired by the Columbia for Joplin project.

Who conceived deciduous branches knotted in pain,
stripped of leaves,
trunks of their parent tree waylaid from natural form in such a manner,
that they would more easily portray the illusion of a swamp?

But these trees are not tested and forged by heat, water, or time.
They are lathed free of bark by the quick twisting call of God’s breath.
Their wooden form caned by nature until their shape becomes locked forever.

These were simple trees who desired sun, rain, and the wide open air.
Sturdy, simple trees;
but when life becomes unbalanced their lives end as quickly as any other creature.
Each of those sustaining needs may turn dark,

It wasn’t a dry baking drought of pestilence or engulfing storm of a flood,
But air which terrorized Joplin for a few moments
with an alacrity that barely allowed people to think.
An abundance of air which rose to exact its own form of violence.
Our leafy neighbors succumbed and accepted life and death in quiet fashion.

We cannot be like trees.
Feelings aren’t made that way.
They cannot accept devastation wrought in such quick minutes.
Hearts must seek meaning while dropping to the soil,
disbelief battling tears for reaction.

Thousands offer their hands and their service to these afflicted neighbors,
Men and women finding that while strangers of the mind,
they are siblings of the soul wrought together at first in the discordance of tragedy,
then joined seamlessly through sympathy and charity.

I was searching for an answer when I brought my heart forward.

Joined with those who have braced the traumatized in their arms,
allaying their hurt through broken blisters and dust clogged eyes.
I am a poor substitute for the paladin who could have rendered armor
in the form of assurance and blessings to fellows
who have already expending their energy on daily tasks.
Rather than doubt what I can do,
I add my drop of effort.

This was a school.
A fortress protecting our youth by illuminating their future.
But walls made of metal and concrete blocks,
while strong,
stumble in the uncertainty of today.

The destruction of bricks random as the shape of clouds,
Leaving some pieces complete,
a taunt of a playful tornado.
Gray mortar and cement displaying strength of will,
yet filled with cracks as deep as our own scars,
dooming this once proud building.

The foundation has become its sick bed,
our sad task is to record its final will.
Clear the way so that undertaking machinery may lay it to rest.

It is not elegant work.
Splintered metal lies impacted in the black tar of asphalt
camouflaged in the same color as the gravel intended to be there,
waiting to rend playful toes and steal playground smiles.
I thumb at the sharp edges and pry up shards so that it is not your child who will bleed.

In the next lot are the ruins of what was once safety.
A home and pool sacrificed
while a nearby garden of plants reaches up once more.
Staring at a mess that runs deeper into the ground than a grave,
I imagine what it would have been like to seek shelter in the panic
before I am gently reminded that we have no idea whether the owner survived.

My mind is bucked off its thought and an image I fight fills me.
It was only a story I heard,
An account of the girlfriend of a friend of a friend.
So distant to me it holds all the accountability of a rumor,
but I cannot forget it.

Two friends eat dinner until they realize the tornado has come for them.
In desperate need and blood rush they hide in the one place they have,
holding hands.
When the storm passes,
their hands are still clenched,
but one friend is crying,
while the other is crushed.

This is the tragedy of the human heart.
We care for each other because it is more painful to hate.
A reminder of how good our souls can be.
A reason to toil and rebuild even when days turn to months.
This is not unique.

Thousands have carved handholds out of loss which they use to climb back to solid ground.
More will reshape and rebuild the land around them.
We do this because the love we hold within hates loss.
It is better to use that loss to put things back the way they were.
Rebuild our homes the way they used to be, still not quite identical.
Wipe away all the evidence that what we once cared about was ripped away or crushed.
In the place of that loss, we idealize the best of what we had.
A smile of joy,
a shared laugh,
or even a solemn hand-held goodbye

I grieve for these people.
I place my hand to the flat of the earth in order to feel the heat in the soil
In its serenity I sense this ground has become so sacred that it mourns at our side.
My prayer is brief before I return to work,
It isn’t long before I find one of those remnant artifacts that has escaped efforts until now.
A baseball card covered in dirt dated with a small ’87
Almost as old as my body, far younger than my heart has become this day.
Old enough that it must have meant something to someone.
A favorite player?
A gift?
A valued memory?
I am not sure so I hand it over.
Maybe one day it will find its owner again.

There is so much left to do and I have so little time to give.
I am already losing my endurance to the heat,
my stomach is barely able to swallow and continue what must be absorbed,
Sickened not by the sun,
but by the wish that I was more capable of helping.
So I help in the smallest of ways.
I sweep.
I rake debris free with my boot.
I pick up trash.
I pause as my endurance falls away as the sun broils away what ideas I have
The pause ends when an image of two clasped hands intrudes once more.
I cannot stop now.
This day is the least of my life I can give.
Ignoring the dryness of mouth and lack of salt,
I smile.

I smile because even here there is joy.
As my thoughts race ahead alone,
it is the people around me who have helped define this day.
I am not alone in what I do.
The people here have come because a different heat holds them hostage.
Our ability to grind away at the details of destruction is born of want,
a desire to help.
We are a group of volunteers from a few hours distant,
united for a single day.
It was with them, after we were done,
that I witnessed the future.

Our empty muscles and full hearts bid goodbye to Joplin,
but not before one last tour.
A pacing of the bus’s legs through a plain that should not be there.
It appalled me in the beginning,
like a betrayal as we turned the woes of the people we helped into an attraction.
Then, one left turn away from reality
was a different school than the one we helped.
The high school.

A school whose sign no longer bore all the letters of its proper name.
Two letters, ‘op’, clung to brick, hand in hand.
They could not have remained alone for long.
To either side, they were taken in and given care by those that came after the tornado.
The first letter: H
The last letter: e


Hope? Can you feel the awe in that word?
It defines what will come.
The people of this city have become my heroes.
Those hours spent no longer feel as small as they once did.
I know even if my time was brief and the contribution seemed so small,
there will be others that follow what I do
They will finish what I picked up from the people before me.
Each person here is a drop in the stream turning a waterwheel of future possibilities.
Drop after drop until at last,
Someone pours in the single drop that finally moves the wheel on its own.

That wheel is weaving a beautiful tapestry
A vision formed from the spirit of the people of this city.
It binds everything that is here,
the loss and the pain, but also the hope.
The image stops the heart for a moment out of awe.
An image that will always define this day for me.

Two hands, clenched together, held up in joy.