Friday, May 07, 2010

University of Alabama Football Report for Decoration Day: After the Flood

There are loved ones in the glory
    Whose dear forms you often miss.
When you close your earthly story,
    Will you join them in their bliss?
Will the circle be unbroken
    By and by, by and by?

One can imagine a family history better as a wavelength than a line. Over time, the day-to-day connections abandon one’s memory, leaving the gaps between peaks and valleys to broadcast the story. Celebrations all morph into the same clamorous din. The years elide. But, like the early AM radio transmissions, under the right conditions, the signal can carry far from its point of origin, surprising the listener. Perhaps you don’t recall the argument, but you remember the blows.

Years ago, an engineer tried to explain to me how, after a rainstorm, the moisture in the atmosphere could siphon distant radio signals as sure as a vacuum pulls water through a hose. “An expansive crystalline wall bouncing the signals,” he said. We worked a third shift together and used a pocket radio to listen to extra-inning Cardinals games out of Saint Louis, borderline raunchy gospel tunes from Chicago, and, toward the crack of dawn, that high lonesome sound from Nashville.

He was a minimalist, believed that any man-made structure--absolutely anything--was but pause and not permanence. Wise engineering, his thinking went, made use of the natural elements of a location, a sort of structural jujitsu. He did, however, offer one caution: “Nature, you see, she’s a bitch.”

Surely, over time, the flooding in Nashville, currently priced at roughly one billion dollars worth of damage, will become one of those valleys of the memory for many people. The best one can hope for is to remember how one got through it.

However, there is a growing concern among the locals that people outside the city may not remember it at all, specifically due to the lack of national media coverage. That may sound harsh, but I can’t hold it against them. Nashville’s a proudly tacky, sometimes insecure, always show-biz kind of town; it remains such even when wet. It was inevitable that the local attention would come to include “why aren’t they paying attention to us?” because half of the damn people who live there have spent much of their lives on a stage.

As of yesterday, the Nashville flood can record 26 cases of looting and nine dead. That sounds paltry, especially compared to the numbers from the Gulf Coast during Katrina’s aftermath, but I’m saying this only to add a sense of scale, not to diminish the suffering of those who were affected greatly--to the point of having to start their lives completely over--by the flood.

Nor does it point to any inherent moral superiority. The rains fell on saint and sinner alike. Some of town’s quiet calm and the resulting lack of coverage may be due to, believe it or not, geographic luck. Much of the flooding, of course, occurred in areas close to rivers: tourist spots that were mostly empty and reclaimed corporate land technically considered an extended floodplain. The Opryland complex, its shopping mall, hotel, and theater (home of the Grand Ole Opry), was one such area and is a near total loss.

Thus, the goods to loot were largely inaccessible--miles and miles away from where people live and isolated by the waters. As with any criminal, the looter needs means, motive, and opportunity. The flood, and the respective geography of its victims, wiped out two of the three.

When the Grand Ole Opry radio show was moved out of the Ryman Auditorium to be part of the long-ago defunct Opryland USA amusement park, the center of the stage was sawed out and carried with it. And, depending on your odds of standing on that circle of wood, you either saw that gesture as a sentimental nod toward tradition or crass corporate muscling. Either way, it was under two feet of water this week.

Outlying neighborhoods were also severely damaged. The closest comparison anyone can find to this flooding hit Nashville in 1903, when most of the surrounding area was farmland and most of the city’s suburban neighborhoods didn’t even exist as dots on a map. It’s the folks in those areas, the folks with more questions than answers, the folks for whom Nashville is their home not their ticket to fame, the folks without flood insurance, you feel worst for. Asking them to be prepared for a flood is like asking the Aztecs to be ready for Cortes.

Thankfully, it takes no special talent to survive. The waters will recede. The city will dry out. The Opry, for the time being, will move back to the Ryman. We will place flowers on our parents' graves and we will sing.

Roll Tide.