The house Billy Capps’ granddaddy built over a 100 years ago stood on a slight rise off of Lee Road 100. That is until Sunday, March 3, 2019. On that day a hungry and angry tornado chewed into it and tore most of Billy’s house away.
Still hungry the funnel moved to Lee Road 36. Alina Smith and her two daughters huddled for safety in the bathroom. When I met her on March 6, Alina told me that she held her daughters, said her prayers, was at peace, and accepted that it was time for them “to go.” But we don’t pick our time. Alina and her daughters were spared that day.
Twenty-three others were not.
Not far away Alina’s boyfriend, Curvin Robinson, scrambled from his yard and made it to the kitchen before he hit the floor and curled in a fetal position in front of his refrigerator. Curvin would find out that of the 23 dead, seven were from the same family. His family. What do you say to someone who peacefully looks in your eyes and tells you that death scooped away seven members of his family 48 hours earlier? I did not know then. I don’t know now. But I know that Alina and Curvin share a bond forged from misery, stronger in love.
Relying on information from news reports I navigated Lee County roads to Smith’s Station and Beauregard, both hard-hit. Sheriff’s deputies from Lee and Calhoun Counties were pulling double duty to block roads leading to the most heavily damaged areas. I respected those restrictions realizing that searches were still underway for missing persons. On roads that were not blocked the powerful force of destruction was evident. Force that in an instant turned a peaceful pre-Lent Sunday into devastation and death. Force that lifted and smashed a trailer into trees as if the home had been a blowing leaf in a spring-like wind.
On the morning of March 7, I saw Billy Capps again. Billy and his wife, Jane, were up early for another day of salvaging what they could out on Lee Road 100. They weren’t home that terrible Sunday. They were enjoying a Mardi Gras weekend in Auburn when the call came from their son. I asked Billy how he felt when he saw the remains of the home Jane and he shared for 41 years. I saw the answer in his face. He didn’t need to say anything.
Billy told me about a private cut-through off of Lee Road 166 that cut across the back of his property. If I could find that road, he welcomed me to come out to make photographs. He somehow understood that I needed to see more. I think he saw that in my face as I had earlier seen what he felt in his.
Why did I go to Alabama?
Truth is, I’m not sure. Maybe I wanted to bear witness. Maybe I wanted to see things I had never seen before. Maybe I needed to be reminded of just how small I am. Maybe I needed to see just how strong other people are. Or maybe I wanted to know that there is more good in the hearts of women and men than we are led to believe. I wanted to know that humanity prevails.
I’m going back to Alabama to see Alina, Curvin and Billy at Easter; a time for resurrection and rebirth.
A time to record the next chapter of their story.
This story is not imagined.
In the middle of a winter’s day with the sun perched on a bed of blue; one of those days when a dry cold bites your bones, I went for a walk.
Passing a wooden ramp slanting toward the sand, I saw him. Click.
And I kept walking.
After 20 minutes the cold sting on my face convinced me that a short walk would do. But first a quick look at the photograph. Then I turned my head back to the ramp. He was still there. His posture had not changed. Not one bit. He was frozen on that ramp.
I guess curiosity is a juxtaposition of the photographer’s blessing and curse. I couldn’t let it go. I stepped across the asphalt boardwalk to the wooden slats of the ramp and walked right up beside him. Inches from him. And saw this. Click.
Dammit, I thought. This might not go well. I knew he heard the soft sound of the shutter. I was that close.
“Hey” I said, nonchalantly leaning an elbow on the rail beside a stranger with Fuck It stitched to the side of his hat.
“Hey,” was all that came back.
A slow exhale of relief.
“I know what you’re doing,” he said turning to me. “You’re taking images on the run.”
Images on the run. Now why would he use that particular phrase? (If you’re a photographer, you know why I wondered.)
“I took your picture, but I’m not gonna run as long as you don’t mind me standing here.”
“I don’t mind. You can take all the pictures you want.”
So I did. And while I did he talked. Not as a stranger, but as he would have talked to anyone standing there beside him on that day at that time on that ramp.
What follows here isn’t imagined. It is not. I did my best to write his words on a blank sheet inside my head as carefully as I could. I’m writing it down here just as I remember him saying it.
After I figured out that the United States was behind 9-11, I dropped out. There’s no humanity left. We don’t need to worry about God destroying the world, we need to worry about what we’re doing to it. The next war won’t be fought somewhere else, it will be right here. It’s happening now. If you look you’ll see it.
I can smoke a little weed and get thrown in jail. But I can get high on government sanctioned handouts right up the street. How does that make sense? You have to know who the enemy really is?
Stop before you read on. Set aside your judgment. His words came from a deep place. He wasn’t ranting. He spoke slowly, calmly. He wasn’t trying to convince me, to sway me into agreement. No, he was just telling me what he believed. Sharing it. Putting his beliefs out there for me to take or leave.
He looked at the Chesapeake Bay to the left. To the Atlantic Ocean on the right.
And then said this.
Embrace the day. Cherish the past and don’t be afraid of the future. The water may be choppy at the shore but you have to get in the deep water to swim. The deep water is scary at first because nothing’s there to catch you. You have to catch yourself. But that’s the beauty of it. Once you do, everything is ok.
Get in the deep water. Swim. Catch yourself. And everything is ok.
“My name’s Philip,” I said.
“Stop. Just. Stop.”
Packing pieces of her life back into boxes could wait. Now she only wanted to watch his face fade to dark as she closed the door. No, she wouldn’t look back for that. He was already faceless in her mind.
Shielding her hands from the cold, JoAnne felt the rail pass in her coat pocket. Still there, she thought.
Touching it took her back 25 years. Maybe 30, she wondered.
JoAnne’s mother, Ada, closed a door then to put abuse behind her. That was not going to be the life for her daughter. A one-way ticket took Ada and her little girl to a new city; a new life. For hours JoAnne was fixed on her mother’s lap staring at passing reflections in the train window. Years later Ada still called that trip their reflection ride.
Reflection. That’s what JoAnne wanted - needed - now. The station wasn’t far, ten minutes maybe. The cold was biting but JoAnne could make the walk.
There was an empty seat just inside the door. She took it and quickly pulled an envelope down around her thoughts.
At first things were good with him. But isn’t that how “at first” always is? Somehow the small cracks are puttied over. Frailties underneath a freshly painted wall you don’t see. Not at first. For awhile you look past them.
Then over time as new days dull into routine days, those cracks move. You touch them and they aren’t so small anymore. They’re big enough to swallow you. JoAnne remembered what her mother said. That once those cracks show up, “they’ll hold you down and choke the love - maybe the life - right outta you.”
She tilted her head away from the window and looked at the glass in front of her. She hadn’t noticed it before.
JoAnne’s reflection in that glass was fresh and alive. She touched her hair gently, just the way Ada touched it so long ago on their reflection ride. And the warmth of all those touches flooded back.
At the next stop, JoAnne stepped across the gap onto the platform and into the freshness of mid-morning. She passed a young woman boarding the train. JoAnne heard the muffled cry and saw the streaks that brushed away tears leave behind.
“Take my seat,” JoAnne said. “That one,” pointing.
The reflection seat.