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The Girl, the Tornado, and the Lost Treasure

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(Originally guest-posted on Worlds Away Book Blog by Carlyle Labuschagne but was erroneously deleted at no fault of Carlyle.  I’ve since duplicated it here.)

I write some fairly creepy stories.  I like creepy stories.  Or, more to the point, I like to find out what people will do when taken out of their comfort zone.  When people are thrust into stressful situations, you discover who they really are.  That’s true in real life as much as it is in your favorite book.  A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to find out who eighteen-year-old Hailey Sanford really is, and I was very impressed.

In April of 2010, a mile-wide tornado ripped through parts of the southern United States.  A community service club at my local high school sends students on a yearly cross-country trip and that year we were sent to aid the people of Choctaw County, Mississippi.

I’d never seen the aftermath of a tornado firsthand.  Random shots of debris on the evening news don’t compare with walking through an open field where a house stood days before or peering into the rubble where that house came crashing down onto a neighbor’s home.  No taped interview can ever get across what it feels like to sit cross-legged in a driveway, share a snack of cookies and sports drinks, and hear the hopeful words from a mother who tried to save her baby and failed.

When the tornado hit, the mother looked out her window to see the house across the street lifted into the air.  Then came the sound of snapping wood and breaking glass.  She fell upon her baby, shielding it from the collapsing rooms.  The weight was too much and the infant too frail.  The child was crushed to death under the loving mother who wanted nothing more than to protect it.

We’d been told that the mother had lost her purse somewhere in the wreckage.  The purse held her digital camera with the last memories of her baby stored inside.  Her most valuable treasure was buried under splintered lumber, twisted metal, broken furniture, cracked drywall, mangled appliances, bent family portraits, and strewn clothing.  Everyone was keeping an eye out a bundle of white leather.

It was early afternoon when I noticed Hailey.  While others were heaving at chunks of debris or dragging remnants to the road, Hailey was standing alone and quietly surveying the area.  The day was hot, especially for those of us accustomed to the mild Michigan spring weather, and Hailey was usually an active worker.  I was concerned that she’d become overheated and I wandered over to see if she was feeling okay.

She said she was fine and pointed through the web of two-by-fours and tree limbs.  On the ground lay a cereal box and some cookies.  “This is where the kitchen was, right?”

I shrugged in agreement.  For a moment I thought she was talking random nonsense, being lazy and making small talk instead of working.  I felt a pang of disappointment in Hailey’s work ethic.

“She’d probably keep her purse in the kitchen, right?”

Ah, now I understood.  I opened my mouth to agree with her, but she dove into the pile before I could respond, and she disappeared under the remains of the two houses.

She was inside the pile for a few minutes when I heard her yell, “I think I see it!”

Seconds later, a large men’s sneaker flew from the hole.  Dirty white leather and shoelaces rolled at my feet.  I was very proud of Hailey for wanting to find the mother’s torn memories, but I was equally saddened that she’d mistaken the shoe leather for the purse.  I waited for her to wiggle back outside.

Instead came another shout.  “It’s stuck!”

I heard the soft but hearty rustle as she fought to free the strap from the tangle.  Wrenching on the bag, some of the contents must have spilled.  Hailey was close to the goal, but also knew that there were other valuables also in the purse, and she wanted to salvage everything she could.  A hand jutted out and she asked me to take a pink pocketbook with bills showing at its edges.  Then a matching miniature photo album.

She disappeared again.  Heart racing, my fingers squeezed the recovered items.  The seconds ticked slowly away.  Finally, Hailey emerged, her hands clutching a white purse.  I knelt beside her as she rummaged through the purse and retrieved a camera.

“It’s here!” she cried.

The combination of relief, delight, and sorrow overcame us.  Sobbing, we hugged tightly.  After the emotions subsided, we dried our eyes and walked to the house next door where we knew the baby’s mother was visiting.  Hailey presented the woman with a gift worth more than any of us could ever imagine.

By the return trip, we were tired, achy, emotionally drained, and yet filled with more joy and pride than at any other time.  Hailey had made it her mission to do the best she could to help a stranger in need.  Nothing can bring their baby back.  Nothing can return what was lost.  In that moment, however, they had hope that things could get better.

I’ve tried to surround myself with good people.  I’m glad one of those people is a girl from Michigan who became determined to do everything she could to restore some happiness to a broken family.  I’m very proud to know her.

The local news paper, the Choctaw Plaindealer, also wrote an article about our efforts.
Information about National Relief Network can be found on their website.
More about Rotary’s Interact Clubs can be found here.

I also invite you to read one of my creepy stories about people trying to do the right thing. You can find them here.