The power to persevere

Taken out of the Bluegrass, heading west, the Wendell H. Ford Western Kentucky Parkway breaks it to you gently about just how bad it still is out there. First, the broken trees and limb debris with which our own region is familiar. Seemingly endless.

But drive on; it gets worse.

If viewed only from the highway, worse means the sheer number of crippled trees, the volume of downed detritus and the depth of nature's wound.

The scope of the ice storm of 2009 — even this past Wednesday, a full two weeks after the cold rain seemingly coated the world in glass — is hard to fathom until you've driven the parkway. The meaning of it is even harder to understand until you've gotten off the parkway.

Five men, all alone at their individual tables at the Leitchfield Dairy Queen, look tired, and it's not yet lunch. Larry Jones had come to town for some gasoline. Preston Greenwood for some groceries. Richard Hogan for some biscuits and gravy. They heard about the wind that was coming. That would mean more trees coming down in Grayson County.

Greenwood says his once-wooded 50 acres and his shaded house and barn already look as if someone "butchered it" while they were "logging it out." And who even wants his wood? Oh, sure, they'll take his wounded hickory and oak to burn, but nobody wants what's left of his poplar and sycamores.

He's managing. But he's not ready to give up his generator yet. It's sitting in the back of his truck. The wind is coming, he says again, like a man who has news to impart and like a zealot who has no choice but to impart it.

Please don't worry about him. You know who you really ought to worry about? Those people out by Nolin Lake. Out Ky. 728, to Bee Spring, out past the dam.

Out past the dam

It's worth noting that two large signs in the fields alongside Ky. 728, both enumerating the Ten Commandments, are standing. The telephone poles, meanwhile, are all brand new.

Nearer the lake, the fate of a million trees is in doubt. So, too, the coming summer. At weekend houses and camp trailers, emergency workers have placed green tape on doors, indicating that they've checked inside and all is well or no one is home.

Someone is home at the Hornback home. Here, Marshall Hornback's inventory for his part-time job of working on mowers and air conditioners is getting soaked by the first squall line of the promised storm. Inside an open tin shack, the lunchtime chicken and sweet potatoes are on the grill. The Hornbacks are still without power, two weeks after the first limb fell.

"It don't bother us a bit," says Marshall, 53, who is tending the food. "We're having a blast. I play the guitar at night. We sing gospel and tell stories."

By "we," Marshall is talking about himself and his wife, Faye, and the neighbor lady, Judy Dombrowski, who tried to weather the storm by herself but was lured over by the Hornbacks sometime on the second day when Faye's own abode's temperature registered in the 30s.

No one could be happier about the change of venue.

"For a little while, it was a Wendell Berry world," Faye says, glowing. Which is indeed something in itself because Judy is a pale woman with chemical sensitivities and the Hornbacks are smokers who, even though it was their house, have gone outside to smoke in the ice and snow since Judy came to live with them. She got power this very Wednesday morning and found herself "sad" about that. Then the news of the impending bad wind storm convinced her that another few hours with the Hornbacks wouldn't be such an imposition.

Marshall cannot help but believe that whatever God wills upon us, we must endure gladly. Or perish. That we have not is God's doing. That he might be warning us could also be what the burden of the last two weeks has been about. Marshall's only hope is that squirrels and birds find refuge in what trees were left behind because nobody wants the bugs that will follow if they don't.

Marshall is a grateful man. He now has, he says, a better view of the night sky, the lake, and the city lights beyond, now that God has helped prune the trees.

Dombrowski is left with something equally valuable, she thinks. "I was forced to live in the present. It's the most beautiful and mysterious feeling a person can have." It started that first night, when she was in the dark without heat and light and the noise of crashing limbs was all around. She felt alert. She felt alive. She felt as warm as hand-knit full-length woolen underwear could make her. She starts to quote Laura Ingalls Wilder. And Wendell Berry, whom Faye admits to knowing nothing about.

It doesn't matter now. It hasn't mattered for days and days.

Marshall has explained how he makes toy tractors out of lighter-fluid cans. They have laughed about how to bathe in a room full of other people not watching. They have traded stories of their disparate lives.

These are the best of days. The rain is becoming a gully-washer now, taking the gravel road out in front of the house down with it into the lake, which could badly use the water.

Paradise found

Kentucky Utilities trucks haul more power poles in the pouring rain and whipping wind. Drooping power lines, being held up by swaying 8-foot ladders, line the road. Cordwood, stacked high everywhere in yards and on porches and against trees, is enough for years to come.

Back on the Western Kentucky Parkway, headed toward Muhlenberg County, more treetop devastation. More whole trees taking whole chunks of the earth that held them when they fell, clattering onto other whole trees.

The heavy-breathing three-stacked TVA's Paradise Fossil Plant dominates the southern horizon. At the intersection of Ky. 431 and Ky. 176, the Burger Shack is closed and a tanning booth has a special going, with no takers. It is not business as usual in Muhlenberg County.

The line at the Kangaroo Convenience Mart's cashier is six deep. People are asking after one another, checking in. No, they say, the power plant never went dark. There's an irony there.

Nobody lives anywhere near the power plant, of course. Except, says one man, for that one white house three miles past it. Up on the hill. Not sure if anybody lives there. But there is that one house.

Clouds part and skies blue up near the Peabody Wildlife Management Area. Skirt the power plant, and make a left on Rockport-Paradise Road, a single paved road that splits hundreds of acres of brown muddied fields that are corn and beans in all the seasons but this.

The skies are turning dark again. The winds start to growl. The mailbox at that lone white house teeters on its pipe stand. The side porch swing, which faces away from a direct view of the power plant, rocks by itself. The windbreak of trees facing the porch swing, the one that has lost its most recent battle with the ice, is now staging quite the skirmish with the marauding wind.

This is not land set out by those who glamorize land; it is working land. The trucks that come by do not bother to remove the new limbs that had littered their path. They simply speed up, to crush them like an advance guard for the next traveler.

Wayne Leon Burden, 59, lives in the 170-year-old farmhouse, on land that his former father-in-law farms. He left this house the very first night of the ice storm, went to his lady friend's for a few hours before she lost power too, then the two of them went to his parents' house to make sure they were fixed up OK. Then they all went to Hopkinsville and got a room at Carlotta's Hotel, over by Fast Eddie's.

He called KU about his power. He didn't figure they knew about his predicament since, even in good times, "I call it the silence-is-golden house. Can't nobody hear you. I don't even have a phone; well I do, but they don't work."

Most days, Burden likes to sit and swing. Even on the hottest of days, a good wind is blowing across the fields.

"You take your Pepsi out there. You take your CD out there. You swing till you get so tired till you can't stand it."

His is "a stout little house." Nothing much could hurt it, he says. Once, when he first slept out there, he heard a squeaking noise. After some sleuthing, he discovered it was two trees rubbing together. He never worried again. If it blew away, that would be its choice.

He lost a pear tree and a hickory tree in 2003. This time, lots of limbs and all the food in the fridge.

Whatever changes happen to the trees this time, he knows the deer will be back for him to watch. The wind is screeching across the fields now. The land will be fine, he assures. Come back in the summertime to see the sunrise. The beauty, he promises, will not be diminished.

Wednesday night: no service

No one has come to clear the limbs off the tombstones along the back roads heading farther south and west. A cypress reclamation area, likewise, will need some serious reclaiming.

It's early evening, on Ky. 189, and all the churches in Christian County look locked up tight. Judges Chapel General Baptist Church service announced for Wednesdays at 7, yet no one in the parking lot at 6:50. No lights anywhere. A big sign at the town of Fruit Hill asks visitors to follow the arrows to Bluff Spring Church of Christ. No one there either.

The darker it gets, the darker it gets. The wind storm has temporarily deprived everyone of power in these parts again.

Lights shine from the windows at Bud and Betty Baker's home, but they aren't the electric kind. The Bakers try to be prepared for these eventualities.

They had the jugs of water and the food in store like they were supposed to. Have hand-crank radios and their "dog-walking lanterns." They have five of Betty's grandmother's kerosene lamps. They have puzzles and games and books. They have a brother-in-law who is a tree surgeon of sorts. They have their more-than-considerable faith. And they had a propane heater. Which is where their story takes a mighty pioneer turn.

Seems that on the first full day, when the ice storm had the burg of Haleys Mill by the throat and was squeezing hard, Bud went out on the ice-lake-like porch and was trying to make the propane heater useful for the duration. He did something wrong and "it spewed back" and "blew up." Before Betty could ask him what the heck had happened, he was asking for a fire extinguisher to put himself out. Only the waistband remained of Bud's pants.

Bud's glasses protected his eyes. Because he had earlier chained the trunk of a tree together to keep it from falling on his house, his outwear was seriously damp.

Still, he was burned on his face and on his left hand, and the Bakers decided to get some help. Not gonna happen, said a neighbor, who told them that both ends of the road were blocked by fallen timber. So Betty carefully "got the dark icky off of him," gave him half a pain pill that had been prescribed for her but she hadn't taken. Together they found a jar of 1 percent silver sulfadiazine, a wound dressing for third-degree burns, and she generously applied it and wrapped his hand in gauze.

Betty's almost a 10-year survivor now of breast cancer, and nothing scares her. Bud is a practical man. That explains why he then went outside and handled the catastrophe caused when their 100-year-old beech collapsed under its own weight and crushed the sometime residence of Hannah, their Jack Russell terrier.

Expect the cooling bill to go up this summer, says Betty, without the shade of that tree, which she remembers when it wasn't such a behemoth.

Betty says she'll miss it. She hardly blinks when it's noted how close the tree came to crushing her home. And how close Bud came to blowing up her porch, not to mention how close Bud came to blowing up Bud.

The world was far away at times. The Lord, she says, never left. But before long, reinforcements came. Even the Bakers' son-in-law's father, who came from Biloxi, Miss. He's still living in a trailer.

The one FEMA gave him.

In 2005.

Driving back to the parkway, limbs continue to fall into the road. The lights up ahead in the dark are an electrical substation.

Then the little towns re-emerge one by one, battered but fully lit.

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