Monday, May 17, 2010

Blame it all on my roots / I showed up in boots

Ismene: What are you hazarding? What do you have in mind?
Antigone: Will you join your hand to mine in order to lift his body?

Ἰσμήνη: ποῖόν τι κινδύνευμα; ποῦ γνώμης ποτ᾽ εἰ;
Ἀντιγόνη: εἰ τὸν νεκρὸν ξὺν τῇδε κουφιεῖς χερί.

Sophocles wrote his masterpiece Antigone around 442BC. For those of you who were not paying attention in 9th grade English class, Antigone tells the story of a young woman determined to honor her brother's body with a proper burial, despite an edict from the ruler Creon stipulating that the body remain "unwept, unburied, a nice tidbit for foraging birds" (ἄκλαυτον, ἄταφον, οἰωνοῖς γλυκὺν θησαυρὸν εἰσορῶσι πρὸς χάριν βορᾶς). Antigone is willing to risk it all to honor her brother's body and and put his spirit to rest.

I thought of Antigone a lot this weekend as we looked for Danny.

I went to Nashville this past weekend to do what I could to help with flood relief. As I mentioned in my post about the Nashville floods, Bellevue and Franklin, the neighborhoods I grew up in, were among the hardest hit parts of town. Before we drove up on Friday, I had spent the better part of two weeks feeling like I was stranded in Atlanta, hundreds of miles from where I knew I needed to be--home. I channeled all of my nervous energy into updating the Twitter and Facebook pages I'm helping my dear friend Ryan with.

In the hours I spent glued to flood coverage, I kept seeing one name over and over again. Danny Tomlinson. Age 39. Missing. Swept into the flood waters May 1st in Bellevue.

All the articles and facebook pages seemed to run the same handsome picture of Danny:

and every post said the same thing: His friends and family are searching tirelessly for his body.

Then, on Tuesday, an old friend of mine posted this beautiful (and also horrible) Facebook note about her experience searching for Danny's body with his family. The mud, the flies, the necklace tangled in the tree branches--Angela's vivid writing made the whole situation come alive for me in a way I could not ignore. When I saw that the search party needed someone to bring sack lunches on Saturday, I knew I had found a way to help. I contacted the organizer right away.

I sounded the call at Peachtree Publishers that I was going to need some help assembling some sack lunches for flood relief workers. The response I got was overwhelming--cash donations, food donations, and numerous colleagues happy to give their time to smear peanut butter and bag up cookies. The donations paid for 30+ lunches, and with my colleagues' help the lunches were packed and ready to go in no time. I am so proud of my colleagues and grateful for their support.

The lunches and I rolled into Pegram mid-morning on Saturday. The search party has set up a rather impressive camp in the parking lot of the Woof Waggin on Hwy 70--a tour bus and several small tents serve as the central gathering place for the dozens of volunteers who have gathered every day since Danny disappeared. The search party includes a K9 unit, a team of horses, and human volunteers on foot, in canoes, in airboats, in Jeeps, in ATVs--you name it. Friends and family have organized the search. Every day, Danny's mother waits for news.

I got to the Woof Waggin just as the search crews were coming back from the morning searches. People clamebered up solemnly in groups of 5 or 6, wet and streaked with mud. Most people were wearing boots but a few were in jeans and sneakers--they were soaked halfway up their calves. Trucks pulled up towing mud-caked Jeeps and ATVs. The horses were tied up to the trailer to rest. Everyone gathered round the food.

The spread was impressive--in addition to the delicious peanut butter sandwich sack lunches we fixed at Peachtree, they had a giant grill going with hot dogs and hamburgers, boxes and boxes of chips and cookies, tubs with iced bottles of water and Cokes. A friend of Danny's came with a giant crockpot homemade spaghetti (fixed with homegrown tomatoes and herbs, I was assured once or twice) and myriad hot buttered rolls (each one individually wrapped in foil) AND dozens of styrofoam to-go boxes of homemade chicken barbeque--enough to feed an army.

People straggled up and tucked into the food. I chatted with some folks and learned that many of the searchers had been coming out day after day to look for Danny. Some of the volunteers were friends and family, some dedicated customers at the bar Danny's mom has been tending at for two decades, some were law enforcement or otherwise trained searchers, and the rest were just random folks like me who had showed up to see if they could help.

Everyone there knows that looking for Danny is--for lack of a better simile--like looking for a needle in a haystack. Water just moves and moves. It can carry an object hundreds of miles or dash it to pieces in an instant. The search teams are combing Harpeth, where foot after foot of flood waters felled trees and left a silty wash of destruction for miles and miles and miles. This photograph gives some idea of how thickly overgrown the area is and how high the water was.

photo from WKRN

It's simply overwhelming.

What is it about human beings that we need so much to bury or otherwise ritually part with the bodies of our loved ones? When we learn about Antigone in class we learn that Antigone must chose between the law that Creon has handed down and a Higher Law, the one that dictates that she must honor her brother at all costs.

There's a reason we're still reading Antigone 2500 years later, and it's not just because we all want to make it to our sophomore year. We still find ourselves moved by this ineffable Higher Law, moved by some force beyond reason to honor the bodies of our loved ones when they die. For more than two weeks, this instinct has brought a community together to bring a man's body home to his mother.

I was assigned to a search group and I was off, clad in floral wellies and garden gloves, feeling a little silly next to everyone in black rubbers and camo. Of my group of 5 volunteers, two were old enough to be my parents and the other two were old enough to be my grandparents--Richard and (I think) Virginia. They had all been out searching for days. We piled into Richard's big van and headed off for the area we'd been assigned to.

As we wound through the rural roads, I sat back and felt the warm wind blowing my hair back. The abundant rain that caused the flood has also caused an explosion of greenery in middle Tennessee. Between the humid air and the winding roads and the lush, thick forest heaving with new growth, I could hardly distinguish the landscape from the rainforest in Belize. We chatted a little and even cracked some jokes as we cruised, never mentioning the huge storm clouds starting to gather in the sky. That, I thought, is hope. I had a strange feeling like there was no where else in the world I would rather be.

We got a little turned around, and by the time we found the spot we were supposed to start searching, rain drops were starting to splash here and there on the windshield. We pulled up beside a man in a white Cadillac dressed head to toe in hunting camo with a rifle across his front seat. Virginia cranked her window down and dangled a rumpled flier with a photo of Danny out the window at the man. We told him we were searching for a missing man, that we had lots of folks out in the area, that he needed to be careful because we didn't need anyone getting hurt. He grunted something in reply, unimpressed. I don't think he even looked over at the photo. Southerners often refer to people earning a special place in heaven for this or that saintly deed, but I think this fellow has earned himself a special place elsewhere. By then the rain was pounding so we decided to head back to camp.

The next couple of hours brought rain and more rain and my husband. The volunteers who'd come back to camp huddled together under the tents, grazing on what was left of the food and chatting. It was frustrating to feel the minutes ticking by when I had so little time in Nashville to help. But when I saw Danny's mother Sherry surrounded by smiling people, I understood the value of what we were doing. It reminded me of the Jewish tradition of sitting shiva after the death of a loved one. Friends and family come to visit the grieving, bringing food, and if the bereaved initiates, conversation. If nothing else, in those moments under the tent waiting out the storm, we were helping shoulder a tiny shred of Danny's family's grief, just by being there.

The rain cleared eventually and the search teams headed back out. Nick and I had gotten some wires crossed and he had arrived in flip-flops, and after hearing the word cottonmouth Nick opted to stay back and help however he could. I piled back in Richard's van and headed to the banks of the Harpeth where it runs along the vet's cemetery.

We climbed along the banks on top of felled trees and the silt and debris that settled on top. I picked my way gingerly, trying to avoid the thorny vines and barbed wire twisted in the branches and the constant threat that the unstable ground below me could shift at any moment. A tackle box half-buried in grit. Scraps of cloth dangling from the trees. The river running quietly five feet below us, and the water line from the flood reaching five feet or more above our heads. Trying not to think about our instructions to search with our noses as much as our eyes.

We were only there a little while before the dogs arrived and we had to clear out of the area so we wouldn't distract them with our smells. The sun was starting to droop in the sky, and my parents were expecting me back, so I caught a ride back to the Woof Waggin and Nick and I headed back towards Franklin.

My experience searching for Danny Tomlinson was just a glimpse of what his friends and family have been living for days and days and days now. At work today, everyone asked me how it was. I didn't know what to say. What's the right adjective to describe looking for something you want so much to find and at once want so much not to find? What do you call the place where community meets grief?

I settled on I'm glad I got to be there.

The search for Danny continues. You can join the search party every day around 8am at the Woof Waggin (568 Hwy 70) in Pegram. If you can't search, you can bring lunches or fruit or Gatorade or water or ice for the volunteers. Danny's family plans to continue the search as long as necessary. As the days go on, they will need more support than ever, so I really encourage my Nashville readers to consider helping with the search.

Discussion Question:
Did you read Antigone in 9th grade? Did you ever pronounce it Anteegawn?


  1. Any news on whether or not they made any progress on Sunday?

  2. all I know is that the search was still on yesterday.

  3. I don't remember exactly when I read Antigone for the first time - I suppose it was 9th grade. I think I looked up the pronunciation in a dictionary, which is something I learned to do after a very, very embarrassing incident in 2nd grade reading group when I pronounced "Puerto Rico" "Pure-EEE-toe Rice-oh".

    I do find your use of Antigone in this context to be very beautiful and compelling.

  4. I can see the headlines now: Anteegawn heads to Pure-EEE-toe Rice-oh for a much-needed vaycay.

  5. i read antigone in 9th grade with the rest of the oedipus cycle. we said ann-TIG-oh-nee. senior year in french we read an adaptation by jean anouilh. in there we said ahn-tee-GUN (but, you know, with a french accent).

    i feel a bit awkward talking about points of classic greek pronunciation faced with this wall of text about loss, uncertainty and a certain ambivalence about the mission you're performing. frankly, though, i can't relate at all.

    i'll just say i'm glad you got to be there, too.

  6. Yeah, it was kind of a silly discussion question after that entry, but I kind of needed it. Thanks for reading, J-Dogg

  7. My brother Danny was found..September 26, 2010, more than 176 days after he went missing..we found his remains..thank you for this blog..thank you for coming and searching..RIP Sweet brother..
    your loving sister,

  8. Thanks for reading, Brandee. I'm so glad y'all were able to put Danny to rest. <3