The play and movie “Fiddler on the Roof” centered on a character named Tevye, a milkman who delivered from his cart in a tiny Russian village
90 years ago. In a memorable scene, his eyes swell with tears as one of his three daughters tells him she will be moving far away.
“Papa,” she says, “God knows when we shall see each other again.”
Tevye's measured response is, “Then, we will leave it in His hands.”
Mississippi and Louisiana families experienced a lot of parting as Hurricane Katrina approached. There were those who remained in the danger zones – to report to work as police, firefighters or in other “got-to-be-there” jobs. There were others – the vulnerable, the hard-headed, the poor – who remained, too.
From those initial evacuations and through the days and days and days that have followed, there was been a lack of contact – a loss of communication.
There have been some reunions, many of them joyful. Others have “gotten word” somehow and are thriving on encouraging reports. Still others have heard news of a different sort, and are heartbroken.
Unlike rural Russia on the cusp of the Bolshevik Revolution, we are a people accustomed to staying in touch, to knowing where our friends and family are, to getting our questions answered immediately.
Our “cells,” are always in our pockets to provide a link to the people we recognize the second they say, “Hey.”
“Network busy.” “Call failed.” Those messages have wracked our nerves.
They compounded the misery of the bluster and blow of Katrina. If author Stephen Crane were around today, he would find the practice of naming storms strange at best. The practice was begun about 70 years ago to keep meteorologists from having to use dates when they talked about the periodic tropical monsters that plague us. Naming has proved effective shorthand, but it also personifies bad weather. It implyies a tempest cares. That's what would bother Crane.
At one time one of his novels, “The Red Badge of Courage,” was required reading for most all high school students learning about the Civil War.
Crane was born five years after that war ended, but veterans couldn't believe Crane had not experienced the trenches, so vivid and so accurate
were his descriptions of the despair soldiers often felt. But Crane had many other works, including “The Open Boat,” a short story about people who were shipwrecked and in an overfull dinghy they were rowing toward shore.
“None of them knew the color of the sky,” is the most quoted line from that work. It meant the men in the boat dared not look up. They had to stare out and down at the waves, knowing any one of them could wash in, sending them to the wretched death already met by others who'd been aboard their ship.
All the while the men in the open boat were struggling toward the shore, they could see lights, then people. But currents and the tide keep them
apart from the rest of humanity. They could curse the sea, but it becomes more and more clear that the ocean doesn't bear them malice – it doesn't even recognize they exist.
Crane wouldn't agree with headline writers who described Katrina's “angry” winds. The storm had no anger. It was a storm. It didn't sense whether an empty beach or homes and hotels were in its path. It was nature, raw nature – and completely impersonal.
“There is no fighting the sea; it cannot be conquered,” is what commentator Karen Bernardo wrote in an analysis of “The Open Boat.” “But one can learn to bob along its surface, and aid to the best of one's ability those fellow human beings who are also caught in the grip of nature's immense indifference.”
So, while man can care, nature can't.
We're not all like Tevye, whose faith led him to believe “God knows” is more than a casual saying. When we want to know, we want to know. The silence of an unanswered phone or a recorded message makes our stomachs churn.
Our impatience, our demand for accountability is lost if directed toward the winds and the tides.
Only if we direct this energy to causes where it can make a difference is it of any use to us, or to anyone else.
Katrina could not have cared less. Each of us must care more. And we must do it for as long as we can.
Charlie Mitchell is executive editor of The Vicksburg Post. Write to him at P.O. Box 821668, Vicksburg, MS 39182, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org