To visit Martin's writing website, press here.

October 8, 2009

last on mud, flood and blood

People often say, “he’s got those deaths on his conscience,” but rarely, “I’ve got those deaths on my conscience.” All the people who could have done something differently in the past to avoid the avoidable part of the recent disaster (see 2009 Messina floods and mudslides on Wikipedia) have all publicly denied any responsibility. But what do they think in private? When they’re alone with their consciences, do they say: those people died because I didn’t do my job, or I diverted the funds to other projects that might get me more votes, or I drew up a regional building plan to favor my rich friends? I doubt that the human soul can take such honesty. We rationalize the truth away. And then feel guilty about slavery and the Spanish Inquisition.

My wife, a city employee, has been interviewing the survivors. She met a young couple who were to be married next week. They had all the preparations made and their house was full of wedding gifts still in their boxes. All gone: the house they saved up years to buy, the gifts, their wedding plans. They told her, “we won’t get married now.” “You mean it’s postponed.” “No, we won’t ever get married. We have nothing left but our lives.”

The United States of America is a country based on the idea of ‘starting over’. Sometimes it seems like that’s all people do, job to job, spouse to spouse, church to church. How many do you know who’ve spent their whole lives in one house? I lived in 24 houses in 24 years. In these Sicilian villages the houses go back to the 1300’s, often in the same family. Now you can see people crying, “My grandfather was born in that house and his before him. I lived there my whole life.” “What house? There is no house.” “What life? There is no life.”

There’s also a disturbing element of racism in the reactions to this disaster. Initially, the cause according to most journalists and politicians was the illegal building, as if the owners had raised cardboard houses and the big bad wolf had blown them down, as if the residents themselves were at fault. ‘Serves ‘em right.’

Totally false and evil, but the denials didn’t make the evening news. Then there was no day of mourning, no state funerals for the victims, no moment of silence at the soccer matches. Then those slights were corrected, but that didn’t make the news either. It seems to us like North Italians, in general, couldn’t care less (most donations are coming in from Messina itself, the poor helping the poor), and the pundits blame the victims.

Sicily, in case you don’t have a map in your head, is about two miles from the Italian continent at the Straits of Messina where I live. That’s a long distance sometimes. They talk of building a bridge, but they’d rather cut the mooring line, hoping Sicily will just float away. Except for vacations. We’re in the Deep South, nearer Africa than Europe, remember Hurricane Katrina? Didn't it seem like if New Orleans had been in Haiti many people would have been relieved? "Hey, not my problem."

An explosion and a river of mud and boulders 15 feet high charging downhill through the little streets. Try to imagine being on the ground floor with mud smashing in through windows and doors like they were paper, filling the room to the ceiling in a second. Even in the pitch dark, even in the bizarre confusion of the event, you’d have time to think ‘this is it.’ On the first floors people were swept off the balconies, but those who stayed inside had mud and water up to their waists. So they had the same ‘this is it’ feeling, but it wasn’t it for them, this time. And on the second floor after the rain bomb went off, then listening to the screams of the injured and dying into the night gradually fade, unable to help one’s neighbors because going out meant death. One guy, an official in the Navy, Simone Neri, did go outside, pulled eight people out of the mud and then was swept away himself. We/I would have done what he did, right? Right? And I wouldn’t be here writing about it.

Happy trials, Martin

Mutt: So baseball season’s ended.
Jeff: It’s about time.
Mutt: Hey, don’t knock the poet’s sport.
Jeff: Baseball’s like guests.
Mutt: How so?
Jeff: You’re glad when they come, glad when they leave.
Mutt: Yeah, the spikes were tearing up my fancy floor.
Jeff: And all that spitting in the bedroom.
Mutt: But you know they’ll be back, like a migrating herd.
Jeff: And we’ll be waiting with food and drink. Seeya next year, boys.