Carroll Dale Short

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'House of Breath' Our Only Enduring History

By Dale Short

Those of us who grew up in Alabama can add a third item to the old proverb about inevitability: It's death, taxes, and storms.

My first job out of high school was at the Daily Mountain Eagle, and I had only been working there a couple of weeks when Hurricane Camille devastated Alabama's Gulf Coast. The area was cordoned off to traffic except for relief vehicles, but my editor somehow finagled me a ride in the sleeper cab of an 18-wheeler leaving Jasper that night with emergency supplies.

I remember the driver taking detour after detour around fallen trees. We finally got to the coast a couple of hours before daylight, and State Troopers had us park alongside dozens of other relief trucks at a small fairground.

What struck me most was how dark everything was, and how quiet. We were supposedly in the middle of a small city, but there was not a street light to be seen in any direction, which I knew was not a good omen. There weren't even any sirens to be heard in the distance, presumably because the ambulances had been wrecked along with everything else. The sky of stars seemed as bright as a painting, and at the very edge of hearing there were packs of wild dogs baying in confusion.

At daylight, while workers were unloading the truck, I walked into town with my reporter's notebook and Sears-and-Roebuck 35mm camera and bologna sandwiches, in search of people with storm stories.

What I found instead was a surreal landscape devoid of human beings altogether. Rows of trees a hundred years old had been popped off at the roots leaving stubs like huge teeth--except for one tree at the center that stood untouched, with a fishing trawler sitting squarely in the top of it good as new, as if the tide had gone out and forgotten to come back in.

The whole morning felt that way, like being lost inside one of those picture puzzles for children where you have to circle all the objects that are in the wrong place: a white commode, upright and primed for business, sitting on the median of a highway. A baby bottle, still filled with milk, inside a mailbox. A beautiful square of Oriental carpet in the center of what had formerly been a parking lot.

When noontime came and the truck driver had to head back to Jasper and pick up another load of supplies, I still hadn't interviewed a single storm victim.

It would be years later before I realized what a remarkably painless introduction to the profession it had been, for a kid who considered himself a journalist.

The nature of newspapering is that we most often collide with strangers on either the best or worst days of their lives, without a lot of mundane in-between. An hour or less, and we're out of there, with nothing to show for it but some frames of film and some words on a page. The reporter is back to his or her familiar, everyday life, and the stranger is forever lodged in whatever new situation fate has saddled him/her with, that day.

On a good day, you're amazed that somebody is actually paying you (not a lot, but still) to have so much fun. On a bad day, it's easy to start feeling like a voyeur and a parasite and even more disparaging terms not necessarily appropriate for a family audience.

Wouldn't it make more sense, you ask yourself, to be a social worker instead? Or a nurse, or a policeman, or a fireman, or somebody who knows how to lift a thousand-pound tree that's blocking a road? Somebody who can DO something to actually help people, other than stand there taking notes with, as my father used to say, one's "bare face hanging out"?

A person who has helped me make peace with this contradiction over the years is the East Texas writer William Goyen, whose first novel "The House of Breath" was published in 1950 to critical acclaim but soon afterward went out of print.

The book's title came from Goyen's idea that people who are dead and gone continue to live on among us in the form of a figurative house that's constructed only of the breaths of people they encountered in life: in other words, stories.

At times of loss such as April 27, that residue seems a fairly paltry recompense: some ink, some paper, some breath.

It's a living.

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