— Framed by a blood-red sky, the songbird sat on a broken tree, trilling at the dawn. It flapped its wings above a half-smashed car that seemed to float on a sea of rubble. The worst tornado in 60 years had punched through its home, shattering nearly everything for 13 miles, but the robin didn't seem to notice. It was looking up, not down.
The day’s first sunbeams lit the car’s interior, casting a halo on a picture of the Virgin Mary leaning against the dashboard. Her face was turned toward the window, looking out at what was left of 8,000 homes.
That songbird in Joplin, Mo., was a beautiful reminder of the promise of spring — rebirth, the victory of life over death. We've had so many weather disasters in this century that there is little time to linger or appreciate that promise, but it's always there, rising from the rubble.
$100 for a $7 salad
A walk through Kyle Maddy’s house, not far from the trilling robin, showed me that. The tornado took everything there except a water-stained wedding dress. Two months later, Kyle’s fiancee, Kelsi Gulliford, finally had a place to wear it — thanks to diners at the restaurant where Kyle worked.
His boss, Donnie Bennett, explained: “Some people would come in and buy a $7 salad and leave $100.”
Kyle had been living in the basement of his brother’s house with four dogs, two cats and another couple. His wedding plans were on hold until his boss offered to cater the affair for free.
Donnie Bennett knows what it's like to marry in the midst of great tragedy. He met his wife, Karuleen, after insurgents in Iraq attacked her ride home from work. They killed everyone in the van except Karuleen, who had been shopping for bread. When she got home, she found a note on her front door.
Karuleen's eyes glaze at the memory. “The note said: ‘If you come back to work for the American Army, you’re going to get killed. Not just you, but all your family, too.’ ”
Karuleen was selling sunglasses at a store that served U.S. soldiers. It fell to Capt. Donnie Bennett to keep her safe. His Army outpost, Camp Cuervo, was six miles south of Sadr City, one of the poorest and toughest neighborhoods in Baghdad. He persuaded the Army to open a coffee shop on base and let Karuleen run it.
The job came with a protected place to stay. “I only got to see my mother once a month,” Karuleen said. But Donnie looked after her family, so she decided to learn English. The first words she learned were “I love you.”
A year later they married in Jordan. Donnie had served overseas for a decade, fighting in Kosovo and Baghdad. After his father died, he decided to return home to be closer to his mother. He retired from the Army and took his bride to the safety of America’s heartland.
They restored an old building and soon filled a fading block of Joplin’s Main Street with laughter and good food. To honor a friend who had been forced from the road in Iraq and shot in the back, the named their new restaurant “Caldone’s”.
Captain Bennett won a Bronze Star in Baghdad for “continuous and dangerous hardship,” but what happened when the tornadoes struck his hometown was worse than any devastation of war he’d seen. A dozen houses exploded around their home, but the Bennetts’ still stood; their business, too.
Karuleen and Donnie survived because they’d decided to take their two boys, Kaden and Kolton, on the family's first vacation just two days before the storm hit. They rushed home to help their neighbors.
It was the nightmare of Baghdad again. “When you see death on a scale that’s typically not normal,” Donnie said, “your priorities change in life.”
That’s why they decided to rebuild their community, one neighbor at a time. Donnie hopped in the car and found Tina Lingard standing staring in disbelief. Her weight-loss clinic was leveled.
“He drove up in his truck,” Tina recalled, “pulled up as far as he could to the building and said, ‘What can I do?’ ”
The 70-year-old needed to quickly reopen her clinic so she could support two daughters whose jobs had been blown away. As a new site, Donnie gave her an office above his restaurant — for free. “To me,” Tina said, “he had a halo hanging around his head.”
The Bennetts figured their business was spared to shelter those who needed it. Caldone’s became a place for people whose smiles no longer touched their eyes. They came for rest and a kind word; they came to listen to live music; they came to eat fine food — for free.
And they left $4,000 to help Kyle and two other employees who had lost much more. “See those coins down there?” Donnie asked, pointing to the restaurant’s wooden floor. Scattered there was the change he had in his pocket when he left Iraq.
Donnie’s 4-year-old son, Kaden, bent to pick up a coin. “Stuck,” he said, looking up at his dad.
“I glued them to the floor,” Donnie explained, to remind his family of their good fortune. Someday the Bennetts will tell their two boys about this incredible saga. What will they say if the kids ask, “Are you sad that all this happened, or happy to have been spared?”
“Not saddened or lucky,” Donnie will tell them. “I feel blessed.”
Here comes the bride
Blessed like the wedding dress that survived the tornado.
Kyle Maddy beamed as his bride approached wearing it. Two little dots, water spots, practically invisible, were all that remained to remind them of that terrible night. “It’s great to see her wearing it,” Kyle said.
He couldn't stop grinning. He turned to gaze at his neighbors, gathered under a quiet sky to watch the wedding. “Couldn’t be happier,” Kyle told them, leaning down to kiss Kelsi.
Lee Ann Langen took their hands and raised them above their heads. “Ladies and gentlemen, the loving couple, Mr. and Mrs. Kyle Maddy!”
What followed was a full-throated roar. On Kyle and Kelsi's big day, the city had something it needed as badly as rebuilding — a cry not of pain, but of joy.
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