In the path taken by Hurricane Charley, the most devastating losses can be the tiny objects that stoke our memories.
By BRADY DENNIS
Published August 23, 2004
[Times photo: Kinfay Moroti]
A Bible stands perched in a tree, opened to the New Testament, about 6 miles north of Punta Gorda.
The images from Charley's destruction seem endless. Street after street, town after town, the storm turned homes and lives into rubble. But there is more to the story than twisted metal and shattered glass.
Those who lost everything know that almost everything can be replaced. Here are tales of things that cannot:
* * *
She loved that picture, remembers the day it was taken, decades ago, in a place off Washington Street in Taunton, Mass.
Two hundred people showed up. The mayor came. The occasion: a 60th wedding anniversary party for her parents, Joseph and Hattie.
"My dad was sitting in a chair, and my mom was standing beside him," Muriel Lundahl remembers. "They had their arms around each other. They were looking at each other, smiling.
"It was such a beautiful picture."
Her parents died more than 25 years ago.
And now the picture is gone, too, ruined by Hurricane Charley's wind and rain, just like her house on Easy Street in Port Charlotte.
Lundahl is 82, a diabetic with heart trouble, and now homeless and living in a shelter. More than anything, she misses that picture.
* * *
Henry Williams was in his 20s when his father gave him the worn, leather wallet.
"He told me it was our history," said Williams, now 49, "told me to always treasure it."
Inside he found old birth certificates. He found pictures of his grandmother, her mother - generations of family faces.
Williams did as his father said. He cherished the wallet.
"I went through it all the time," he said. "I looked at it all the time. It brought back the memories."
He kept it in a bedroom drawer in his small Wauchula home. The hurricane turned everything he owned into a pile of splinters.
"I just fell to my knees," he said. "I said, "Lord, I done lost it all.' It don't seem right." Williams has an 18-year-old son in Mount Dora. He had planned to give him the wallet when the time was right.
* * *
A week before Charley arrived, William Flohrer's sister, Nancy, called him at the room he rented in Port Charlotte. She lay in a Philadelphia hospital, fighting leukemia.
She was in tears.
"Billy, I need you," she told her 44-year-old brother. He is her only sibling, and she needed a bone marrow transplant.
Flohrer is a day laborer, a construction worker with little money, but he had saved $200 to pay for a bus ticket north and food for the trip. Then came Charley.
Told he had to evacuate his building, he rented a room at the Port Charlotte Motel. His savings dwindled. Finally, he ended up in a shelter, broke.
"I'm stranded here," he said. "I'm sitting here with my hands tied. What else can I do?"
He doesn't care about the money. But he fears that because of Charley, he might have lost his chance to save his sister's life.
"I'm just hoping and praying," he said, "that she can hold on until I get up there."
* * *
Before the storm, he used to swagger down the halls of Punta Gorda Middle School in a different jersey almost every day.
Daniel Johnson had so many jerseys from so many teams: Orlando Magic, Miami Heat, Dallas Cowboys, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Jacksonville Jaguars and on and on. He'd been collecting them for years.
He's 13, a seventh-grader who plays football and plans to try out for basketball.
Before Charley wrecked the home he shares with his parents and older brother, he rescued an Atlanta Hawks jersey and an L.A. Lakers jersey.
But the others are gone.
Still, the thought of one lost jersey plagues him. "Man, I should have grabbed that one," he says when it drifts into this thoughts.
It was the Miami Dolphins jersey of running back Ricky Williams. His favorite.
When he has a home again, Daniel vows, he'll replace that one first.
* * *
Stella Pierce, 41, bought the brown stuffed bear more than a decade ago at a yard sale in Tampa. She paid $2.
It was big and heavy and lovable. She lugged it everywhere over the years, mostly because it reminded her of her boyfriend, Robert Forbes, who's big and heavy and lovable, too.
When Forbes was away doing long hours of concrete work, the bear stayed in the bed with her.
"She said, "When you be off working and I get lonely, I just hug that big ol' bear, and there you is,"' said Forbes, 50. "I laughed till I cried. I loved that bear." The hurricane wiped out their home in Arcadia, and the bear was ruined by water.
Now, when he is away, she will have to sleep alone.
* * *
As the hurricane ripped his mobile home near Arcadia apart, piece by piece, John Trail was busy trying to save his family.
Only later did he think about the Bible, the one tucked into a shoe box in the back bedroom. It had been in his family for generations - "100 years, maybe," he said - passed down to relatives in Kentucky, West Virginia and Georgia.
His mother, a Cherokee Indian who married a fiery Pentecostal preacher, gave it to him before she died years ago.
He loved the Bible, but loved even more what it held. Pressed between the pages of Scripture were letters his mother had written to him.
"You know how mothers are," said Trail, 49, "they tell you they miss you and all that."
It wasn't so much what she wrote that mattered, but rather that he could unfold those old letters and see her words and know that her hand had been there once.
The storm swept away the Bible, and with it, one of the last pieces of her he owned.
"When you lose that," he said, "you don't got nothing." He had planned to give the Bible to his grandson one day. Now he's just trying to get enough gas to get to Georgia, where he can start over.
* * *
Dianne Brewer, 62, kept the small, purple perfume bottles on the dresser inside her Wauchula apartment.
They had belonged to her grandmother, Elma, who died in the 1970s at age 89. She was a good-hearted woman who made a fine chocolate cake, a nurse who tended to Brewer during a childhood bout with rheumatic fever.
The bottles held nothing. And yet, everything.
"You could still smell the lavender she had in it. I never could get over that," Brewer said. "When I smell it, I always think of my grandmother."
By the time the hurricane passed, Brewer's roof had caved in. And what it didn't ruin, the water did. She has nothing.
It's not so much the bottles she misses but the scent they held.
There in her bedroom, all she had to do was open the cap, and her grandmother came alive again.
When she smelled that smell, her thoughts would drift back to long-past days in Decatur, Ga. She could hear Elma playing an upright piano and singing her favorite gospel song, Old Rugged Cross.