The story of Julie Love-Templeton, a part-time reality contestant, former beauty queen and full-time trial attorney, wife and mother.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Local Politics......

Dear City of Tuscaloosa: Why Am I Paying Someone Else’s Bill?

The actress Mary Astor said, “Once you start asking questions, innocence is gone.” After recently daring to question local politics I have decided that this observation has merit. The question that robbed me of my political naïveté’ so to speak was “why?” I wanted an opportunity to ask Mayor Walt Maddox this most basic of questions and receive answers in response; to, if I may be so bold, engage in a dialogue.

Much like the great and powerful Oz, Mayor Maddox is difficult to reach. Gone with our former mayor, the beloved Al Dupont, are the days of the open door policy at city hall. While Mayor Maddox doesn’t hide behind a curtain pulling levers, he is carefully situated behind multiple locked doors, each requiring security badge clearance for admission and further buffered by a wall of security guards. To my knowledge, Nick Saban, one of the most sought after men in Tuscaloosa travels with no security guards- yet our mayor’s comings and goings about town are treated like those of POTUS. The closest thing to one-on-one access with Mayor Maddox is via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. I grew frustrated that the only access I had to information, other than social media, was one-sided statements and video sound bites he would release from behind the castle walls. Desperate for real information I went so far as to spend two days of my life exploring his most recently advertised creation which I like to call the portal of transparency. (I used the word “transparency” because if I had a nickel for every time he has dropped the word I would be sitting on a beach somewhere instead of blogging to you.) While I enjoyed the colorful bar graphs and pie charts in the end I found the portal to be a big old gateway to nothing. The electronic equivalent of word vomit it makes lots of noise but provides no real information. Council meetings are likewise ineffective. You are allowed a brief time at the podium, carefully monitored by a large video stopwatch projected onto the wall, during which time you may express your opinion on a matter. There is no question and answer portion and certainly no debating positions.

But, I suppose my breaking point came when I viewed a tweet of a “mayor’s night out” event which was represented as an opportunity for his constituents to meet the mayor and discuss issues. There was a photograph taken at a local brewery as the mayor played some sort of video game…Mario Cart I think. And so I asked the mayor, via Twitter, when would he hold a substantive question and answer session for citizens to attend. In reply, he insisted that craft beer and video games was in fact the citizens’ opportunity to talk to their mayor. Ignoring the ridiculousness of that statement, I again asked when, if ever, he might hold a real forum. This prompted him to invite me to schedule a private meeting at his office. I want to know why we are still refusing to charge impact fees on new developments. That decision impacted all of Tuscaloosa, so shouldn’t the rest of the gang have an opportunity to weigh in? It was soon thereafter that the mayor blocked me from all of his social media accounts. Now I don’t consider myself a sensitive person but I’m not sure how I feel about being blocked by an elected official. Was it something I said? Perhaps it was something he didn’t want to say.

I have researched the limited information available regarding the death of impact fees which I will share with you now. Any omissions were an oversight. Perhaps you, my friends and neighbors, will have an answer for me….I hope so.

In May 2011, the Tuscaloosa Forward Task Force was created by executive order of Mayor Maddox and citizens throughout the community were appointed to serve. The goal was for Tuscaloosa to re-build better and stronger than it had been. We all drank the Kool-Aid so to speak and believed that everyone wanted to do what was best for Tuscaloosa.  

In July 2013, Mayor Maddox issued an executive order creating the “Student Rental Housing Task Force” who in turn worked tirelessly and in October 2013, presented a comprehensive report to the mayor and city council regarding the rebuilding of student housing after April 27, 2011.

In November 2013, The Tuscaloosa News reported that the Student Rental Housing Task Force’s nine preliminary recommendations were discussed by the mayor and city council. One of the recommendations presented in that report was that the city review the utilization of impact fees to offset the related costs of upgrades, ongoing maintenance and improvements to the infrastructure system. Impact fees are utilized by local governments to assist in the funding of infrastructure or public services on new developments. These fees are designed to offset the demand new developments place on the existing infrastructure. Impact fees are not a new concept. One study estimates that approximately 60% of all cities with over 25,000 residents along with 40% of metropolitan counties use these sorts of impact fees on new developments. This recommendation was not addressed.

On February 5, 2015, at the request of Mayor Maddox, the Student Rental Housing Task Force was re-convened to review its prior recommendations. The task force stood behind its recommendations but took this opportunity to again encourage that the possibility of impact fees be addressed sooner rather than later.

But an olive branch of sorts was extended by the city when in April 2015 they voted to abolish their policy of reimbursing the water line extension costs for new developments within the city limits. If you have ever had a discussion with the City of Tuscaloosa on how, per their calculations, a water line located on their side of a property line is your responsibility to repair, you are probably shaking your head at this bombshell. Let it sink in for a moment, we, the taxpayers, were paying the costs associated with new developments water lines. The removal of this little perk was represented, at least by The Tuscaloosa News on June 12, 2015, as the city’s first step in adopting impact fees. I must respectfully disagree. No longer requiring your taxpayers to foot the bill for new developments is not imposing an impact fee on the developer for the strain the new development has placed on public utilities, it is simply placing a cost where it belonged in the first place.

The mayor, who has remained opposed to impact fees said, “I’ve been very reluctant on this issue. I want to make sure that whatever we’re doing, we’re not taxing the tax. I think slower is better, and I will certainly bend to the will of the council.” (Emphasis added.) His opinion was supported by Jim Page, CEO of The West Alabama Chamber of Commerce. There has been a great deal of attention paid to the influence the chamber seems to hold with the mayor which came to light when the city was working on revising its MX zoning ordinances. It appears that the mayor created yet another task force, this one called The Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama’s Business Recovery Task Force, which met privately with the mayor and made recommendations that were not released to the public.  But that task force is information for another day.

The Tuscaloosa City Council’s Administration and Policy Committee paid water and wastewater consulting firm Raftelis Financial $49,500.00 to help develop impact fee structures for new developments in Tuscaloosa. Raftelis project manager Tony Hairston estimated that the city’s then current rate of development could yield an additional 1 million dollars per year in impact fees. Impact fees for growth that has legitimately impacted the community that we, the taxpayers, wouldn’t have to foot the bill for.

By March 1, 2016, The Tuscaloosa News reported that instead of following through with impact fees that Tuscaloosa had instead opted to be the largest city in Alabama without them. Jimmy Junkin, then director of the Water and Sewer Board gave a short presentation to the council prior to their vote and said, “Current funding for growth-related capital projects is very limited. We’re really strapped.” Credited heavily with the council’s decision was the strong position of the mayor that the Student Housing Rental Task Force had only recommended impact fees on mega-complexes not impact fees on all new developments as the council was now proposing. “I believe that, quite frankly, this is nothing more than a back door tax” said the mayor. And per the article, “His opinion led the council’s public projects committee to let the proposed adoption of impact fees die for lack of action.”

So where does that leave us? In April 2015 the mayor said he would bend to the will of the council in regards to impact fees yet by March 2016 he shut down not only the of impact fees on mega-complexes but impact fees on any new developments. On March 6, 2016, WBRC quoted Mayor Maddox as saying that the city is, “well-positioned” to handle future infrastructure needs, citing $250 million in local infrastructure projects planned for Tuscaloosa over the next decade. I guess Mr. Junkin missed that memo.

On January 25, 2017, The Tuscaloosa News brought us news of one of many recent infrastructure breakdowns and proof, in my opinion, that karma indeed exists. Not surprisingly there was no press release from the mayor regarding the massive sinkhole that opened up near The Hilliard Fletcher Wastewater Treatment Plant but there was a great quote from a civil engineer for the city who appropriately recognized, “We’ve got a problem.” Well said sir. A 60-inch sewer line failed, creating a sinkhole large enough to house four sport utility vehicles. That definitely qualifies as a problem. But fear not citizens, the two contracts necessary for repair will only cost $800,000.00 and per the news “Each contract is a not-to-exceed amount, meaning likely taxpayers won’t be on the hook for more.” Well that’s a relief! City officials voted to shift the funds out of the Water and Sewer Fund’s Reserve for Future Improvement….I guess that means we are a little less “well-equipped” to handle future infrastructure needs? I for one think that $1 million dollars per year in impact fees would have come in handy during this little catastrophe but as you might imagine….the mayor could not be reached for comment.


Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Just My Opinion

November 9, 2016

All morning I have had this horrible and hopeless feeling that I can’t seem to shake. I have accepted that Roe v. Wade will very soon be a memory and that an America full of women did this to themselves. And while it might not be the popular line of thinking, any lawyer worth their salt always looks to cause and effect. What has yesterday’s choice opened the door for in the future?

For example, do we females still need to vote? After all, we have daddies and husbands and brothers that could easily make those decisions for us. We sure don’t need careers right? I mean other then birthing babies and cooking dinner. Heck, we can finally get out of jury duty too you know that right didn’t come about until the 1960s. (My mom seated Talladega County’s first female juror.) And logically, since our bodies are no longer our own I guess we can go back to being classified as chattel and let our daddies trade us off for cows and goats.

Laugh if you want at my doom and gloom, or just consider them the ranting of a female attorney who as an advocate for women’s rights has now found her job on the endangered species list. I guess I’ll go home now and take a nap…after all I don’t have any work to do at this point. But before I drift off I’ll put a pot roast in the oven and I’ll say my prayers. I’ll pray to my God, whom I hope isn’t the one getting credit for the great state of our country today, the following:

That you don’t have a son old enough to be sent to war when your “Commander in Chief” gets his feeling hurt because some other country’s leader disagrees with him;

That you don’t have a daughter that is the victim of a rape and finds she is pregnant with a daily reminder of the trauma she suffered;

That you have a strong sense of self-worth that enables you to withstand the misogynistic treatment you have now not only condoned but have ratified as acceptable;

That you are rich enough to avoid feeling the squeeze that those of us in the middle class endure as the rich continue to get richer;

That you remember today, and for the next four years, that God might have spoken and you might be getting what you prayed for…but that’s not always a good thing.

God Bless America.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Thank God for Health Insurance!

Have you ever watched the movie Miss Congeniality? Sandra Bullock, plays a frumpy FBI agent who goes undercover posing as a beauty pageant contestant named Gracie-Lou Freebush. In one scene she has been made over by her fabulous pageant coach and emerges from an airplane hanger as all of her fellow agents stand and gawk. She’s in a tight little dress, hair blowing, flawless makeup…..and then she trips and stumbles forward. For those of you who might have missed the movie I have attached the clip.

            After watching that scene I called my friend and pageant coach Dohn and told him that I suspected we were being followed. A few minutes later Sandy B. charged onto stage at the fictitious Miss United States Pageant wearing a Statute of Liberty costume and fell again. 


            This time I called Dohn back and said I was positive we were being followed.

            Obviously the comedic genius of Miss Congeniality was that a clumsy, tomboy, FBI agent successfully infiltrated the world of tall, poised, accomplished and overall perfect beauty queens and realized in the process that it was really hard work! It hit close to home for me because in 2005, I was the Gracie-Lou Freebush of the Mrs. America Organization.  But that is another story for another day…..back to my clumsiness. I would like to share with you a few of my greatest hits…pun intended.

 I was back stage at the Mrs. World Pageant in Amby Valley, India, waiting for my cue to join the “Parade of Nations” on stage. My Statute of Liberty gown, chosen to represent the strength of the women of our country, was lovingly created, and hand beaded, by New York designer, and TV personality, Rob Younkers. That too is a story for another time.

So, I waited nervously backstage, teetering on my 4-inch lucite, Barbie Doll heels while the back stage attendants pinned my “Mrs. America” banner to the front of my gown. Suddenly, one of the contestants, who having made clear early on that she felt no love for me or my country, breezed past and gave me a good solid push at the small of my back. Like a giant redwood this 6’3 Statute of Liberty crashed face first onto the floor. The back stage attendants, both petite ladies, managed to grab an arm each and pull me back up to a standing position just in time to stagger out onto the stage. I wish that I could blame all of my falls on chain smoking, international, glamazon, haters. But the sad truth of the matter is that all of my clothing should be made of bubble wrap as I am quite possibly the most accident prone person on earth.

One night, while in college, I was at a friend’s house getting ready to go out when she asked me to position her full-length mirror between the two of us. As I did so it lightly grazed over the top of my right leg. I felt no pain but watched the area above my knee open up as if it had been unzipped. That night, I received five stitches and large scar compliments of Dr. Poesy at DCH hospital and no longer believed you had to break a mirror to get seven years of bad luck.  In Dr. Poesy's defense, my friend said that I was loopy (no doubt from the shot they gave me upon arrival) and kept telling him that he looked just like Richard Dreyfus and that we should get married. Apparently he stitched me up in record breaking time and fled the room.

But over the years gravity seems to have been the hardest on me. I could not tell you the number of times I have fallen over while simply walking. Once on the way to a football game I was walking and talking to a friend when suddenly I face-planted into the parking lot. I have fallen in bathrooms more times than I would care to remember; one spill left me with a black eye and another with a head contusion. I have fallen out of doors, out of cars, off of porches and stages. No surface is safe.

 In 2011, I was invited to co-host the Mrs. America Preliminary Competition. I strolled onto the stage and immediately slipped on nothing. Fortunately I did not fall but instead caught myself in what looked like a surfer’s squat with both arms extended from my sides to balance myself. It was not the most flattering of poses to strike in yet another beautiful, designer gown. I am however beginning to understand why I have never been chosen as a designer’s muse…wait and also why I have never been invited back to emcee at Mrs. America. Speaking of which, the last time I was at the pageant, this time in Las Vegas, I almost fell face first off the stage as I reached down to hug someone and realized too late that I had misjudged the heaviness of my beaded gown. Gravity…..

In 2012, on the first run of the first day of vacation in Big Sky, Montana I managed to fall uphill, a feat I still cannot explain. In the process I broke my fibula and sprained my meniscus. There were multiple falls that followed that week due in part to the leg brace/snow/ice combination as well as the White Russian’s I consumed while watching everyone else ski.

In February, while walking into the courthouse, I was attacked by what appeared to be an innocent file cart. It snapped shut on my leg like a bear trap and again I found myself making a face-first descent toward the sidewalk. I later requested a copy of the surveillance video in hopes of winning big on America’s Funniest Home Videos but was denied. Fortunately, I suppose, one knee bore the brunt of the fall and although it saved my face, my knee bled profusely throughout that day. Try to imagine the confidence my sweet client must have felt as her attorney sat and picked gravel out of her tights. (We won by the way.) Four months later I still have that bruise on my knee because apparently the mark of the clumsy fades on its own timeline.

This brings us to last night. I wish I could tell you that my injury was the result of a glamorous fall that took place as I stepped out of my late grandmother’s beautiful claw-footed bathtub and into a vintage, 1950’s pin-up style, kitten-heeled, fur-topped, boudoir slipper…… but I think you know better. I stepped out of the tub without incident and was merely drying myself off when the towel brushed past a mole (this mole being a recent arrival that I was convinced was, in addition to being sneaky, cancerous) on my right side and ripped the top half of it away from my body. I ran a graceless lap around the upstairs of my house, screaming bloody murder and slinging bathwater everywhere as my dislodged mole flapped in the wind and left its own little trail of blood.  Luckily, Shawn didn’t slip when he came upstairs to render first aid.

This morning I went to see Dr. Bobo who, over the years, has patiently tolerated many of my self-diagnosed medical emergencies. Most recently he assured me that the pain in my forearms was not because I had bone cancer but most likely carpal tunnel. And, the deep bruise that still remains on my knee from that fall in February is not a “clear indication” that I suffer from leukemia, regardless of what Prevention magazine says. And today I learned that a mole being sneaky does not- in and of itself- make it more likely to be cancerous.

Provided I don’t break something between now and then I shall see the good doctor again next Friday to have my stitches removed. The pathologist’s report should be back by then and we will see which one of us was correct regarding the sneaky mole theory. 

Wednesday, April 6, 2016



Journal Entry January 5, 2016:

What will I do with my new year? Will I fill the pages of the brand new journal I start every January 1 with a list of new resolutions only to later add it to the stack of old journals with unfulfilled resolutions from years past. NOT THIS YEAR! I will no longer participate in the tradition of preserving in writing a list of my year’s upcoming failures. But, because I am nostalgic I will share with you, my four faithful readers, a list of a few repeat offenders from new years past.

I resolve to work out more, eat less and return to my Mrs. America fighting weight.

NAH! I am old. In all honesty I never imagined I would live to be this old. I wrote my first Last Will and Testament at age nine. My parents thought my fixation on my own demise made me a tad morbid but I just thought myself prepared. I gave away my top bunk, my pet rabbit, my collection of Little People toys and my paper plate Santa Claus with the cotton beard.  Having far outlived my own perceived life expectancy I feel I have earned the right to be lazy, fat and well fed.

I resolve to find a job that I enjoy.

I have always said that if I ever paid of my student loan debt that I would be done with the practice of law. Be careful what you wish for! I recently paid off my student loan debt and true to my threat; I went in search of greener grass on which to work. I began to reflect on the things that made me happy hoping to parlay one of those interests into a new career.

I found that I like to watch marathon episodes of Swamp People on the History Channel. I approached Troy Landry at a fan event and discussed with him my idea of his newest cast member being a former pageant contestant in high heels. He was still laughing as I stomped out of the front door of the sporting goods store.

I also like to drink wine. It appears that there are jobs ordering wine, selling wine, pouring wine, writing about wine and even stocking wine; however, I can’t seem to find anyone who wants to give me a job drinking the wine.

And so, running out of ideas, I went to Barnes and Noble and bought one of those personality assessment tests that is guaranteed to guide your career choices. I answered page after page of questions based on my educational background, dominant personality traits and transferable skills. Then I scored my test and turned to the last page for results. I’m not sure what I expected the results to show but it appears that I am qualified for a career as an over-the-road truck driver, a toll booth operator or some other form of solitary employment that has minimal reliance on mathematical ability. A lawyer it is!

I resolve to take more time for myself.
I don’t even understand what the hell that actually means. Who else would I take time for if I was taking time for someone and what do I do with the time once I take it? So far all of the “me” time I have taken has amounted to nothing more than me soaking in a bath tub, drinking wine and taking a stupid personality test that told me I have ZERO marketable skills. If this is what people mean by self-reflection I think I’ll pass.

 I resolve to write in my journal every day.

Judging from this my first entry for the New Year which was not written until the 5th of January I think I can safely say that that ship has sailed. Hey! Maybe this year I will resolve to blog more than…….

Monday, September 21, 2015

A year without Danny Love-Templeton


          Danny Love-Templeton went home to be with the Lord on September 22, 2014. At the time of her death she was approximately 15 years old.
            A loyal companion to Huel M. Love until his death in February 2004, Danny then assumed the care of his widow Betty. The two ladies loved spending time together and became close friends as for the next 7 years they traveled the interstate between Talladega and Tuscaloosa. In 2011, Betty and Danny permanently relocated to an address at Springbrook Circle in Tuscaloosa, Alabama where they remained until Betty passed away in January 2012. Realizing she still had members of the Love family to care for and that retirement was out of the question Danny moved across town to the Templeton home.
            Although never a barker (a lady never barks), Danny was still quite chatty and immediately made friends in her new neighborhood. She enjoyed visiting with her next door neighbors Ms. Shelby and Mr. and Mrs. Thompson and occasionally sharing a little back fence banter with Mr. and Mrs. Duckworth. Her days were spent digging holes in Shawn’s mulch beds and mapping out elaborate plans to help Julie catch raccoons. Always a fan of a good joke, Danny loved to rush to the front yard and play dead whenever Ms. Bryant would pass by walking her dog.
            She began to gray and her arthritis became a problem but Danny wore those badges with pride not once asking Dr. Avertte’s office to apply color. Like most women of the South, Ms. Danny never revealed her true age or weight, and took both secrets with her to the grave.
            A loyal friend, companion, daughter, sister and coon hunting buddy Danny Love-Templeton will be greatly missed.

Monday, July 20, 2015


            I have never been considered a hopeless romantic.  I am anchored firmly to this Earth by logic and a healthy-sized dose of cynicism. However, there are a few special people, places and events from my life that are too hallowed to dwell here in the real world. And so, a long time ago, I placed them on a pedestal high above the realities of day to day life. Over the years, when overwhelmed by my own sensibility, I would retreat to my secret place, slip on rose-colored glasses and bask in the glow of optimism until I again felt safe enough to face the world.
            My late father Huel, provided the foundation of my sanctuary. He began the practice of law in 1949 and in over fifty years of practice never once wavered in his career choice. He once told me that even as a small child he knew his destiny. At that time, lawyers were some of the most respected members of the community and my father always intended to join their ranks. Having grown up watching “Lawyer Love,” as most of the residents in our small town called him, I adopted a somewhat idealized view of being a lawyer and it did not take long for me to decide that I wanted to be just like him.
On the morning of February 16, 2004, my father, then eighty-two years old, shuffled down to the Talladega County Courthouse just as he had on thousands of occasions prior. He tried and won the two cases he had set on that day’s docket. Afterward, he went home for lunch and passed away.
Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, joins my father as one of my sacred totems.  Most of us remember reading Mockingbird in our middle school English class and afterward being forced to summarize its “impact” to a less than enthused group of peers, via book report or cardboard diorama. For others, the story was heard for the first time when Hollywood, via the great screen writer Horton Foote and actor Gregory Peck, brought the novel and Atticus Finch to life.
In a strange manner of coincidence, the very day my father passed I was participating in a matinee performance of To Kill A Mockingbird with Theatre Tuscaloosa. To my knowledge he had never read the novel. Likewise, he had never seen the play but had been excited to reserve seats to see me perform the following weekend. I still have his unused tickets.
Perhaps my lifelong attraction to Mockingbird is that, like many others, I felt that I knew Atticus Finch. I saw him every day that my father practiced law. Men like my father and Ms. Lee’s father, for whom many speculated Atticus was modeled, represented a generation of lawyer that loved his profession. Their careers were not motivated by salary, but a desire to serve the community.
Like Atticus Finch my father was often paid in non-conventional manners. Old rusted trucks and the occasional muscle car were common currency. I remember summer meals that featured snap peas, corn on the cob and fried okra that various clients had submitted in payment and thanks. Baskets of scuppernongs, figs and homemade
 Crabapple jelly often appeared on our porch without a copy of the invoice to which they should be applied.
On more than one hot summer evening I rocked on our front porch and watched as he walked to the far end of the yard to conference privately with a client who, due to long work hours or just comfort, preferred to meet outside of the office. As those clients lay their burdens on our lawn, my father never needed to take notes. He just stood with his hands in his pockets, a chew of Red Man in his jaw and listened. Through my eight year old eyes the fireflies that twinkled around his head gave him a halo.
Although segregation, at least by title, had come and gone before my birth, my father had never recognized it in the first place. According to my Mother, he refused to follow the common practice of having both a “white” and a “colored” waiting room. He was not trying to make any sort of political statement; he simply felt that the practice was a silly waste of money. He saw no difference in the people he represented and remarked that if any of his clients had a problem sitting by any of his other clients they could find themselves another lawyer. Established in a criminal defense practice so successful he was nicknamed “Little Jesus,” Huel defended both black and white and never lost a client due to his non-segregated waiting room.
The legal profession in which I exist is a far cry from that romanticized in Mockingbird or even by my own childhood memories. My generation of lawyers is considered so vile that the state bar runs television commercials reminding our client/victims that they can and should lodge bar complaints. We must take a yearly refresher class to remind us how to be “ethical.” Somewhere between the daily, all-consuming struggle of trying to avoid malpractice claims, bar complaints and public reprimands lies the most important duty: that of protecting a client’s interest to the best of our ability. I must admit that, all things considered, I often find myself wondering if the best of my ability is in fact good enough. Sadly, in recent days I have found myself asking that question more and more often.
My husband once correctly remarked that if he returns home at the end of the day and hears To Kill A Mockingbird playing in our bedroom he knows that I need time to myself. No longer able to reach my father for encouragement, Atticus Finch has become my touchstone. Atticus reminds me that this profession was and still can be noble. Atticus Finch gives me hope.

I have practiced law for sixteen years now and long ago accepted the fact that my father’s halo was nothing more than fireflies. However, reviews of Go Set A Watchman paint a picture of a bigoted Atticus Finch that I don’t have the strength to witness first hand. Isaiah 21:6 says, For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth. With the utmost respect to Ms. Lee, an author I have adored since that middle school English class so long ago, if my Atticus is gone, then there is nothing in Watchman that I need to see. Because just as my father protected his clients, and I have protected my clients, and despite the fact that my logical, legal mind tells me that the story is nothing more than fiction, there is still that last fragile piece of my heart, the one that requires the occasional rose coloring that deserves my protection as well. 

Sunday, April 26, 2015

April 27, 2011 Remembered

120 Seconds

My husband often accuses me of being a pack rat. I meticulously catalog letters, greeting cards, home movies and photographs as if without the document the memory would not exist. A bookshelf in my basement serves as a time capsule of every important milestone in my life, a holder of the things important to me.
A few years back I helped probate the estate of a client, which included documenting and distributing his last possessions. He was an older man and had been sick for some time when he passed away. This type of death never seems as shocking to those left behind, perhaps because after a full life death is almost expected. However, as I sifted through his personal effects I had to wonder if anyone ever rolls out of bed prepared for it to be the last time.
 His wallet contained pictures of his grandchildren, a driver’s license, insurance card and three one dollar bills. A plastic change purse held eighty cents, a toothpick, a button from a pair of slacks and a small metal cross engraved with “God loves you” across its face. Had he known his days were numbered, would he have bothered with having that button replaced or focused instead on sharing those last precious moments with his grandchildren?
Sadly mankind is not privy to such information; we often push through the daily task of living on autopilot. Alarm clock chimes, turn off alarm clock, put feet on floor, and so on until the sun goes down. Repeat, until one day fate relieves us of our boredom. My client’s children never came for his personal belongings. They remained at my law office, a last testament to those things that in life he held dear.
On April 27, 2011, I started my day as I had approximately 4,380 work days before, but in the days that followed, while sorting through the remains of my law office, I smiled when I came across that old wallet and change purse. Would my client be pleased that his totems had weathered the storm?
Meteorologists promised the 27th would bring tornados the size and frequency of which their viewing public had never experienced. Unfortunately, this was not their first severe weather threat of the season. The last, not a month earlier, sent people scurrying home with not so much as a drop of rain falling. This time I was in no rush but eventually succumbed to peer pressure and closed shop. 
            A neighbor walked over to wait out the storm but was nervous because we had no weather radio. To quiet her concerns, I searched around the house and found a palm-sized, bright yellow Liz Claiborne promotional radio from 1990 still in its gift box. The last time my husband complained about my never throwing anything away I had pulled it out as part of my sacrificial donation to charity. My neighbor worked on finding a radio station.
Around 5:00 PM I received a series of text warnings from a friend in Birmingham, Alabama as she was watched live footage of the storm’s approach into Tuscaloosa. Looking out the basement window I saw sunshine. Knowing that tornados customarily travel with a flurry of rain, hail or some combination of the two I thought she might be confused. I opened one of the windows. I just wanted to listen.
 The neighborhood was quiet. No birds chirping, no dogs barking. In hindsight, it was as if Mother Nature had taken cover. Then the wind started to blow. The trees in our back yard began to lean and rustle and snap under a new, invisible weight. I quickly closed the window and handed out bicycle helmets. At that moment I thought of Loryn.
Loryn Brown was a college student who lived exactly two miles from my home in a neighborhood called Beverly Heights.  She was four years old when I dated her father. My close friendship with Loryn’s mother had been described by some as curious but not to us. We both loved her little girl. When my relationship with Loryn’s father ended I still received periodic updates on “baby girl,” from her mom and was even enlisted occasionally to help hunt down a coveted Halloween costume. Then in 2007, I received a senior picture of Loryn and a letter from her mom. Loryn would attend college in Tuscaloosa the next fall. I was honored that her mom asked me to serve as an emergency contact. 
I was so thrilled to be a part of Loryn’s adult life that I was almost disappointed when she had very few emergencies. The last was December 2010, when she was sick with the flu. I had been out of state and hated myself for having let her and her mom down. This time I texted Loryn.
5:00 PM “Are you in a safe place?”
5:01 PM “Yes ma’am! Thanks for asking! Be careful!”
5:02 PM “After this passes u let me know u are o.k.”
5:03 PM “Yes ma’am! Thank you.”
The remainder of my text messages from that evening were received from my friend in Birmingham and read like the transcript from a nightmare.
5:09 PM “Good God. Be careful! I can see it on TV coming toward you. It is massive. Oh my God!”
5:10 PM “The courthouse looks tiny compared to it.”
5:10 PM “Oh my God”
And with that message the power in my house flickered and shut off. A moment later, as the voice from the radio called frantically for Tuscaloosa to take cover, the radio went to white noise. The basement was silent.
5:14 PM “Heading past stadium going fast toward you in Alberta City.”
But I already knew. Meteorologists have since debated whether an EF-4 or an EF-5 tornado rolled over us at that moment.  Huddled in a tiny closet under the basement stairs we listened to the infamous freight train sound as it rumbled overhead. For a split second, the rumble, that I would later learn was created by the twirling of debris, was joined by a suction so strong my ears popped.  The monster took a victim, the giant oak tree that shaded our front yard. It fell back to the earth with such force that the ground around us shook. “Something fell!” I shouted over the noise.
“Do you think?” my husband screamed back sarcastically.
The rumble moved into the distance almost as quickly as it had arrived but I was hesitant to move until I knew we were safe. I texted my Birmingham lifeline:
5:15 PM “Plz let me know when it passes.”
5:17 PM “Now.”
I climbed out of the basement and cautiously opened the front door. I stared in disbelief at hundred-year-old trees thrown effortlessly around our neighborhood crushing roofs and blocking driveways. The entire event had lasted only 120 seconds, and at that moment I had no idea, that 120 seconds was ample time to change my life forever. 
I was standing in the yard with neighbors when my cell phone rang. The contact name popped onto the screen and my body went rigid as my mind connected the dots. Loryn had not texted me after the storm. My arm tingled and fought me like dead weight as I pulled the cell phone to my ear and answered the call.
It was Loryn’s stepdad. He told me that Loryn and her mom were on the phone when the storm hit Beverly Heights. They were disconnected and Loryn had not yet called back.
            “Don’t worry,” I tried to reassure him. “I’m sure she is fine.”
Then in the background I heard a low moan that rose into a painful cry. “She is gone. My baby is gone.” This was not the hysterical cry of a panic-stricken parent. This was an affirmation of fact, a mother’s cry of despair.
            I felt a stabbing pain in my stomach. I knew I needed to end the call and do something. I promised I would reach Loryn by phone, or by foot, if necessary.
            My hand shook as I dialed her number. It immediately rolled to voice mail.  It was 6:35 p.m., when I texted her, “Are you o.k.? your mom can’t get through.”
            At 6:36 p.m., I went in search of transportation. My Schwinn Cruiser, a Christmas gift from 2004, dangled from a hook in the carport enshrined in a thin layer of dust and cobwebs.  Concerned with not only my lack of bicycling skill, but at our lack of information regarding surrounding conditions, my husband insisted that we go look for Loryn together. We pedaled up the steep hill that connected our neighborhood to the main thoroughfare and were greeted by a wall of automobiles. They were all stopped on the boulevard waiting for their chance to investigate Alberta City, the area in which Beverly Heights was located. Windows were down and people chatted back and forth amongst the automobiles.
I was thankful that our bikes gave us ease of movement between the cars and people as we pedaled toward Loryn. A drugstore lost its roof, the mobile home park next door looked like scrap metal origami, its tenants now seeking refuge on a nearby hillside. Windsor Drive, a hidden neighborhood nestled between my subdivision and Alberta City, once tucked among pine and oak trees, now lay beneath them.
The sky seemed darker, even though nightfall was hours away, because of a thick cloud of dust that draped over the area like a blanket. Power lines still attached to poles lay across the road in some areas while loose lines danced and sparked on poles that remained standing. We swerved between the downed lines, vehicles and pedestrians.
Onlooker delays at traffic accidents have always annoyed me, but as we crossed the intersection that marked the beginning of Alberta City, I suddenly understood. These were not onlookers, gawking at the misfortune of their friends and neighbors, they were storm refugees. And straight ahead stood hundreds more. I looked back at the crowd I had just passed and realized, for the first time, that most were covered in dirt and blood. Some were missing articles of clothing. How did I zip past a woman and not realize she was wearing only one shoe? Every pile of rubble housed someone’s personal nightmare. The smashed carcass of a truck dangled off a curb where it had been discarded like a child’s matchbox car. The side of a red brick apartment building gaped open and served as the final resting place for two unrecognizable automobiles. A dusty little girl clung to a filthy teddy bear and followed closely behind her mother, pulling a suitcase that possibly held the remains of their lives. It was a mass exodus to nowhere.
Most of the wanderers migrated west toward DCH Regional Medical Center and we moved along in their wake. I spotted a local attorney, a lone figure moving east. His expression was hollow and his gait slow and concentrated, pushing forward like a person trying to walk underwater.  He wore shorts, a t-shirt and at least three pounds of dirt. He grabbed both of my arms and said, “I was in the gym,” as if he and I were both privy to the code he was speaking. 
Not having time to figure out what he meant, I broke free and yelled over my shoulder that I had to go find my friend. I would later learn that he was one of nine people who hid in a locker room shower as the rest of his gym blew away. I left him standing alone in the middle of University Boulevard.
At 7:00 p.m. I received a message from a friend in Alberta City. “Honey Alberta is gone including your office.” The message registered, but my brain refused to allow me to process it. I had to find Loryn. After that, I could deal with any other remaining issues like my career. I had to keep moving because Beverly Heights still lay at least a mile ahead.
We continued to backtrack through the storm’s path and I looked around for the landmarks of my commute to work these past four years. All that remained of what was once Tuscaloosa’s city center was a wasteland of exploded brick, cinder block, wood and metal. The surviving trees now leaned at an unnatural angle, their naked limbs outstretched like a child waiting to play airplane. A sports car hung upside down in one tree whose foliage and bark had been completely stripped from its trunk.
And then I saw my office. It was a little brick cottage, painted tan and framed with green shutters and a large green sign that read, “Julie L. Love, P.C. Attorney at Law.” A low brick wall enclosed the small patio that was accessible through French doors in the front lobby. A small portion of the little brick wall remained, the only landmark of the building and business I loved. Suddenly, I was aware of my loss. Not the files, computers, or desks. I had lost my memorabilia. My late father’s Barrister Cabinet, his two wooden client chairs, the scrapbook of newspaper clippings of his and my mother’s early cases. They were all inside when I left that afternoon and now they were gone. I felt a sharp pain in my stomach and doubled over crying out in apology for being so reckless with things that were so precious. I had been careless, and, as a result, had now lost a portion of the man I loved so dearly.
My phone rang.
It was Loryn’s stepdad calling to check on our status. I immediately remembered there was something more important than the collections from a past life, and that was the life of my friend. I pushed on toward Beverly Heights, leaving my father’s memory waiting in the rubble.
As we crossed an overpass I had my first uninhibited view of greater Tuscaloosa. I could turn in any direction and see the aftermath of the gluttonous tornado’s binge. It fed on our houses, our businesses, our trees, growing stronger with each new conquest. I could see up ahead, now illuminated by the flashing lights of a police barricade, the little A-frame church that marked the left turn into Beverly Heights. I let go of my bicycle and began to run.
The sheriff’s deputy at the neighborhood’s entrance looked to be about twenty-five years old. He wore his hair short all over, a good choice for Alabama summers, and his blue jeans indicated that he had been off duty but not anymore. Patrol cars and barricades blocked access into Alberta City from the eastbound lane of University Boulevard as well as Helen Keller Boulevard from the north. Winded and overwhelmed I jogged toward the entrance to Loryn’s neighborhood. In an instant the officer was there, blocking my path and saying something to me. I could feel the blood pounding in my ears, the noises around me suddenly dulled as if I were underwater. His lips were moving and now he added hand gestures, like an umpire declaring an out; likely, because he sensed that something was not registering with me. I looked down at my feet and noticed the Beverly Heights street sign that had been ripped from the ground and tossed into the intersection. “You-- can’t—go—in-- there!” he shouted in a slow and exaggerated manner. The sirens and shouts of passersby began to filter back in now and I remembered what I was there for.
“I have to,” I spit the words out quickly at first, and then, I said it again, louder, “I have to! Loryn is in there!”
The beautiful old neighborhood was buried under trees and power lines and the deputy was under strict orders that no one was crossing that threshold. As we argued a woman crawled out of the maze of debris and shouted to the officer, “We’ve checked door to door, the neighborhood is clear.”
Before his mouth could form the sentence I shouted, “Then she doesn’t have a door!” My husband began shouting “Loryn Brown” at the top of his lungs in hopes that she was mingling somewhere behind one of the barricades. His calls got louder and louder as the officer pleaded with us to move along. I explained that I was happy to go in and find my friend, or he could go in and find her, but one of us was going into that neighborhood. With an exhausted sigh he said, “Ma’am give me the address. I will send someone back in to check it out.” Out of options and feeling I had failed baby girl yet again, I gave him the address and turned for home.
The hours that followed were excruciating. I drained the last bit of power from our computer’s battery back up trying to keep my cell phone charged. I watched Facebook for reports that Loryn had been treated at the hospital. Around midnight my phone’s battery drained again and I trudged out to the carport. My Mustang’s cigarette lighter acted as my umbilical cord to the rest of the world. I sat and enjoyed the car’s air conditioning and then cried at the thought of baby girl trapped in her house in this heat. I prayed for her, as I had prayed off and on all night, and I apologized for not insisting that she come to my house to wait out the storm.
At 1:34 a.m. Loryn’s mom texted, “She’s gone.”
The emergency crew, called by the young deputy, found Loryn’s previously overlooked house, buried under twenty-two massive trees that weren’t even from her neighborhood. She was in the hall of her basement. She had gone low, into the center of the home, away from all the windows. Her Facebook post earlier in the evening joked that her pillow fortress would keep her hidden.  She had done everything right, but the monster had sought her out and taken her just the same. Her father arrived in time to identify a photograph of her body taken by rescue workers on the scene. I crawled into bed and cried myself to sleep.
While a red tape tug of war went on between the State of Alabama and the federal government over who had authority to inventory the bodies now stored at a temporary morgue, Loryn’s mom waited patiently to see her baby. She would not leave she said, until she laid her hands on her child. She would wait all night and well into the following day. There is very little on earth that compares to the strength of a mother’s love.
In the days that followed I returned to the site of my office and dug through the rubble. Very little was saved.  I made peace with my losses, partially because I had no other choice, but I like to think that through this experience I came to understand that those things I hold dearest to me will always be safe as long as I remember them.

I have also spent many afternoons with Loryn’s mom, digging through the remains of the Beverly Heights home. Each photograph or notebook we unearth brings a small celebration. I know if Loryn could see us she would wonder why we dig. I can almost hear her saying, “I’m not there.” But to her mom those belongings make up a part of who Loryn was in her life, and regardless of how fragmented the remains, in her death, they are important to the mother left behind. I of all people can understand her logic. I suppose there is no one correct way to preserve our memories because every toothpick, button and newspaper clipping is valuable to the person who attaches a memory to it. I recently unearthed part of a paper back book titled, “Soon Forgotten,” and had to laugh out loud. That will never happen.