WASHINGTON, Ill. -- It was a foggy night, a month and two days after the EF4 came through this little heartland town, and there was a light behind the trees.
Only they no longer looked like trees.
It's winter and the leaves are gone and the tornado sheared away all but the strongest limbs. Backlit in the fog, the trees stood in eerie silhouette above a lifeless landscape. They looked like gnarled witches' fingers.
Where hundreds of houses were, there is now a snowfield. Trucks have hauled away the splintered 2x4's, the twisted metal, the cars and trucks, the debris of lives interrupted.
"Come see us now," the town's mayor said. It's what Rudy Guiliani said in New York City after 9/11. He said New York is open for business. So is Washington, Illlinois. It was the most violent November tornado in the state's history, a beast a half-mile wide with winds reaching 190 miles per hour. A month and two days later, Washington's mayor, Gary Manier, said "Come, gawk. Come and visit, eat, shop."
For those who heard the EF4's roar, for those who knew Washington before and know it now, there is a terrible beauty in seeing this town rise to fight again. It's not David Ortiz's primal scream, "This is our f-ing city!" It's better than that. It's why four of us took our money to the Firehouse Pizza place, a quarter-mile off the EF4's path, across Peoria Road from those broken trees. We were on the way to a girls high school basketball game.
Immediately after the tornado, I wrote about Washington High's football team. Here, in small-town America, it was 2013's best sports story. On a Saturday night, in a rainstorm, the undefeated Panthers won their 12th game and a spot in the semifinals of the state playoffs for the first time in a generation. Sunday morning, the EF4 came. The team's star running back, Casey Danley, told his coach, "Those people came to watch us in the rain. We gotta go help 'em." Football players became first-responders of a teenage kind, doing what they could in the chaos created by nature's fury.
"Calling off the playoff game was never an option," Mayor Manier said. "It wouldn't have been fair to call it off -- not to the boys, 16, 17, 18, who've practiced for this all their lives, and not fair to the town, either, because we all needed the sense of normalcy that a football game would bring. We needed to know that, whatever happened, life goes on."
Then the mayor said, "You ought to go see David Krick. His office is just across the parking lot."
"He's Maggie's father."
"Maggie Mose. The girls' coach."
Everyone knows everyone in a small town, or knows someone who knows someone who can get you there, and that can be important in the wake of trauma. "After any tragic event," according to a study done at Dartmouth College, "a sense of community or togetherness is essential . . . "
Here is community at work: The mayor directs a reporter to David Krick. He's a dentist. We talk. We find maybe one degree of separation. He's a graduate of Illinois Wesleyan University who played basketball there for a coach who once was the reporter's double-play partner there. Turns out, too, that Krick first practiced dentistry in Atlanta, Illinois, five blocks from the reporter's boyhood home.
"Maggie told her girls that football provided the initial rallying point for the town," Krick said. He wore scrubs and a dental headlight. Somewhere, a patient waited patiently. Krick sat at a desk behind a dozen pictures of his family, one of a granddaughter in a basketball jersey, #32. "Maggie told the team that maybe now it's their time. 'Maybe that's what our team is meant for, a role bigger than basketball.'" Krick knows what his daughter said because he was there. He's a volunteer assistant coach, on her bench every game.
We all encountered teachers and coaches in high school who changed our lives, whether we knew it or not, whether we admitted it or not, but most of us never woke up on a Sunday morning to an EF4 that tested who we were at 16, 17, 18. Washington High's athletic director, Herb Knoblach, said 20 of his school's wrestlers took chainsaws to downed trees, and the school's softball players became Salvation Army bell-ringers raising money for the tornado victims. With donations from the community, Knoblach said, the school sent $900 Christmas checks to each of 115 displaced families.
"It's what high school athletics is about," said Knoblach. "It's here to make you a better student and a better person. It's why we teachers do what we do. The life lesson here in the last month has been, 'Roll up your sleeves, get your hands dirty, work hard.' Our kids have done that."
Maggie Mose's story: 26 years old, a basketball star at every level as Maggie Krick, learned to play at her father's side, Washington High's best ever, an Illinois State record holder on graduation in 2010, two years an assistant at a Peoria school, married 18 months ago before returning home as the Panthers' head coach this season.
"Athletics is so important in high school," she said. "Beyond the competitive values there, a sport provides kids with a circle of friends and, sometimes, it's even a source of self-worth. They just learn so much that's going to be important to them in life."
Her team was undefeated in four games when, last Saturday, it traveled the 12 miles to Morton, its great rival, fourth-place finishers in the state tournament last year, winners of 36 straight conference games and on an eight-game winning streak this season. In Morton's shiny little gym, maybe 750 people had dared icy roads to see a girls basketball game. The place was a Norman Rockwell painting. Mothers with babes in arms. A coach's 2-year-old boy scampering on the hardwood after a rolling basketball. An assistant coach singing the national anthem a cappella. Standing at the Washington bench, a coach and her father.
One of Morton's game captains, Abbie Cox, came to midcourt wearing a T-shirt in the visitors' bright orange with the words, "WASHINGTON STRONG." Her team had collected over $1,000 for Washington's tornado relief. It gave four $100 gift cards to Washington players who'd lost their homes to the EF4.
The game went three overtimes. Washington won, 69-56. The team's star, Jess Learned, had been in church when the EF4 arrived. She remembers the curious sight of a bedroom curtain flapping outside the house. The tornado had lifted the roof, sucked the curtain out, then let the roof fall back, trapping the curtain outside. The house her parents built 13 years ago, damaged beyond repair, is gone now, its lot covered by snow.
On this night in Morton, when Washington rallied to win, Learned had 14 points and 11 rebounds. She said, "Being down at halftime, we knew we had to do something big in the second half. And we did. Every time somebody was down, somebody else picked 'em up."
That reminded her.
"Like our town," she said. "Neighbors helping neighbors, strangers helping strangers."