Almost Heaven

Steve tearing down ceilingIt’s a convenient catastrophe for us, another post-Katrina experience just an hour and fifteen minutes to the west. There is a house in Caldwell, W. Va., one among hundreds, soaked by the Flood of ’16 and abandoned by a widow lady who drives a bus for Mountain Transportation Authority. We feel that R. E. Lee Memorial Church can take on this house and bring Martha Elmore back home. We could bring this home to better condition even than its antediluvian state. Jerry Nay, remember, organized eight trips to New Orleans, and Steve Shultis was part of that Operation Golden Rule. Now, the human need is not far over the state line around Lewisburg, W. Va.

We might also become neighbor-friends with St. James Episcopal Church there in Lewisburg.

Steve was smote by the call to help after that deadly deluge that hit the Greenbrier Valley on June 23. So he roared over the mountains in his Harley last Thursday for what he calls V.R. – visual reconnaissance.

Contact was made. Established comm (Steve’s Marine talk) with the very young Rev. Joshua Saxe, rector; Trish Parker, staff, and Crissy, a gal who is helping at the rectory). Logistics prob: we brought shovels and crowbars for demo, not Jerrytools for drywall. But then it turned out, a lot more demo was needed before we could get to drywall. “Like when you go to war,” says Steve, who was reminding me of Buzz Lightyear, “you don’t want the cooks and the bakers coming first.” St. James is filled to brimming with donations. Busy in the vortex of the learning curve, it is longing to be a church again.

Under the Chinaberry tree

A truck in Martha’s backyard under the chinaberry shade tree.

Steve, Jerry and I drove there in two cars Wednesday the 6th. Sunshine turned to drizzle when we crossed into West Virginia. Lewisburg is about the size and feel of Lexington. We dropped off the stuff R.E. Lee parishioners had left for us and went to work.

Jerry met the AmeriCorps folks at the Greenbrier Volunteer West Virginia reception center (hotline: 304-808-1872). Steve and I drove to Martha’s house (5846 Monroe Draft, Caldwell), as Father Josh told us to. It’s about six miles east of Lewisburg, just off Route 60. Martha wasn’t there because she had to go back to work, but the Cyrus family was inside – Ron Lee Cyrus, a retired truck driver and mechanic with bad lungs from his time in the military, his wife Drema, and their college-student daughter Lakin, called “Sunshine.” The Cyrus family has taken in Martha. Drema and Martha are close friends and sing in a church choir together, although the Cyruses are Missionary Baptist and Martha is Pentecostal Holiness.

Doug in the houseSteve and I picked up where the Cyruses left off putting down plywood subfloor in the front room. Job finished, we moved on to ripping down the rotting ceiling, spilling its blown insulation down on donated blue-plastic drop cloths. It’s just a start. As we worked, highway crews were surveying the ruined road (also called Highway 63) that crosses Howard Creek (the one that flooded this area) to a one-lane tunnel. A few hundred yards downstream, the creek hits the Greenbrier River. A helicopter whumped overhead still looking for the body of a 14-year-old girl missing in the flood.

St James

The entryway to the parish house of St. James Episcopal Church, Lewisburg, W. Va.

Steve, Jerry and I will be meeting Friday with Father Tom and others to sketch out a plan to rebuild Martha’s house over the coming months, however long it takes. It’s just a tiny help in a devastated area of West Virginia, but it’s a focus that we feel will bring rewarding results and living relationships.

Steve outside

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About Doug Cumming

journalism professor at W&L
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