Seeing Katrina Through Gatsby's Eyes

by Robert LaRoche, Cornell University, December 10, 2008

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"They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…"
– F. Scott Fitzgerald

Growing up in a rural town in northern Massachusetts, I was surrounded by upper-middle class families, excellent educational standards, and a constant sense of security. Admittedly sheltered from many of life’s realities, I looked to novels, newspapers, magazines and other sources of knowledge to gain an understanding of ideas that were not present in Westford, Massachusetts. In school, I followed the lives of protagonists in dire situations and perused pages full of life lessons, but the inspiring accounts and unforgettable images of literature invariably remained foreign to me. No matter how many novels I read or how intensely I interacted with the content of literature, there was always a barrier that separated my own thoughts from the messages and themes of stories. This barrier, as I have since come to understand, can best be explained as the difference between simply reading a story and experiencing one. When a person reads a piece of literature, they scan over the words and obtain a factual understanding of the plot, characters and setting. When a person experiences a piece of literature, they are mentally placed in the setting of the story and are forced to interact with the premises of the plot and setting first hand. Alternatively, a person can also experience a story by physically visiting a location where an event took place.

Despite the quality of the literature that I had read over the years, I never truly experienced any of the accounts; my mind was never able to take me into the setting of the story and force me to feel the emotions and motivations of the characters as though I was one of them. I began to think that I was somehow desensitized to literature or cursed with an inept imagination so that I could never connect with stories. For instance, during the spring of my junior year, my English class read the novel, The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. During class, the majority of my peers discussed the characters, plot details, and themes of the novel with the same kind of fervor and emotion that a religious leader would display in support of his teachings. While my classmates competed to be called on by the teacher, I sat at my desk, staring at the chalkboard across the room, wondering what was for lunch. I was more focused on concepts that I understood, like my growling stomach, than the impersonal ideas and characters from The Great Gatsby. It was not until I physically visited the location where a story was set, felt all the emotions, saw all the sights and took in all the sensory information that I realized my detachment from literature was rooted in the difference between reading and experiencing. In the summer of 2007, I was granted the opportunity to depart from Westford on a mission trip to Gulfport, Mississippi with a group of volunteers from my church. During my one-week stay, I gained a clear understanding of the difference between reading literature and experiencing a story as I engaged in the tragic tale of Hurricane Katrina through the people, images, and emotions of Gulfport, Mississippi.

The city of Gulfport, located along the southern coast of Mississippi, was devastated by the natural powers of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It was nearly two years later when I embarked on the service-based trip to Gulfport, but still, much of the city remained in ruins. On the first day of my journey, a group of fifty volunteers and I took a short tour of the city and surrounding areas to investigate the magnitude of the destruction. Looking out my passenger window, I saw the golden arches of a McDonald’s sign proudly standing above nothing but a concrete foundation where the restaurant once stood. Mangled shards of metal and jagged chunks of concrete lay scattered about the vacant McDonald’s parking lot. Down the road, the front stairs of a once grandiose cathedral opened onto a tremendous pile of rubble and filth. Even the beautiful, man-made structure made to honor God had been defiled by the wanton power of Mother Nature. Along the streets, battered luxury cars that once cost thousands of dollars had been made virtually worthless by the elevated water levels. As I looked at the buildings, I noticed several of the once resplendent casinos that attracted visitors to Gulfport were stripped of their elaborate facades and now took on the appearance of abandoned warehouses. I began to ponder the lives of the thousands of people that once inhabited the Gulfport area. As the storm progressed and the people abruptly fled from the city, they were forced to choose their most cherished and necessary possessions to bring with them. Judging by the deserted city, it was blatantly obvious what was truly important.

Later in the week, a small number of our group was invited to go meet two Hurricane Katrina survivors and listen to their story. As we entered their home, a retired couple met us at the door with welcoming smiles and warm hugs. We sat down in the living room and the older man, with his wife at his side, told us their story. He began by describing the large shed that he had built in his backyard before the storm, which he had filled with all of his “toys” – a collection of his favorite luxury items. He had proudly amassed enough items that the shed was nearly overflowing by the time the summer of 2005 rolled around. As he spoke of the shed, his eyes no longer revealed even the faintest intimation of pride. His hunched shoulders and timid downward stare embodied the regret he felt for focusing so much time and energy on accumulating the unnecessary “toys”. The man’s eyes began to water and his wife gracefully slid her hand inside her husband’s fingers. As the man struggled on, he described the speed with which the storm progressed and how quickly they were forced to flee from their home and seek refuge at their relatives’ house in Alabama. After a week-long asylum, the couple decided that they needed to return home. The man’s lips quivered as he recalled the internal strength that he and his wife called upon when they built up the courage to return to their home with no assurance that there would be anything left. The couple had realized that they would be stranded with no money or shelter.

“What are two retired people with no home and no money suppose to do? We thought we had no options. We were devastated and hopeless,” the man admitted just before a long solemn silence fell over the room.

At this point, both the husband and wife were at a loss for words. Without needing to hear it spoken, everyone in the room, including myself, understood the somber decision that the couple had reached; they planned to take their own lives upon returning home. Continuing the story, the man’s speech was muffled by sobs that he adamantly tried to restrain. In short, broken sentences, he described the scene that the couple encountered when they pulled into their driveway in Gulfport: their worst fears had been realized, there was nothing. The floodwater that had washed everything away left behind only a thick line of dirt at the top of the second story of the house; it was lines like this one that reporters would later use to judge how high the water levels reached. As the two walked hand in hand to what used to be their front door, the man saw, in the backyard, a group of young rescue volunteers already clearing trees and moving rubble. With tears in their eyes, the couple put on gloves and began helping the work already in progress. As the last words left his mouth, his body fell limp onto his wife’s equally frail frame, in the same way that an exhausted runner falls to all fours at the end of a marathon.

On the last day of my trip, all the teenage boys were assigned to work on a “big construction project”, as our site coordinator put it. When we arrived at the job site, the shirtless, tobacco-chewing contractor told us that we would be building a foundation for someone’s new, low-cost home. In my mind, I pictured the relieved smiles of a family as they walked in the front door of their new home for the first time – the new home that I helped build. The contractor showed us the schematics for the work order that called for the construction of a cinder block foundation filled with concrete, lots of concrete. Inspired and eager to begin, our group got to work at a rapid pace. In a never-ending cycle, we poured the concrete from the truck into wheel barrels and then shoveled it into separate buckets, which we lugged to different regions of the foundation. Our hands were caked with grey mud and the smells of sweat, dirt and sunscreen intermingled in a cloud above us. I could not decide if the burning sensation in my arms and back was from the laborious work or from penetrating Sun in the Mississippi sky. With only an hour or two left in the workday, we were still far from finished and worried that we would not complete the job before we had to leave Gulfport. The other boys and I worked to exhaustion and at the end of the day, we had miraculously completed the foundation. When we finished, the site coordinator, barely sweating since he had stood as his truck all day giving orders, called us over and told us that, using only wheel barrels and shovels, we had moved nearly 5,000 pounds of cinder blocks and poured over 40,000 pounds of concrete. Most of the contractors that the coordinator hired would have taken at least two days to complete the same project. He went on to say that even though the house that we were helping to build would be simply four walls and roof with no amenities inside, many dislocated families would be gracious to have a place to call home again. While our legs and arms quaked from tremendous fatigue, our spirits were bolstered by the site coordinator’s words. The gracious smiles and laughter that spread throughout our group captured our feelings of accomplishment and astonishment.

In the months leading up to my visit to Gulfport, I was under the impression that the emotions, life lessons and events described in literature or other media had to be experienced first hand in order to be truly understood. I had read many novels and newspaper articles, but I generally felt detached from the subjects. In my mind, I assumed that I would have to plummet into poverty in order to understand destitution for instance. I thought I would have to lose an immediate family member in order to understand true loss. Although the actual experience of an emotion can never be completely supplemented by a story, I now know that when a story is experienced, rather than read, it conveys an entirely different profoundness. When I first read the description of Tom and Daisy at the end of The Great Gatsby, I was completely unaffected by its meaning. However, after visiting Gulfport, seeing the city, hearing the man’s story and working at different job sites, I understand the triviality of material possessions and the importance of people, relationships and the simple things in life that are carelessly taken for granted. However I have gained more than a factual understanding. My experiences in Gulfport have driven me to make changes to my own life and the way that I perceive the world. When I compare the way I connected with the themes of The Great Gatsby when I read the novel in school and when I experienced the same themes in Gulfport, the difference between reading a story and experiencing one becomes astounding. The value of story telling rests in its ability to transform the reader into a component of the story. In my case, I had to actually visit Mississippi, see the various examples of the pitfalls of materialism and feel the emotions surrounding the story in order to understand a similar idea that I had read previously in The Great Gatsby. However, the students in my English were able to experience the themes of Great Gatsby when they read it for the first time. They interacted with the literature on such a level that they felt personally involved in the character’s lives and the themes of the novel; they experienced the story just like I did in Mississippi. On the other hand, when a person simply reads a novel – when they are unwilling or unable to connect with the story – they are left detached from the morals, messages or themes of the story. The value of literature as a whole, when only read, is vastly diminished.

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