Friday, March 24, 2006

photos by Virginia Hart

Reverend Samuel Burton Sr. When I first met him he sitting under the big oak tree on the corner by his ruined house, his cousin James sitting near. His clothes were worn and dirty, his white shoes had long since served their purpose and his face was lined with wrinkles, but his eyes were sparkling. I introduced myself and we talked awhile. I asked if he needed anything, a tarp, blankets, food, but he politely declined. He did accept a bottle of cold water, "James here is an ole man, he might could use a drink." I believe James was 86. "Someone down the road probably needs it worse than I do, I'm doing fine."
As we sat there making polite conversation a car pulled up and a tall man with a gun strapped to his leg got out. He had some Ensure with him and he took it over and placed it in the old black truck parked across the street. He introduced himself, and asked the Reverend if he had told us about his tree. He hadn't yet as we had only just met, "Now you know they don't want to hear that ole story Benny" he said, but it was obvious that the Reverend had a story to tell.
Benny just smiled, "sure they do" and that was all the encouragement Reverend Burton needed.

"Walk with me child, you see that tree?" and with that, the story began. "I was in my house with my nephew and we was a looking down the road and I says to him, you see that stop sign down there?" "that water gets to that sign and its going to flood out Pearlington" "that water ain't never got that high." And they watched as the water crept past the stop sign and towards the house. "we was sitting in the house, just a watching and the water got up to the floor and my nephew he says "Unc we better get on up out of here." As they went out the front door the water swept the Reverend off of his feet and his nephew had to help him up. They were headed down the street, trying to make their way to Reverend Burtons daughter's house when the water gushed towards them. As they were swept down the street the Reverend grabbed a vine that was hanging from a tree "take my hand son, he said, don't fight the water" "that water is going to raise us up and when it does we are going to get up in the fork of that tree" "The wind was just a blowing, and the trees were shaking, but the water done raised us up and we got in that tree." Reverend Burton's dog floated by and they managed to grab her and get her in the tree with them. As they looked towards the west they could see Reverend Burton's daughter and grandchildren huddled on the roof of the church across from his flooded house. "I knew they was trying to get to me and I yelled that I was alright, just stay up on that roof"

For hours they stayed in that tree with the wind and rain beating on them. "The wind was a howling, and the water hit so hard it burned and the trees all around me were shaking and bending."

I asked if he was afraid.

"No child, I sang, and the more the wind blowed the louder I sang and I just talked to the Lord. I said "Lord you know I am your servant and I done everything you ever asked me to do and I know that if I asked you for something you will do it, I'm asking you now... please don't touch this tree I'm in." "You can take all these trees around me, just don't touch this tree I'm in." "And one by one the trees around me just split, they was breaking and popping like twigs, but the Lord left my tree alone - and there it stands"

He had walked me down the road and I looked to the wooded area he pointed out. There stood a lone forked tree in the midst of a cleared area. The trees were snapped off near the ground in a complete circle around that tree. It didn't look sturdy enough to have even held the dog, yet it held two grown men in a rough wooden embrace, for hours.

And that was the first of many visits with Reverend Burton. It took a week of daily visits before he would accept anything other than my friendship. And another few visits before he really started to talk. I remember the first time I asked him about his house. He had tried to salvage a few things, but hadn't found much. He wasn't upset about the house though.

"That house, was just a house, it wasn't home. I've been building me a new home, been working on it most of my life. One stick at a time, one good deed at a time, oohh is it going to be fine. It will be a glorious place with rooms for all my family, but it ain't ready yet. I'm not done. The Lord will tell me when my home is done."

We talked of many things on my visits with the Reverend. He is wise, beyond his years. The lines on his face a testament to his character, and the constant sparkle in his eyes a sign of his faith. He was always my last visit of the day. Even though he was long since retired, he still held court at the base of that old oak tree. People would stop to ask for directions and end up lingering for hours.

Some would just see an old man, in dirty tattered clothes with a baseball cap pulled down over his unruly curly gray hair and not look beyond that. He knew what they were thinking and it didn't bother him. I would watch as his eyes would start twinkling and he would say "I only went to school three days, the first day et' lunch, the second day I had recess and the third day I played hookie but I can count to ten and I can write my name." The people who only saw the outward appearance, those who missed the twinkle in his eye, missed alot.
Reverend Burton is an Alumni of Emory University in Atlanta Georgia.

For those of us who looked deeper, who took the time to listen, he would sing. He sang for us as he did for the Lord while he was up in that tree. And we listened and for a little while, our hearts were lighter.

UPDATE - My second visit - The Rev has an RV! A kind soul saw his story on CNN, drove down and signed the deed over to Reverend Burton. He has a bed that is not owned by the government, and he has hope. Volunteers still come around frequently and he does love to visit with them. He still holds court under that old oak tree on the corner.

On my most recent visit in August Reverend Burton was looking good and on the surface his spirits seemed to be up. Both of his houses were demolished and the debris and old cars have been removed from his lot. He is walking with a cane now, says his back is hurting. And he confessed to having nightmares. The attention on the coast is waning, as are the volunteers, but he has a pup underfoot who he adores so he is not completely alone. I worry that he will fall in that trailer. He is not as steady as he was even just after the storm. I've been told by other locals that he does love that RV and tools around town with it constantly, God Bless the man who donated it.

UPDATE: I received news this afternoon that Reverend Burton has passed away. He never did get out of that FEMA trailer and back into a house. A church group was in the process of building him a new one, and I'm told he enjoyed watching the progress. I worried about him. As the weather grew cooler I wanted him back in a house of his own. He told me not to trouble myself with worries about him, that he would be alright. That someday soon his house would be done, and he would go home.

He is home now, that glorious home with rooms for all his family. Promised to him by our Lord. I will miss him, but he is blessed. He no longer has back pain and doesn't need a cane in his new home. He sleeps with angels who prevent the nightmares that have worried him since Katrina. He and his beloved wife are together again. Truly, they are home.

1 comment:

survivor said...

the day after the storm we went to pearlington, as i live there. We found the reverand just standing outside & asked him if he was ok. Which we knew he wasn;t because we weren't. But we gave him a bag of potato chips, thats all we had. if u want you can read about it in my blog. I'd written it in there. God Bless you & the many others that are here helping us. Pat