One month before his first birthday, Kyle Stronghold survived a ruthless twister that careened across the South and devastated the small, rural community of Castalian Springs, Tennessee. On that same fateful day, Kyle’s uninsured, single mother went from being a casualty of the broken welfare system to a freak accident statistic – a sorry, innocent victim of a natural disaster. The Farmer’s Almanac would verify that for two Armageddon-like days in the storm-ravaged winter of 2008, a series of 50 tornadoes ripped through seven of America’s southern states, killing dozens of people and injuring hundreds. What The Farmer’s Almanac won’t tell you is how The Story of the Tennessee Twister gradually tore a ragged Confederate flag-sized hole in Kyle Stronghold’s heart.
In the aftermath of that bitterly cold, early February morning, two rescue workers said they first mistook Kyle Stronghold for a doll made of plastic. They then noticed movement from the field and discovered the “doll” was really a baby boy shivering in a white T-shirt and diaper, face down in the mud and covered in bits of grass.
Evidently, with the catapulting force of a swift kick to the skull, Kyle had been punted into the air and landed more than a football field’s length from his family’s leveled duplex home. Remarkably, the workers found him unscathed except for superficial wounds to his right temple. By all outward appearances, Kyle was expected to lead a normal life.
The Sumner County Director of Emergency Medical Services later would tell the press – and eyewitnesses would agree – that Kyle, upon being found, was “cold and scared, and had this blank look in his eyes.” According to an article published the very next day in the Washington Post, an emergency worker said he checked the sandy-haired boy for neurological damage, given his “far, far away stare.” He did this, he said, by first laying his hand over the baby’s blue eyes and then quickly removing his hand to see how the boy’s pupils would react to light. After a split second or two of no response, Kyle at last cried, and the people at the scene cheered, perceiving that the cry was a good sign. To onsite EMTs, it indicated no head injury.
Kyle’s granddaddy, Douglas Stronghold, an unemployed, weather-beaten carpenter and tile worker, drove from nearby Wilson County to discover his lone daughter dead and his only grandchild traumatized but breathing without life support. “It’s a miracle they ain’t both gone,” he said to the horde of media that had whisked upon the ghastly scene.
While contending with a flood of mixed emotions, Douglas Stronghold acknowledged a simple, irrefutable fact: The boy was alive and needed a guardian. He announced unassumingly at a makeshift press conference that he and his God-fearing wife, Sally, would now be responsible for raising their grandchild, Kyle. “We’ll get by best we can,” Douglas said, not registering that his comments would be pulled out and highlighted the next day in several daily newspapers. “The Lord, as He’s reckon to do, will watch over us from here.”
It was thus that Kyle Stronghold grew up to know by heart The Story of the Tennessee Twister. He knew it from the time he could remember because Sally, his grandmamma, religiously read each newspaper account – eight of which had made the front page – as a randomly rotating bedtime story. His granddaddy had saved all the clippings that had been collected and sent to him by his half-brother, Elvin, who lived at an assisted living facility in Louisville. Elvin called himself a self-taught journalist, though he had never published an article in his life. He got by on what his second wife had left him in her will, and he spent most of his day at the free public library reading major city newspapers. He sent Kyle the clippings all in one yellow manila envelope without so much as affixing a return address label or enclosing a hastily written note. Due to a family feud, the brothers weren’t on speaking terms, so when Sally first opened the package, she had a mind to promptly trash it. She was afraid Douglas would detect who it was from and pop a coronary right on the spot. Then she thought better of it, and over time, she became attached to the writings. Eventually, she shared the clipped stories with Douglas and he came to accept them as part of the house. He never acknowledged Elvin for sending them and Sally just wrote off the pseudo-anonymous mailing as typical of “Elvin’s weirdness.”
The Strongholds kept the clippings, held firmly together by a paper clip, in a large plastic baggie thumb tacked to a cork board on the floor in Kyle’s bedroom. Every night of the week at Kyle’s bedtime, as predictable as The Late Show and during all of the boy’s developmental years, Sally would reach into the bag as you might a cookie jar, carefully thumb through the thin news pages, and pull out a different account of the tragic tale. She often opted for The Tennessean piece, mostly because it had a poignant ending and mentioned her by name. Though not educated formally, Sally summoned the courage to read aloud each night, first in a hushed tone and eventually, as the boy matured, her voice rose until finally she read with the volume, confidence and fervor of a Pentecostal preacher in front of a host of sinners on a hot summer day.
Some might say this dour habit of relaying a personal tragedy was a catharsis for Sally. Others might contend that her ritualistic storytelling was bizarre, morbid and worse yet, psychologically harmful to the lad, but with a private library that consisted of two King James bibles and a poorly handwritten family history, Sally had few resources from which to choose reading material. She decided the tale of the twister was no worse than the 5:00 news and probably more useful. It was dark entertainment with a happy ending. (The baby lived.) She intuited that the boy enjoyed the routine. He grasped it, she surmised, only to the extent that any child understands a scary fairytale.
Each night, when Grandmamma finished her reading act, Kyle noted with empty comfort that she always performed the same action. She kissed his forehead, made the sign of the cross on his pillow, told him to say a prayer for his dear momma in heaven, turned out the lamplight beside his bed, and closed the door behind her, never failing to leave Kyle in the dark.
Kyle grew to memorize each of these stories, but he knew them like half-told fictional narratives with fragmented, confusing plots and undeveloped, unsympathetic characters. He knew the stories, but he sensed that they were badly told and missing a critical piece of information. He likened the hole in each story to a missing limb or eye. You learned to live with it, but there was no denying its absence.
In adulthood, Kyle Stronghold struggled to piece together his past with the lameness and blindness of an author lacking the sensibility to construct a complete story. And just as everyone who’s read or been read a bedtime story, Kyle knew instinctively: When a story is disjointed, it loses more than its audience; it loses its moral. And a story without a moral is no story at all.
[About Dan Cafaro]