This column, which ran in The Sentinel-Echo, was written in the aftermath of a tornado that hit East Bernstadt, Ky., on March 2, 2012. It claimed six lives.
When I met Eric Allen for the first time, truth be told, he looked slightly nervous. We were in the foyer by the North Laurel High auditorium, and I was there to interview him about his experiences in the marching band. Tucked up beside him was his mom Debbie, who, at first, answered most of the questions I lobbed Eric’s way.
I’d looked forward to the interview ever since Mr. McFadden — one of the best teachers in Laurel County, as far as I’m concerned — called me to let me know about Eric.
“Wait until you see this kid,” he said. “He’s an inspiration.”
Indeed, as soon as I met him, I knew it was true. Eric had a strength about him that was beyond his 17 years. He was quiet but kind. Seemed content. Poised.
When I asked him what it was like being in the marching band, despite the hardship of having spina bifida — a garish question that, unfortunately, needed to be asked — he didn’t flinch.
“It’s pretty easy to deal with,” he said. “I don’t pay any attention to it.”
McFadden, Eric’s band director, had told me that was the case. Though at competitions, Eric could have ridden in a cart rather than walk everywhere, “he never did,” his teacher said. “He doesn’t want to be treated any different.”
That attitude, I realized quickly, seemed largely to do with what his parents had instilled in him. Though I just spent half an hour with Debbie Allen, the love she had for her son was so palpable you could nearly pick it up. And she was candid about how she felt after learning her baby would be born with a disability, admitting she “busted out crying” as she told her husband. But it was clear Eric’s spina bifida was something Debbie and her husband Wayne faced head-on. Though they were told Eric would likely never walk, at age 2 he did. And when he did, they made sure his progress continued.
“We just kept on him and kept on him,” Debbie said. “His dad would make him walk down the hall to retrieve his bow and arrow. And we bought him a basketball goal. Every time he’d throw the ball, I’d make him stand up and get it.”
When I interviewed Eric in 2008, he was still moving forward. He was about to graduate from high school, he had dreams of becoming a mechanic and he was fixing up a 1979 Pontiac Trans Am with his dad.
A few months later, I ran into Eric and his dad at a Cruisin’ on Main event. Eric was beaming beside his car, which was beaming in turn under the cloudless sky. I asked if I could take his picture, and he happily obliged.
When I heard what befell the Allens, this beautiful family, during last week’s terrible storm, my heart broke. Eric’s parents, Debbie and Wayne, both died that day. Eric and his girlfriend were taken to hospital with serious injuries. When I heard the news, I was sad and then I was so very angry. Here were these people who had done everything right, who had raised this beautiful boy with love, with gumption. Here was this boy, who’d already overcome, who’d found love. If anyone deserved to be spared, it was this family and it wasn’t fair.
In the past week, I’ve seen Laurel County rally. Everywhere you look, people are helping each other, cleaning up, giving whatever they have. It is, indeed, the magic of this place.
Mr. McFadden told me yesterday Eric has many surgeries ahead of him, but is expected to recover. His girlfriend has serious injuries but is improving. I want so very badly for this “super, A-1 kind of kid,” as Mr. McFadden described him, to be OK. As I think of him, I realize Eric is a quintessential product of where he grew up. The very values the Allens lived by and taught are being relied on, especially now in the wake of the storm, from East Bernstadt to Bush, Swiss Colony to Campground. Laurel County, like Eric, overcomes. Has poise. Walks rather than rides. Marches on.