We took our children with us to cover a tornado’s aftermath

This is (kind of) my Wordless Wednesday contribution.

Twice now, Hubs, a news photographer, and I, reporter, have taken our kids, ages 7 and 5, to the scene of tornado devastation.

And I’ve never had any qualms about it.

We answer their questions honestly and point out all the volunteers who arrive — every time — with water, clothing, equipment and offers to help clear the rubble.

I want my children to have a realistic view of the world, especially when it comes to natural and man-made disasters. We can’t shield them forever. (That said, I limit — rigidly — what they watch on television. Maybe it’s because of what I do, but a lot of the gratuitous crap turns my stomach.)


I think it’s important for my kids to understand two things:

Bad things happen, yes. But good people step in to help.

Yes, Tootie is in her too-short jammies. We left really, really early for Scotland, Ark.

Arkie Mama: Our morning with Jessica Dean

Today, Cindy (aka Mom on a Wire) and I appeared on KATV’s Rise and Shine with Jessica Dean to discuss mommy blogging. Jessica was adorable and utterly charming. We had a wonderful time chatting over coffee when we weren’t on the air.

Please ignore the extra chin that always appears when I’m on camera. Oh, and also the incessant eye-blinking thing. No, I didn’t have something in my eye. I just bat my lashes when I’m nervous. Let’s call it one of my cute little quirks, OK?

Anyway, here it is —

(There’s a second segment, when Cindy actually got to talk, but I couldn’t find it!)

Arkie Mama: I want to adopt this couple as my grandparents

Meet the Catos. I first met them as they stood in front of the ruins of their blackened home. A gas leak had caused an explosion.

E.J. is 94. Flora is 85. Despite having lost everything, the Catos were cheerful and joking around. “We still have each other,” they explained.

That day marked the first time, in my 16 years of reporting, that I left the scene of a disaster feeling uplifted. Sheriff’s deputies and other reporters later described feeling the same way.

In today’s newspaper, there’s a folo on the Catos. I’ve pasted it below. But first, check out this photo of me with the couple. Don’t they look like they should be my grandparents?

Aren't they just precious?

Aren't they just precious?

Now here’s the story:


Love burns bright despite loss of home

By Cathy Frye

<!—-> <!–

–> LITTLE ROCKThe young farmhand and the younger, winsome farmer’s daughter stood by a lush, gaily decorated tree as the preacher read aloud their wedding vows.

It was 10 p.m. Christmas Eve 1938.

The groom grinned beneath a head of thick, wavy hair The petite bride – a “pretty little thing,” he liked to call her – wore a royal-blue velvet dress.

The couple loved Christmastime. How special, how magical it would be to wed on Christmas Eve, they thought.

So, on the spur of the moment, they’d headed to the preacher’s house, rousing him from his bed to perform the impromptu ceremony. His wife, still wearing her robe,served as the witness.

The groom and his bride positioned themselves by the Christmas tree. Its top brushed the ceiling and its ornaments glittered in the soft light.

They thought it was the most beautiful tree ever.


For 70 years, life remained full and joyous for E.J. and Flora Cato. They welcomed a son, grandchildren, great grandchildren and the many great-grandnieces and nephews who scampered in and out of their home.

Two days before Thanksgiving, the couple’s mobile home in south Pulaski County exploded.

They escaped unharmed and stood in a drizzling rain, staring at the ruins.

But they shed no tears.

Yes, nearly all of their belongings had been destroyed.

“But we still have each other,” they told everyone, over and over.

In the aftermath, E.J. – known as Papa – was thrilled to find that his electronic keyboard wasn’t damaged.

“He kept that in his workshop,” Flora said. “Playing on it was one of his pastimes.”

Just hours after the explosion, E.J. sat down at his keyboard and launched into a buoyant rendition of “How Great Thou Art.”

Neither Flora, 85, nor E.J., 94, appeared worried about their situation. God would provide, the couple declared.

E.J.’s niece, Zanette Cato, took in E.J. and Flora and bought them clothes. Meanwhile, dozens of Arkansans who read about the Catos in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette sent money and furniture to help them start over.

Within a few weeks, the Catos had moved into and furnished a cottage at a Little Rock housing complex for senior citizens – all thanks to the kindness of those touched by their plight.

“Another lady was supposed to get this cottage, but she told them to give it to us,” Flora said. “I tell you, God has just supplied our every need.”

Last week, E.J. and Flora eagerly welcomed a pair of guests into their new home.

“Before we do anything, I want to show you my place,” a beaming Flora insisted. “We’ve been so blessed to get back what we have.”

Throughout the tour, E.J. frequently interjected his own excited comments.

“I want to show you a picture of my wife when she was 30,” he said when the group entered the bedroom. He held up the photo, grinning proudly.

Flora looked pleased, albeit a little flustered.

“He was so glad it wasn’t ruined,” she explained, blushing.

A second sentimental item, also salvaged from the blackened wreckage, sits on a dresser: the cake topper from the Catos’ 50th wedding anniversary celebration.

The dresser is part of a bedroom suite and mattress set donated by a local bedding store. The Catos’ grandson, Jarod, works there.

Returning to the living room, Flora pointed at a new flat-screen television.

“Ron Routh – he owns the wrecker service – brought that by. I kept him when he was a little boy. He brought it over here one night and set it up for us.”

Former President Bill Clinton, who befriended the Catos during his years as governor, sent a letter after the explosion. Flora read it aloud:

Dear E.J. and Flo,

I was very sorry to hear about the tragic loss of your home, and I wanted you both to know that you’re in my thoughts and prayers. The optimism, gratitude and love you share for one another is truly heartwarming, and I’m so glad that the two of you are together safe and sound. Hang in there. I’m pulling for you, and I wish you all the best.

Sincerely, Bill

“The Clintons and us were friends,” Flora explained. “We lived two blocks from him when he was governor.”

Clinton sometimes sent letters to the Catos, especially on birthdays. After being elected president, he invited them to his inaugural ball. When the couple celebrated their 65th anniversary, he called with congratulations.

Every year, Flora faithfully sends in an anniversary announcement and accompanying photo to the Democrat-Gazette. She’s also a frequent contributor to the newspaper’s letters section of the Voices page.

On the day of the explosion, which authorities later blamed on a gas leak in the couple’s water heater, crowds of friends and family surged onto the couple’s property in rural Pulaski County.

“We went to pieces when we got the call,” Zanette recalled. “We didn’t know what to expect. But they were so strong.”

The couple’s only worry is making sure everyone knows how thankful they are for thehelp they’ve received.

Flora gave a handwritten thank-you letter to a reporter, asking if there were a way it could be made available to newspaper readers.

An excerpt reads:

There is no way we can ever thank people for clothes and gifts to make our cottage a beautiful home. … We received so many offers of help – sweet cards and copies of lost pictures. God has supplied our needs.


That the couple survived the explosion was deemed a miracle by many.

Both were in the living room at the time. Normally, Flora would have still been asleep in the bedroom. But she awoke early that morning.

“If it had happened 30 minutes earlier, you’d have had a double funeral,” E.J. said.

He and Flora first met in early 1937, when Flora’s father, a Woodruff County farmer, hired E.J. to help with that year’s crops.

For five months, the young man boarded with Flora’s family. E.J. considered Flora a “pretty little girl,” but too young for romance. He was 22. She was 14.

Later, when he realized he had feelings for Flora, he decided to move out for fear of things looking improper.

E.J. briefly worked in Blytheville before heading west, working crops in Arizona and California. In 1938, he returned to Woodruff County and the woman he would marry.

E.J. farmed with Flora’s dad until 1953, when he and Flora moved to Little Rock. E.J. took a job as building engineer for the Winfield United Methodist Church, where he worked for 32 years.

When he retired, the couple bought a half-acre in rural southern Pulaski County. They wanted more room for a garden, flowers and especially a shed for E.J.

“He’d go out there and piddle every day,” Flora said, shooting her husband a fond smile. By “piddling” she means playing his prized electronic keyboard.

These days, E.J.’s keyboard is parked in the cottage’s dining room, which means Flora enjoys a free concert each day.

Well, mostly. Sometimes she’s relieved when he takes a break to watch television.

Ask the Catos how they’ve remained married so long, and you’ll get two answers – one serious, the other joking.

“We’re not just lovers, but best friends,” Flora says.

“Well, she never considered divorce. Maybe murder a few times,” E.J. adds.

“Papa and I have had a really good life, with so many blessings,” Flora continues.

After the explosion, someone asked, “Well, Papa, how does it feel to be homeless?”

E.J. had a ready answer: “I didn’t have anything when I came into the world, and I won’t be taking anything on my way out.”


On Christmas Eve, the Catos will celebrate their 71st anniversary.

Their tree, only a few feet high, isn’t as tall or dazzling as the one they stood beside at their wedding.

But to Flora and E.J., who will spend yet another holiday together, it’s the most beautiful tree ever.

Arkie Mama: Joy at a gas explosion

Today, I met an elderly couple whose home exploded this morning. I left the scene feeling warmed and glowing. This man and his wife, married 70 years, just radiated joy in the face of something so awful.

They still had each other, they explained. That was all that mattered.

I told my editor I had dearly wanted to tuck them into my car and bring them back to the newsroom so that we could all bask in their cheeriness and optimism.

My story runs tomorrow. Read it and you’ll see what I mean. What a sweet and adoring couple.

Arkie Mama: Overheard in the newsroom

So there’s this fabulous Facebook page that’s a fave of many a journalist. Overheard in the Newsroom offers hilarious comments and/or conversations overheard in, well, a newsroom.

Anyway, I thought I’d take you, dear readers, on a walk through our newsroom. (Some of you will likely recognize yourselves.

I originally posted this in 2007. But I’ve hauled it out, given it a good dusting and am making it available to you once again. (Just so you’ll know why I’ll never be fit to work in any other environment.)

So, here’s a sampling from a typical day:

“… and so for the next 24 hours, you have to pee in this bucket …”

“… caught trying to steal a sheep from the zoo … said he thought it was his mother…”

“OH NO!” [Thud, thud, thud] “I just wrote this email about how I was worried I might be pregnant and that I forgot to take my anti-depressant this morning and then accidentally sent it to one of my sources…”

” … he used Dippity-Do for WHAT?!”

“… So should I send another email apologizing for that first email about the anti-depressants?”

” … used a garbage can to steal that sheep from the petting zoo … no, the sheep wasn’t injured …”

” … guy said the strippers beat him too hard during a birthday spanking …”

[Religion editor walks by, pauses at a reporter’s computer screen and notices a man wearing a thong.]

“What website are you on?”

“Go Fug Yourself.”

[Editor looks hurt.]

“… Um … OK.”

Arkie Mama: Not for the squeamish

I always figured my career as a reporter would come in handy once I became a mom. After all, those traits that had served me so well in journalism seemed applicable to motherhood — the ability to think fast on your feet, determination, a love for research, etc…

Yesterday, however, I realized that my years of mama experience have improved my job performance considerably.

Nothing fazes me anymore — the poop, the pee, the vomit, bloody wounds, etc…

Which is why I didn’t even flinch the day one of my co-workers threw up in the trash can next to my desk. Having survived The Autumn of the Rotovirus, a little splatter on my purse and feet was nothing.

And yesterday, when a man I was interviewing popped out his artificial eye and plunked it onto my notepad, I didn’t gag, although I admit that stifling the impulse took all of my concentration.

One minute we’re chatting and the next there’s an eyeball staring up on me. Right on top of my scribbled notes, people!

“I figure since you’re a reporter, you can handle this,” the man said.

No, actually, the only reason I’m not conked out cold at your feet is because I once had to wrangle my daughter’s half-peeled-off toenail back into position so that I could stick a bandaid over it. Even so, omg, there is an eyeball — freshly removed from someone’s socket — on my NOTEBOOK!!

“I’m not touching it,” I said weakly.

He laughed.

My biggest dilemma was where to look. At the man’s empty socket? Or at the grossness artificial eye on my pad?

At one point, he picked up the eye. I thought he was going to put it back in (pleasepleaseplease), but instead he waved it around for emphasis as he told me all about the wonders of modern medicine. Then he put it back on my notepad.

I tried not to notice that the eye was leaving a wet spot on my notes.

Finally, he picked it up a second time and began the process of putting it back in.

“I usually can’t do this without a mirror,” he said.

“Oh, really?” I said. “Why’s that?

“It makes me nauseous,” he replied.

Dude. What do you think this is doing to me?

After much fiddling, he turned to face me.

Only the white part of the eye showed, giving him a bit of a zombie appearance.

“Is it in right?”

“Er, no,” I answered, praying I would remain conscious. “Your iris is still up by your eyelid.”

I am proud to say that we finished the interview without me yakking up my Diet Dr Pepper further incident and parted ways amicably.

I returned to the newsroom with one helluva story and the assurance that nothing — not even poop the size of a small submarine — would ever faze me again.

If you made it through this post, I applaud you. Ever considered a career in journalism?