One of Joe’s road-trip companions, chief wrangler and fact checker Katy Steinmetz, sees a house with broken windows and a yard full of debris. In the backyard is a sign that says, “If you have it, we can use it.” In the front yard is a sign that says, “Need golf balls pls.”
Christopher Richardson, 46, lived there before the tornado hit on May 22 and has stayed there after, while the scraps of his neighbors’ houses have been razed. Stepping out of his back door, he waves an arm at the empty landscape that used to be a crowded residential area. They all left, he says, but he stayed. “We’re alive. That’s all that matters. Everything else is just blood, sweat, tears and money.”
The people in Joplin can easily recite the exact minute and hour on the clock when the sirens sounded that day. They’ll tell you that no one really worried, that tornadoes are standard practice in this corner of Tornado Alley. Then they’ll tell you that it moved slowly and widely across the town of 50,000, killing 162 of them and terrifying those who survived. Some rode it out in bathtubs. Some saw dead bodies in person for the first time.
Richardson was a block away from his home, where his mother was, when the tornado hit. His friend was in an RV in the backyard that was picked up and spun before landing him back on the ground with a chest full of broken ribs. “Dueling Banjos” now drifts out into the street from a new RV in the backyard. The tornado struck four months ago and President Obama came to give his condolences a week after, but the destruction is still in plain view, and the survivors are deeply scarred by it.
Richardson says he came to Joplin from North Hollywood 10 years ago because it was a place he could afford to live. He bought a house on a corner lot, and he was anxiously awaiting the opening of the local pool, set for the day after the tornado hit. Life was alright. “The one thing I miss most, besides my garage,” he says, “is my Callaway golf clubs.”
In the front of his tattered house, patched with an American flag and identified with a spray painted address, he demonstrates his golfing prowess. (He had a handicap of 2 when he used to golf, he says.) Richardson has set up a tee area, in front of his sign pleading for balls, while another sign directs golf carts “this way” with an arrow. Someone gave him a set of clubs after the tornado. The juxtaposition of his broken, generator-run house against his love of this leisure sport is as pathetic as it is endearing. “I think that one landed in the bathroom,” he says after shooting a ball into the field full of vacant lots and collapsed houses. “This is how we unwind,” he says, “after a long day of trying to save the house.”
The tornado was a terrible act played out on the set of a terrible economy. Richardson, in a seemingly accepting, playful stage of hardship, picks up a hard hat from his yard, and the TIME photographer for Joe Klein’s road trip, Lynsey Addario, asks him where it’s from. “This? This is from when I used to have a job for a living.” But he’s still optimistic. He repeatedly says that he just keeps on swinging. “She’s coming back,” he says of his house. “It’s just a question of how big she’s gonna be.”