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Sunday, April 20, 2014

As couple digs, a lifetime surfaces

BY TIM POTTER AND ROY WENZL
The Wichita Eagle

GREENSBURG -- Rod and Shirley Bradley raised four children in a yellow brick ranch-style home built in 1953 at Spruce and Wisconsin.

As the family grew, the house grew. Rod -- a town doctor for 42 years before he retired -- added rooms and built furniture in his workshop out back.

On Monday, he and Shirley saw their home for the first time since the tornado struck. They had evacuated in the darkness on Friday.

With the same hands that had helped deliver hundreds of babies, the 83-year-old doctor leaned on a window sill -- the window was gone -- and stared into his wrecked home.

"Oh, gosh," he said quietly.

His daughter-in-law, Juliette Bradley, helped him through the piles of debris on the back porch.

"I built this round table," he said. A thin film of mud and insulation coated it now.

Shirley, 78, stepped up to the back door. "We never lock doors," she said as she reached for the knob. She tried the knob; it was locked.

Inside, Rod stepped over rain-soaked ceiling tiles on the family room floor. "Oh, shoot!" he said, when he saw them.

"Here is my camera," he announced. "It's intact."

For the first time, he smiled.

"Oh, gee!"

In the bedroom, he was pleased when he found dry clothes still hanging in the closet.

In a bathroom, he picked up a battery-powered razor, flicked the switch, and heard the buzz. "That works," he said.

A bathroom lined with pink-and-gray tile, so fashionable in the 1950s, remained fairly intact. Rod stepped over debris. Juliette held his arm. "Don't hurt yourself," she said.

Food spilled out of the open refrigerator. A few feet away, Rod tapped a pale blue Formica surface with his fingers.

"This is a cabinet I built, too," sometime in the 1960s, he said.

Heading for the backyard, he said, "I wonder where my tools are."

"I bet they are in the next county," Juliette said. As he walked across the lawn littered with shattered timbers, he flipped open his cell phone to answer a call. "Everything's pretty well gone," he said into the phone.

The woodshop was only a foundation now, but some hand tools lay around the edges.

He walked to the collapsed garage. "There's my car -- brand new Buick," he said. It was now encased in rubble.

The wind ruffled his gray hair as he stood back and fixed his blue eyes on the wreckage.

"The house is gone," he said solemnly.

Juliette took him by the arm. He choked back tears. "I'm sorry," he said. Juliette told him he had no reason to apologize.

At that moment, Kansas state Trooper Dan McCollum found an American flag attached to a staff in the garage and brought it to Rod.

"You want to fly it out here?" the trooper asked.

Juliette shouted, "Let's do it! That's awesome."

The flag was a little torn, and the eagle atop the staff was missing a wing. But the trooper planted the flag on its staff in the damp earth outside the garage.

Rod's legs were growing tired. Juliette found him a folding chair. He sat down in the street.

The damage was more than he expected. "Couldn't imagine this," he said. "At my age I'm not going to rebuild. I don't know actually what we will do."

In the front yard was a fractured sycamore, planted about 50 years ago.

He looked back at the house and realized that it had a printed red note stuck to it like a sign.

"Unsafe," it said. "Enter at your own risk."

"Now they tell me," Rod said with a laugh.

As a doctor, he saw plenty of sad things.

"I have more emotion than I ever did," he said. "I didn't used to choke up on things like I do now."

He cleared his throat, suppressing more tears.

Rod, Shirley and some of their relatives had come with lists of things to gather.

As she walked down a hallway she saw a photo of the family taken in 1975 -- one son, Scott, was wearing a leisure suit.

She kept getting distracted. "I can't keep focused," she said.

Out back, Scott, 48, had cleared a path to take salvaged items out.

Authorities gave residents until Monday evening to get whatever they could.

In the dining room, a corner cabinet leaned forward at a 45-degree angle, spilling out glassware.

"It's hard to believe this could happen in one minute," Shirley said.

Shortly after she and Rod married in 1950, they bought a maple dining table from a local store. She had refinished it and polished it. The dining room was now open to the blue sky, but the tornado and rain did not destroy that table.

"We'll be okay," Shirley said. "I don't know where we're going to be, but we'll be okay."

Reach Tim Potter at 316-268-6684 or tpotter@wichitaeagle.com.

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