by Hugh Gilmore

I ran the episode on YouTube over and over, mesmerized by the sight of a civilization that had exploded into meaningless pieces and was being scooped up and carted away. There is no narration to this clip, just the raw sound of a Bobcat skid-loader moving determinedly in the courtyard between some seashore houses, driving its scoop into great mounds of trash, lifting a load, whirling, returning to the dumpster, approaching, lifting the filled scooper, moving forward, dumping, turning, and then moving through the courtyard again towards the pile of rubble. Back and forth.

The clip lasts only one minute and thirty-one seconds, yet despite its lack of narration it was the single most eloquent video I found last Thursday night. It is titled , “Cleanup effort underway at Seagate Court, off Father Capodanno Boulevard, 11.01.2012.” I found it by searching YouTube under the heading of “Hurricane Sandy aftermath.”

Our neighborhood in Chestnut Hill lost power for two days last week. I was fortunate enough to be able to reach Ron Pete, owner of the Chestnut Hill Hotel, and ask about staying there. He provided our family a very nice room at his little jewel box hotel at a quite reasonable rate. We stayed there till power was restored to our neighborhood.

For some reason, while we were away we did not turn on our computers, radios or TVs, so we had no idea how devastating the storm had been for New Jersey and New York. Concurrently, my Nissan Quest, the “bookmobile” that I use for book business, had died completely and totally last week after 17 reliable years, and I’d devoted Thursday to buying a Honda CR-V at Piazza Honda in South Philly as a replacement.

Thursday night provided my first chance to catch up. I got home too late for the news, so I went to YouTube to see for myself what the hurricane had done to the East Coast. That’s how I came across the lone Bobcat footage.

“Father Capodanno Boulevard,” where the Bobcat was working, sounded familiar. I checked. Yes, I had read about it shortly before. As the storm neared its height, a woman named Brenda Moore drove out Father Capodanno Boulevard with her two sons, Brandon and Connor, age 2 and 4, in the car as she headed for her sister’s house on higher ground.

The road flooded as they drove along, and eventually their car stalled. They got out and climbed on the car, calling for help. The waters rose. Waves higher than their heads began pounding through as they clung to their SUV. Finally, one fierce, twisting wave overwhelmed them and tore the two boys from their mother’s grasp. The young brothers were found dead two days later in a nearby swamp.

The Moore Family’s tragedy is heartbreaking. In one of those turns the mind takes, for a moment I wondered about the irony of such a terrible event happening to what I assume by their names is a Roman Catholic family, on an avenue named after a Roman Catholic priest. How can such things happen? Why are we human beings always having our fundamentals tested by such twisted circumstances? Sometimes it feels as though the photographer Weegee had the only firm grasp on what is real in life.

I wanted to know more about Father Capodanno. How did he merit having a street named for him? Was he a devoted idealist who spoke for social justice? A missionary killed by natives in some obscure corner of the world? Perhaps he was one of those big-bellied, cigar smoking pastors like the one I knew growing up, a man who commands a parish like a political ward heeler.

None of those. Vincent Robert Capodanno was born on Staten Island, went to high school there, and then entered the Maryknoll Missionaries in Ossining, New York. He was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1957. After serving as a missionary in rural Taiwan, he entered the Navy Chaplain Corps. He joined the First Marine Division in Vietnam in April, 1966.

On Sept. 4, 1967, he was with the 1st Battalion 5th Marines in Que Son Valley when they encountered a large North Vietnamese unit and a fierce battle erupted. During the battle Father Capodanno “left the relative safety of the company command post and ran through an open area raked with fire … he moved about the battlefield administering last rites to the dying and giving medical aid to the wounded … an exploding mortar round inflicted painful multiple wounds to his arms and legs and severed a portion of his right hand … he refused all medical aid …”

That’s a quote from his Medal of Honor citation, awarded posthumously. Lt. Capodanno’s final act was to rush to the aid of a mortally wounded corpsman who lay just 14 yards from an enemy machine gun. He was shot and killed. A monument stands honoring him at the corner of Midland and Father Capodanno boulevards.

Back to the world and the here and now: If you zoom in, you see the restless skid-sled Bobcat weaving back and forth, carting the pieces of the world away. In the machine’s maw I could see a mattress and a bike and an end table and a yellow lamp shade and a flat screen TV. (“I like the yellow, more than the blue. What do you think? Can we really afford this size screen? The end table was on sale. It’s just right beside the sofa, don’t you think? A couple of throw pillows right there would add a nice effect.”)

Scratch here, you find a story. Scratch there, you find another one. Place the stories together and they might provoke a begrudging grin at the sight of irony or a smile at the weirdness of juxtaposition. Zoom out far enough and all the stories, including yours and mine, become part of one vast, multi-colored patchwork that makes up human life on this planet. The details of laughter and tears are lost to tags such as boulevard names at such a distance.

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