“The important stuff is not stuff,” read the text message from John Fickel or “Fish” as he is called, a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel and long-time family friend. I’ve just returned to Topsail Island, North Carolina to find my house and its contents or “stuff” intact and unscathed. Navigating flooded road closures, driving onto the island which is only open to residents due to its hurricane recovery, I’ve had time to really ponder this simple, common sense yet profound statement. First and foremost, my heart pours out to numerous people in North and South Carolina who felt the true fury of this intense storm, one to be remembered for decades. Florence destroyed homes and businesses but, most importantly, took precious lives. Let the names of the fallen live on as the story and impact of this storm is sure to do. It is people after all, which are the most important stuff, not buildings and their contents.
Fish was always the leader in the group to offer a commonsense statement like this to refocus us on the true importance of the moment. Amidst the chaos of a complex training event, one which would replicate the rigors of combat, he was the calm leader in the storm to help others see through the fog and friction. Indeed, my wife and I never lost sight of what was important nearly two weeks ago when we made the decision to evacuate our home and island town. Wresting with what to bring from a home filled with decades of treasured possessions, in our haste to depart the area, we knew it was just stuff. We had said goodbye to each other and our possessions in a career moving frequently and being separated by training events and three combat tours wondering if we would see our household goods or each other again. Through all this and again on the cusp of another life crucible, what mattered most was life. Fish’s text to me, among several from concerned friends and family, was the one which stuck. It brought me back to that hot, humid night (several in fact) when we had not eaten, slept of showered and the demands of the fictitious battlefield cemented us in place. Fish would loosen the bonds of friction and, with a simple statement, remind the group of what was truly important.
Florence took so much from our beloved Carolina coast. She put our lives on pause, consumed chunks of our beautiful coastline and flooded our neighborhoods. This we won’t soon forget. But she did give us something. A lesson in humanity. While we cherish our possessions, the comfort of our surroundings and the beauty of our land, it is people which count most. My wife and I are thankful for so much. We embraced in our home once we learned it survived the storm, happy, knowing that it prevailed, relieved to be reunited with our possessions. But the true meaning behind that embrace was that we were alive. We had survived once again. So too had our neighbors and friends. That’s the important stuff. Thanks Fish.