A thank-you note to our gracious hosts in Beauregard, where a media horde converged

I forget which Lee County road we were on, before we finally made the right turn, because we lost track of the roads in Beauregard on Tuesday as we tried to get to a church where volunteers were sorting donations for tornado victims.

My photographer and I had caught a ride with an Alabama TV news crew, to cut down on a convoy of cars that had just been escorted into a restricted zone. We got turned around after we left a hillside where the storm had erased all but a couple of homes.

Like Seale, where I grew up in east Alabama, Beauregard is rural, all spread out with a store or church here and there, and a lot of back roads in between. If you’re from there, you know the roads. If not, your photographer gets out his smartphone, and the Alabama TV producer gets out hers, and they get speakerphone directions.

The phones started talking, but they disagreed on which way to go, and I thought, “These @#$% robot voices better not start arguing in the car.”

I was a little tense, having been under pressure to get some news from the area most heavily damaged. Authorities had allowed us and our National Weather Service escort just 15 to 20 minutes to get in and out, and we didn’t argue.

One of the houses had remained intact, but been pushed off its foundation. After I asked the weather service guy to confirm this, the Alabama TV producer and I called our photographers over to interview him.

But then an Atlanta TV crew honed in and started questioning the guy first, and wouldn’t stop even when a deputy called for us to load up and leave. So finally I got in their shot and glared, angrily flipping my car keys in and out of my palm, until they wrapped up.

I thought back on that in the car, as the smartphones reconciled their differences and agreed it was time to move on. That’s when we turned up a road that ran alongside a spring-green field with horses grazing in the afternoon sunlight.

“That’s beautiful,” the TV producer said.

“It’s right pretty, isn’t it?” I thought, recalling my stopping once to photograph a spring field back when I was in school at Auburn. A suspicious sheriff’s deputy also stopped, to see what I was up to. “It’s right pretty, isn’t it?” he said as he drove off.

After visiting the church, we rode with the TV crew back to Beauregard High School, where the library truly was a “media center” in which a horde of local, state, national and international media converged daily for briefings on the search and recovery effort.

Despite the distressing news, the high school was a bright spot, because the people who work there were exceptionally gracious and hospitable – despite all they were going through – even when their guests were not. They put out food and drinks, and introduced us to school administrators who generously took time for interviews about the issues they faced. They helped us keep everything in perspective.

Well … most of us.

“There no cause for that,” the Alabama TV photographer said when I recounted photo-bombing the Atlanta crew.

There’s cause, I thought, but no cause not to laugh at it later, imagining it on TV: “Tonight on Super Action 17 Live First News – Angry Old Man Jingles Keys, Glares At Camera.”

Leaving Beauregard on the main highway, I got to Moores Mill Road and realized I was retracing my freshman commute from Seale to Auburn, 40 years later, so heading back would be like going home again.

Turning east, we passed another one of those spring-green fields that looks gilded in the afternoon sun.

I hope people watching TV keep this in perspective, and don’t see Beauregard only as a “ground zero” swath of ruin where so many died, but as another hometown where the people are kind and accommodating, and the greening pastures are beautiful in the spring.

It’s right pretty.

Tim Chitwood is from Seale, Ala., and started as a police beat reporter with the Ledger-Enquirer in 1982. He since has covered Columbus’ serial killings and other homicides, following some from the scene of the crime to trial verdicts and ensuing appeals. He also has been a Ledger-Enquirer humor columnist since 1987. He’s a graduate of Auburn University, and started out working for the weekly Phenix Citizen in Phenix City, Ala.