Andrew Dys

Away from home, without a home

Tracey Keeling searches for possessions at her family's Rock Hill home, which was gutted by a fire. Below, Keeling shows a bag she salvaged from the house's charred remains.
Tracey Keeling searches for possessions at her family's Rock Hill home, which was gutted by a fire. Below, Keeling shows a bag she salvaged from the house's charred remains.

Bobby Keeling is a 50-year-old Army National Guardsman with a wife and two daughters. His country didn't demand he go to near the Horn of Africa to drill water wells for people who don't have them. Some in Bobby Keeling's Mooresville, N.C., unit were being deployed in January, and another guy couldn't go.

Bobby Keeling volunteered to take a spot.

So Keeling had a few minutes of down time Sunday around 2:45 p.m. Rock Hill time, the middle of the night where he is in Djibouti. He called his wife's cell phone to check in on everybody and find out how his pregnant daughter, 18-year-old Tiffany, was feeling. The baby is due in October, and the family already had prepared a nursery for a boy.

"Can't talk," blurted out Tracey Keeling. "The house is on fire."

The rented house at 611 Rose St. was more than on fire. By the time firefighters put out the flames, almost everything was ruined. A frying pan with okra was later blamed as the culprit.

Keeling called his wife several times in the next few hours and Monday. Each time, Tracey would say, "There's almost nothing left."

This soldier for strangers in a strange land, who brings the water of life from under the ground, is homeless.

And his family is homeless.

And there is not a thing that this soldier in a uniform with an M-16 rifle can do about it.

The family escaped the fire, but they escaped to nothing. The Keelings, like so many renters, have no fire insurance.

In the 48 hours between Sunday's fire and Tuesday, Tracey Keeling, her two teenage children and friends visiting from out of town all slept in a motel room. The American Red Cross gave them a voucher for a room, food and some clothes.

The Red Cross has received some donations since the fire. A sergeant from the Mooresville unit, Allen Price, pitched in with a plea for help from military families, friends, anybody.

"Bobby Keeling is a good man, a fine soldier," Price said. "He went to Africa, no qualms."

So there on Rose Street on Tuesday, the Keeling family and friends loaded up a rental truck. Tracey's mother, a 61-year-old named Mary, carried and cleaned along with any other able body. Each sifted through the burned rubble to see what could be salvaged. Dressers, some clothes, some pictures. Some baby clothes. They took the remaining stuff of a lifetime to a storage unit.

Tracey Keeling, who never asked anybody for anything in her life, said, "It's not easy when you don't have a place to live and don't know what to do next."

Bobby Keeling, who gave up his regular life working at a battery store to help people in Africa get clean water, received an emergency pass form the Army. He should arrive in Rock Hill this afternoon.

And when he drives past Winthrop University, past the old Bleachery, to his home, he will find soot.

And then in 10 days, he will board a plane and go back to Africa. He is a soldier. Soldiers don't ask why. Enlisted men, specialists in rank, do not cry. They go.

It is the families that stay behind, even if all they see above them is blue sky because there is no roof.

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