December 2, 2007
Caught Up in a Storm, With His Eyes Wide Open
By DAN BARRY
A boy named Isaiah Polk went off one day to see what he could see. He scaled a chain-link fence at the back of his tired FEMA trailer park, where fetid water gathers, and escaped into woods declared off-limits by his mother after reports of poisonous snakes.
On that hot July afternoon, Isaiah and two friends hunted for tiny crabs, threw dirt bombs and visited the cemetery across the creek where his grandfather, who used to give him firecrackers, is buried. They also found treasure: a mysterious black duffel bag that came with them on their return climb over the wobbly fence separating the forbidden from the forgotten.
The bag was jostled, kicked, and finally opened to reveal strange things, including a pair of pliers, some tubing, nail clippers and a two-liter plastic bottle filled with a milky liquid. Isaiah waved a younger boy away from the bag, then bent over to zip it up. He heard a hiss and then BAM!
The bottle exploded in his searching brown eyes. Eyes that had danced upon strings of joyous Seussian words, followed spiraling footballs into outstretched hands, hunted creeks for crabs. Eyes that had taken in the absence of a long-gone father, the struggles of a stretched-thin mother, the bruises given her by a violent boyfriend, the Gulf Coast rot of Hurricane Katrina. Eyes of a boy just being a boy, and not yet 10.
Late that night, an ambulance headed for the burn unit at Children’s Hospital in Birmingham, 300 miles north. In the front, one worried mother; in the back, a curious-now-terrified boy who had just stumbled upon a meth lab dumpsite.
To cook the white drug that dictates their lives, the haggard, frenzied denizens of the methamphetamine world need assorted materials that go together only in the context of a meth lab: paint thinner and coffee filters, drain cleaner and tubing, fertilizer and cold medicine. And when these amateur chemists are done — that is, if they have not set themselves on fire — they dump their hazardous and potentially explosive waste in the Dumpster of a Piggly Wiggly supermarket, say, or in the woods.
Isaiah spent a week in the hospital having his burned face and lips treated with salve and his damaged eyes flushed with solution, over and over. A blond nurse asked him what her hair color was, and he said brown. Although he could not see well, he could hear people talking about his bluish-white eyes. He worried that he was ugly, and that no one would like him.
Isaiah returned to the trailer park, the local news media converged and all of Pascagoula sighed at the sight of him. Scarring and scabbing on the face, left eye clouded, right eye less so, both eyes asking why me.
One way the community responded was down at the Wal-Mart, where the receiving manager, Patsy Poole, set up a fund-raising booth near Register 1 that displayed photos of Isaiah’s transformed face. More than $2,000 in four hours; more than $5,000 in a few days.
“Twenties!” Ms. Poole says. “They was just throwing in the money.”
Another way was by inundating the Narcotics Task Force of Jackson County, still working out of a poststorm trailer, with tips about dozens of meth labs and dumpsites. Sgt. Curtis Spiers, its commander, said many calls came from local meth users, whose arms and hands often carry telltale burn scars of their own accidents. They hadn’t informed in years, but what happened to this boy was too much.
A couple of people told Chad Heck, the task force’s assistant commander, to check out two young men who hang out in a trailer a few yards from Isaiah’s, including one who had been laughing that it was his stuff that blew up.
The police soon arrested James McCall and Terry Shimp. Both said they were sorry. Asked if he would like to apologize directly to Isaiah, Mr. McCall said, “Hell, yeah.”
Some good things happened because of the bad thing that happened to Isaiah. It reminded anyone who needed to be that there are still FEMA trailer parks two years after Hurricane Katrina, no matter that Mississippi has spent $1.7 billion in federal aid on projects for businesses and the middle class. It scared people into realizing methamphetamine’s potential for collateral damage. It prompted one of the suspects to pass on information that cracked a nine-year-old murder case.
“I really believe it was part of his penance,” Sgt. Spiers says.
As for Isaiah: he endures.
His mother, Monaleissa Polk, said most of the $15,000 in donations went for medical-related bills early on, although Isaiah now has Medicaid. She used the rest of it to move the family out of the FEMA trailer park and into one place, then into another, and, finally, into a house a few miles north of Pascagoula, close behind a truck stop.
She says the anger that Isaiah had before his accident has only intensified since; he recently roughed up a smaller schoolmate and was suspended from the fourth grade for three days. One minute he is surly and distant, and the next he is a loving and lovely and thoroughly boyish boy.
He is also a bit of a medical marvel. The scars on his face have disappeared. Sight in his right eye is restored. And there is only a rim of that milky blueness in his left eye. Doctors who had planned to perform a corneal transplant are waiting to see what more the young boy’s body can do to heal itself.
Isaiah is supposed to wear glasses, but for some reason they keep breaking. He says that’s all right, because he sees everything around him.
Audio and photographs from Pascagoula are online at nytimes.com/danbarry.