“Now you’re initiated.”
-Ryan Quinnelly, 11/05
While my adventure at LSU was juvenile, reckless, and irresponsible, it did not deviate too far from my weekend life in general. Mississippi was a mess. And many, many people looked at that mess, worked in that mess, and then made a mess of their own selves by night. Good beer after a good day of work. I’ve matured a bit since then, but at that point in time it was a simple stretch of my old existence at the premiere work hard, play hard school in this country, Dartmouth College.
So that aside, the moment I got back from LSU was the start of my wild and tumultuous friendship of the edge with one Charles Ryan Quinnelly. Ryan had arrived at Hands On in mid-September, and left on a road trip a few days after I got there. I had met him momentarily on the streets of New Orleans my first weekend, dodging between Hurricane drinks in the French Quarter. However, I hadn’t known him seriously until I stumbled out of Subi and walked toward the two figures lazing around the charred remains of the previous night’s campfire.
Ryan is half-Japanese, skinny and gaunt with sharp eyes and a long stride. He was most currently sitting on the edge of a folding chair, hands on his chin, staring. Next to him, a woman sat laying half passed out with her face barely peeking out of her sleeping bag. I strode up, the chemicals from Brand X Nyquil still shaking my head, and sat down.
“You’re Ryan, right?” I offered.
“What?” He looked up, and at me. “Yeah.”
“We met in New Orleans right before you left. It’s good to see you back man.” And I offered my hand. He reached out and shook it.
“What’s your name?”
He nodded and we sat by the fire for a bit. I asked him what he’d been up to and he began relaying a wild, crazy story that sounded as if it’d been drawn up in a lost Beat journal rather than a real account of events. He’d caught a ride out of Biloxi to Damascus, Virginia with Richard, a septuagenarian I was familiar with. From there he had hitchhiked across America to Denver, and then again down to Juarez. He crossed the border by foot and drank tequila in a small bar for three days. He then stood up, walked back across the border, and spent the next week hitching his way back across America. Most recently he’d walked down from the I-10 exit about five miles north, and was now back at the fire, brooding.
As soon as I heard this story, I instantly realized that this was a man I wanted to know better. Across the parking lot, I could see Casey and his mother leaving, Janos, Josh, and Finch retreating back into the building. Next to me, the woman opened her eyes and announced that she had lost her pants somewhere the night before. Ryan and I chuckled as she got to her feet, wrapped her sleeping bag around her waist, and walked to her tent.
Later that night Ryan announced he was going out on tarp crew. I approached him and inquired as to whether there was a spot available. That was how I started tarping roofs with Ryan.
Early the next morning the four of us left base to various rooftops in need of temporary leak relief. The gamut of buildings was about 30% no tarps at all, and 70% shoddily-hammered FEMA tarps that had not taken. The material with which the federal government had designed the blue tarps now representative of any post-Katrina sky borne camera shot was low-grade, synthetic, and about as durable as a Zip-Lock bag. The most consistent problem we saw was that the FEMA tarps would break with the slightest pressure on an unsupported stretch between roof shims. That pressure could be a fallen branch, or a squirrel’s footprint, or even the wind alone.
I sometimes wonder whether people still remember the cruel circumstance of Hurricane Rita’s crash into America four weeks after Katrina. While Rita did not hit Mississippi directly, the winds of Rita’s outer perimeter did well enough to knock down the loose branches of Katrina from hundreds of thousands of rooftops. Rita branches falling on shoddy Katrina tarp jobs equals ripped tarps, which equals moisture leakage which equals a high volume of work orders for tarp crew through December. When homeowners called FEMA to have them come repair these tarps, often times they were told “we’ll get there when we’ll get there,” or another comparably non-committal response from the apathetic government official assigned to the phone lines.
I left that morning with Ryan, Becca, and Steve. I’d shot a basketball with Becca the night before; she’s the only girl I’ve ever seen that can giggle hysterically enough to break her small frame into shivers of delight, and while laughing still hit 60% of her three-pointers. Becca is nothing less than a testament to the maintenance of youth in the post-college adventure. Her smiling face sat shotgun. On my right side sat Steve. Steve was a redheaded Air Force guy in his early thirties, and was married to a Blackhawk pilot on tour in Afghanistan. He’d used his leave to fly to Keesler from Stuttgart in Germany and was on the Coast helping out for three weeks.
Our first tarp job was in a trailer park down Pass Road, and I stood excitedly on the roof, the second in a fire line of nails, hammers, tarps, and strips of wood. Ryan had already announced that the day would be full of contests of “who can get on the roof without a ladder the quickest,” and I’d placed an admirable second. Admittedly, I was no match for Ryan’s height and innovation in spotting the appropriate leaning tree, porch railing, or whatever. The homeowner explained to us that FEMA had already put a tarp on the roof, but that it was leaking down into her bedroom regardless. Being a flat-topped doublewide, the roof was already ill equipped to handle moisture; the main problem, however, was the large branch that had punctured a hole through the ratty existing tarp as well as the aluminum underneath. We methodically set the wood strips and pulled our tarp taut over the hole, making sure to extend it to the end of the roof so that water could not pool underneath the patch.
The second job was on Oak Street in East Biloxi, and the situation was far different. The pitch was steep, the house was tall, and we would soon find that the roof was poorly shingled to begin with. Ryan stood eyeing the job with Steve and Becca, while I rounded the house looking for my access. I found it in a backroom of the house, within which I could climb on a flooded sink, through a broken window (after clearing out what shards of glass I could with my work boot,) and hoisted myself up. I glanced over and sure enough, Ryan was hanging upside-down from a large branch leaning against the house, going hand over hand. Becca and Steve stood on the ground laughing.
Once he met me and acknowledged my victory, we surveyed the roof. The wind was whipping very strongly that afternoon, and we were both crouched down a bit, legs straddling the tallest point of the house. Ryan called out the supplies we needed to the rest of the crew, but his voice was lost in the noise of rattling aluminum. I climbed back down via the tree branch, and dropped down to Steve and Becca.
“Same deal. Nails, wood, the bigger piece of tarp. And I think we’re going to need a ladder for this one.” The part of the roof most badly damaged was right above the Eastern eaves, so it seemed that we would have to combine hammers with a man on the roof and one on the ladder against the house. Ryan shook his head at me and I could see his lips mouthing “quitter” while I took the straps off of our twelve-footer and carried it to the side of the house. I looked around for Steve and Becca, but they had already begun carrying the nails and tarps through the kitchen route. I set the ladder against the house, and pushed it up to the safest angle against the house. I began climbing up rung by rung, the hammer in my tool belt clinking periodically against the sides, and silently took count of a small blessing; the wind was coming from the other side.
I got to the top and Ryan was laying flat about two feet above me. The ladder would not reach the top; I pulled my hammer out of my belt and handed it to my friend.
“I’m going to climb back down and come up through the kitchen.”
“No, you don’t have to do that. Look.” In the space between his face and mine, there were two pieces of two by four nailed to the house.
“Just use those, I just set them.” I nodded and put my right hand on the first. I hesitated for a moment, and then pulled slowly up, my feet still on the top of the ladder. It held, and I put my left hand on the second, pulling and simultaneously reaching up with my other hand to grab the edge of the roof.
As soon as I put weight on the second two by four it came off from the wall and in half of a second I realized it had only been set with one nail, and I felt the terror of poorly projected force fighting tenuous balance twelve-feet in the air. My heart leapt in my throat. As I felt my body begin to fall backward and the ladder come off of the wall, Ryan’s hand shot out and grabbed my wrist. I looked up at him. He was smiling.
“Welcome to Tarp Crew. Now pull yourself up.”
I swung my other hand to the edge of the roof and with Ryan’s help clamored over the edge. The ladder stayed where it was and I pushed myself up from the edge, spreading my legs.
“Jesus, if you hadn’t been there I would have fallen.”
Ryan shook his head and handed me a can of water.
“I was always going to grab you.”
I looked into his grinning eyes.
“Did you do that on purpose?”
“Ha, ha… yeah. That’s why I was there. That’s your initiation though, now you’re on tarp crew.”
I paused and took a sip of water.
“How many other people get initiated?”
“None that I know of.”
“Will Becca and Steve get initiated?”
“No way, man. Do you realize how dangerous that was?”
He smiled and leaned back with his arms around his head, his red mesh hat pulled over his eyes under the beating sun. I looked curiously at him, pulling my pack from my pants and lighting a cigarette. To this day, he and I still talk about that time. I could have died, and he set it up that way. Yet for some reason, I didn’t really care. Like most things, I just accepted the way of things, that yes, Ryan had tricked me, and I’d fallen for it, and he was there to grab my wrist and keep my balance. If it was initiation, it was initiation for more than Tarp Crew. I would call that moment the start of our friendship, our insane friendship. We finished patching the roof over the next three hours, and headed home for the day soon after. Two blocks from Base, Ryan pulled into the parking lot of the Pub.
“What do you all say, Tarp Crew beers?” He smiled at us. We nodded, and went inside to take in the day over drinks, leaving the ladders strapped to the work truck in the dusty gravel lot.