“I went to the market to realize my soul, cause what I need I just don’t have.”
Jammin’ was shattered when Micah got kicked out of camp. That morning he wandered around camp dazed underneath his green trucker hat, sometimes helping his brother pack, other times cursing the decision made. You didn’t break up the brothers. The rules were the rules. The decision had been made. Fuck it all, he said to Jane and I. You two lead Team Hope today, wI need to help Micah move and figure out what’s happening next.
He took Scuba Jen to Florida for a well-needed vacation. Or more, Scuba Jen accompanied Jammin’ on his well-deserved vacation. Around the same time, Billy and Sarah got along on their way. Billy never stopped fuming about his argument with Dingo, up until the end. They drove off Vermont-bound with a little dog named Loxi they adopted. So all of the sudden in the crew leaders were gone.
Jane and I took over Team Hope. We had an experienced crew by this point. And it was around this time that problems began to emerge.
Homes on Bowen that we were working on kept having mold come back after a week and a half or so. We discussed the problem amongst ourselves. We discussed the problem with Catholic Nick, who continued providing supplies and sometimes taking us out to lunch for Ga Roti’s at Le Bakery on Oak Street. He nodded and made some calls.
We had that symposium with the Tennessee professor and Travis the Californian air quality specialist. We discussed protocol. The older religious rebuilding organizations initially expressed interest in the mold movement, but never really ended up showing up to bat; it seemed like the HOUSA show. But we talked to Travis about the mold coming back and Travis put it this way:
“Mold is a simple organism. It needs the following things to survive: water, nutrients, and a surface to grown on. So any way you can change the method to reduce the incidence of any of these may prove more successful for your remediation. Especially with the humidity being what it is down here.”
Eventually, we ditched the mosquito sprayers and started using rags to apply the chemical. We also switched from MoldShield, which was limited in supply and very expensive, to a latex-based paint primer to seal the wood once treatment was finished.
Funny random story: One day when I was on another crew, Jane left the generator inside a house while her crew went to lunch. When she got back, the generator was gone. It was a fancy yellow push-start thing that resembled an adult Tonka toy. She had the crew do non-generator work while she walked around the neighborhood from door to door asking if anyone had seen the generator. She came home that evening and told us about the lost generator, but not the administrators. She was banking on it showing up sometime in the next few days. The next day at the worksite, Gary Cobb drove by the crew at the same house and got out to talk with us.
“Y’all know, you really shouldn’t leave your generator unattended on the worksite like it was, someone might steal it.”
Gary had hid the generator behind the house under a tarp, and it had lasted the night. Crisis averted. Best part though was the “Letters to the Editor” of the Sun Herald a few days later; someone that Jane had talked to wrote in about the despicable nature of whoever had stolen a generator from a volunteer group.
One of those days, I took off of mold to go help Gretchen on an interiors crew. We were the only long-termers, and it was a brand new job. We shuttled soaked belongings, kitchen cabinets, and drywall out of a house on the north side of the peninsula. I was working in the master bedroom, and upon removing mildewed clothes from a closet, discovered a crayon mural drawn onto the wall.
I won’t forget that moment soon, it had love written all over it. There was a smiling sun, and a picture of a stick-figure family holding hands in front of a red and yellow waxed house. There were random scribble streaks too that might have been the work of a younger hand. At the bottom it said “Happy Father’s Day, 2005.” I stared at it for a few moments, wiped the sweat from my brow, and decided to carefully punch this out of the wall to keep intact. Precise hole by precise hole, I used the flathead of my yellow crowbar to outline the 2 foot by 2 foot drawing, and managed to get the drywall out in one piece.
I would do right with this, I thought to myself as I squeezed past the short-termers, out the door, and leaned the mural against the siding on the porch. I sat down, removed my N-95 dust mask, and smoked a cigarette on the bottom step facing the street. I could go into the work order, and find this family. I could take this mural home, protect it somehow, and get it back to this father so it wouldn’t be gone forever. This would be a good thing, the right thing, something unexpected and good out of this. Yes, this would be my mission.
As I sat in this reverie, I didn’t hear one of the short-termers come out to the porch behind me, break the mural into small pieces with his feet, collect the broken drywall, and begin to walk it down to the debris pile. I didn’t notice any of this until the middle-aged man stumbled past me with pieces of the mural under one arm and wet insulation under the other.
“Wait!” I cried, and he turned to me confused. “I wanted to save that drywall.”
“Why?” He looked down and then noticed the crayon drawings on it. “Oh, I’m sorry! I didn’t even see that. Do you still want to save it?”
He was genuine in his concern, and I almost didn’t know what to do with the situation in front of me. I stood up and looked past him at the street and the trash, I looked at the spray-painted FEMA box across the street, with the X through it and the numbers that represented deaths and who had cleared the house. I looked past that at the Imperial Palace looming over the neighborhood, and then I sat back down.
“No, it’s ok. I don’t even know what I was going to do with that. Just toss it.”
So he did, and I finished my cigarette. I told Gretchen about what had happened on a break later. It sucked. Yes, it did. But what was I going to really do anyways, send a drywall Father’s Day mural to the Houston Astrodome?
I started to lose it a tiny bit, but I didn’t know that was what was happening. The Pub became a scene of nightly antics. Whiskey. Budweiser. More whiskey. More Budweiser. Darts. Talk. Song. A newfound love of Bob Seger’s “Night Moves.” Among the men, the realization that as time went on that we were all more and more attractive long-termers to the short-termers that constantly flowed in and out. So flirting. Talking about what it had been like last month. Then around that, drunken arguments. One night Finch said something that didn’t sit well with me and I reared back to punch him. At the last second I balked, but was already mid-swing, and ended up slapping him across the face; the idiocy of fighting with one’s friends over drunken stupid shit aside, one of the less masculine outcomes I could imagine. I stared at my friend, who was giving me a “what the fuck?” look. Then I nodded, and went home.
Thanksgiving 2005: I was supposed to head up to Maryland to spend the holiday with my family. Janos rented a car that was super small for himself, Finch, Becca, Chelsea, and me. I stood in the parking lot watching them load it up on Monday evening, and then made a sudden decision.
“I’m staying here. The car is too packed, it’ll be miserable if I go along, and I don’t mind hanging here for the holiday.”
I was sure, so I watched my friends spin dust and drive off onto Pass Road, then turned to go find Ryan and go to the Pub.
When Thanksgiving did finally arrive, we had the day off of work. Billy and Jerry had been talking big about deep-fried turkey, but we still wanted to figure out something to do during the day. I spent the morning in an IHOP with Kate, Serena, and Lydia’s boyfriend Patrick. It was a non-lively affair, and involved a lot of staring at soggy pancakes. When someone thought of the idea of going crabbing, things perked up. We got a motley crew together, stopped at Winn Dixie to pick up gizzard heads, and headed into East Biloxi to the wrecked pedestrian walkway that extended partway out onto the Back Bay next to the Imperial Palace. We brought beers, some fishing poles, and some rope. We climbed down onto a twisted out part of the bridge, scaling bent I-beams to all sit with our feet dangling 20 feet above the water below. We brought a radio, and Ryan had somehow managed to rope up a rusted old crab trap that had been in the water. We loaded it up with bait, sat out under that broken bridge, listen to music, and mused the day away.
We came back to base from our adventures to find a Thanksgiving feast inside. Some chefs were in town specifically for this task, DC gave a good speech about the togetherness of Thanksgiving and made a big deal about how T.C.’s little brother was the 1,000th volunteer while T.C. was the 1st volunteer, and the wonder and/or meaning of the coincidence. Dumbo for some stupid reason had roller blades on and was skating around the room like a circus bear that got kicked out of the Ice Capades. I took in as much of this as I could, then escaped to the field where things were more familiar. Billy and Jerry had indeed deep fried a turkey using oil and a pot, right there next to the pit by Jer’s truck. It ended with beers and deliciousness.
On one of the last days of November, I sat with Ryan and T.C. eating dinner and watching the chore board get filled. Suddenly a voice rang out “is this signing up for work?” in a long-ended syllable Hudson accent. Two guys I’d never seen before were sitting up against the bench away from the dinner tables, a shorter guy with curly short hair and a dirty white shirt, and a taller guy with straight brown hair and a blue flannel. “No, that’s separate,” replied JoJo.
“Oh, sorry.” said the shorter guy. He turned and whispered something to his friend and started snickering to himself. There was something in their smirks I didn’t like; I already didn’t trust short-termers or anyone new, and I especially didn’t like these two guys grinning like they were holding court already by the couches next to the church offices. I turned to Ryan, looked him dead in the eye over the dinner table, and said, “I am going to hate those guys. I can tell already.”
Ryan, T.C. and I had set our three tents at equidistant points of an imaginary triangle in a new part of the field, and had a makeshift fire pit going in the middle. Ryan and I started up the fire, which was meager but our own, and pulled a few beers from the 24 pack we’d purchased earlier. Out of the sunset dark, the two guys suddenly showed up next to us.
“Hey, so my buddy and I just got into town and we forgot to pick up beer, can we buy some off of you?” I looked at him, and my earlier comment melted away at the reality that in this world, we shared everything, and I wasn’t in the habit of refusal. Plus something about the humility of not asking for beers, but asking to purchase beers, struck me a bit— maybe I’d made a mistake. Hell, I’d slapped Finch the week before and I still considered myself an even enough guy.
“Fuck that, sit down and have some beers. I’m Guillermo, this is Ryan.”
“Cool. I’m Mark, this is Mike.”
The four of us opened up our Bud Lights and sat around our small fire. Those two guys that tried to buy beers off Ryan and I were Deubs and Miami of Coxsackie, New York. They would become important to me and to everybody. I never would have imagined in a second, in this serene break of a night with four dirty guys drinking beers together, that 3 years later I would be helping one of them bury his father, with the help of another in that same quartet, and have a phone message to check from the fourth asking how it went and to send everyone his best. That’s how special this era was. You never know who is important to you until they are. Then though, the four of us drank beers under the Mississippi sky and nodded at November becoming December in Biloxi.
I had been on the coast for seven and a half weeks, but that seemed like an eternity. I think in this narrative I’ve alluded to, but not fully explained the finer details of camp and HOUSA administrative life. It’s probably more appropriate to go into it come December though, because it gives the whole thing some context.
In the beginning as aforementioned, there was nothing in the environment around us to really impose any sort of rules on our evenings. The model was simple— you went out on a crew in the day, and when you got back, you did whatever you wanted. We volunteered to cook dinner and do AM or PM clean-up, or to do airport runs. But beyond those special cases, it perpetuated itself… if you didn’t work hard, you wouldn’t have the respect of your peers at night. You proved yourself through your sweat and your blisters, and then relaxed with those who had done the same. It didn’t matter that we were on church property, setting up tents, drinking whiskey, making out, playing music. I mean, how could you impose the traditional rules of northern living (and most of us were northerners) on a world of chaos and destruction, where casinos sat on the highway, where the Army decided who could and couldn’t go on certain roads, and where electricity didn’t get restored to the community in which we worked until December? It made sense because nothing made sense. Janos got quoted in an article that Dartmouth Alex wrote years later reminiscing about these days, and said: “It was the wild west, a reckless cadre of maniacs who could leave their lives at the drop of a dime to do relief work they were completely unqualified for, in a city and region operating essentially without laws.” What sort of order should be imposed in that reality? I think in those early times, where the wine and beer at dinner was commonplace, and the Maker’s Mark and Jack Daniels was campfire requisite, the only thing you could hope for as an outside, bright-eyed and bushy tailed observer was to be accepted into this cacophonous society.
The liquor was always the sort of thing that stayed at the back of the field. But inside, whenever DC was in town he could be sure to be found with a six pack of Heineken. There were always coolers filled with beer along the wall of the main hall. Every night Janos and I would make a Winn Dixie run to pick-up cases of beer, getting money here and there but mostly making it our responsibility to fuel the nightly after party. Now, I’m not saying there is anything wrong with any of this; on the contrary, I loved it. It was everything I wanted in a volunteer camp, draining you physically and emotionally by day, and recharging through fest by night.
In the midst of this reality, Dingo was the first leader. There were certainly lieutenants around here and there, the Dumbos from Boston, and Scuba Mark too, who eventually became a co-director with Dingo. But in the beginning, it was Dingo’s show. He had met DC while volunteering in Thailand. Apparently that was a different Dingo, but DC saw something in him that convinced him to make him the Director of Hands On USA. He was 24 at the time, and always gave the impression of being (a) exhausted, and (b) more responsible than he wanted to be. He was from Hawaii and Portland, was very popular with the ladies, and all things considered did well with the task at hand. His leadership style cut a fine line between confidence and egoism, but that was what we needed around those parts.
Apparently Dingo had been initially involved in the Depends Diapers incident with the Stutz brothers, although everything I know about that incident is hearsay. I do know that on a day to day basis he was the one communicating with the town, the other relief groups, and making decisions on purchases we made, all the while keeping in touch with DC from afar. He was charming, but as the weeks went by he started to look more and more haggard, with bigger and bigger circles under his eyes. I don’t know how much of it was natural to the position he occupied and how much was a consequence of poor stress management. Who knows. One time I was talking with him about his management of the outdoor world, the campfire world. He literally said, “I would love to hang out with you guys, and party, and have fun. But I can’t. And if you were me, you’d understand.” I’m not sure how true that is, since I did the next year when I became a staff member. But that was different, he was a one man show for awhile there; we had seven later on, and more support.
Dingo ran the show on the ground, and eventually had to start policing the night scene, which you could tell he hated doing. He’d make the rounds around 10 or so and tell people to start keeping it down, or to move it to the Spin Cycle; that’s probably where the antipathy started between he and the Termites. I mean, imagine that…he’s 24 years old, and all around him is this crazy society of super partying amongst super do-gooders, and he has to check himself everyday to be the boss and not part of the scene. He had to retain his legitimacy in his mind, but I think it got to him after awhile.
Two or three weeks after I arrived, Scuba started being more of a presence around camp as well; he was part of the Thailand school. Prior, he had been a scuba instructor of some sort in Southeast Asia. Not a great story, but it stuck. So DC made him an equal with Dingo at some point in mid-November or so, but it didn’t seem to get Dingo any less sleep. So then there was Scuba and Dingo. Scuba was a soft-spoken, nice enough guy…he rubbed some people the wrong way, but I think at that moment he was still developing his communication style as a leader. He just wasn’t great with presenting things that people didn’t want to hear, not as diplomatic as he could have been. But you know, everyone was figuring out their place in their own way at that point in time, so I didn’t really begrudge anyone for not being perfect. I can’t say the same for some of my peers though, and to be honest it wasn’t really fair.
An undercurrent to the in-fighting that started happening in November was the fact that whether or not we’ll admit it, all of us were sort of losing our minds. I mean, I sort of accepted it as a beautiful necessity to what we did. But it got to everyone after awhile in different ways, it changed people. Burned them out. Or kept them going, but in a different way than they had known to go before Biloxi. Our humanities caught up with us, whether we were Dingo inside, or Billy outside, or Benjammin’ at the crack of dawn in the driveway, or Jerry shrugging it off at a dinner table. It manifested itself in different ways. Don’t get me wrong, everyone loved what it was we did. But at the same time it was a bit psychologically masochistic, and we were all very good at ignoring any real personal problems in lieu of serving a greater good. I couldn’t really see the universality of this fact until much later. We all started staring a lot harder at that campfire come December.
After the night of the broken crosses, we all knew inside that we had crossed a line. Retrospectively, I don’t know why we drank like we did, but it was easy for me— it was just old habits continued. And some people kept it together better than others. But by and large, the same sorts of people that will drop those past lives and plunge into something new on impulse are the sorts that will party hard at the end of the day. So sure, we crossed a line, but we kept drinking when we got back from work. It was the culture, and it was what we liked to do. We started trying to go out more though. The Pub and the Project Lounge became places to at least get away for a bit, to get away from the vagabond ambiance of our beards and dirty jeans poking at a fire every night.
Ron left at some point to go back to Baton Rouge. We found out later he had to do jail time. Alabama Mike, who worked with Ryan back in September and used to drive to work with a beer in one hand and a pint of Jim Beam in the other, left to go to rehab. I’m pretty sure DC helped pay something for that, and I always thought that was a good thing.
In December, the college groups started coming. Dartmouth was one of the first groups to come down, headed up by Stuart Lord, who was head of the Tucker Foundation at that time. I was proud to have been one of the first four, albeit the fourth. But Cora, Jane, Janos, and I had come some weeks before any of our counterparts would join us: Lydia, Finch, Aria, Edith, Marino for a second, Beau Saccoccia for much longer than a second, and John Harlow. So as distanced as I feel from my alma mater today, I still retain some sort of pride in being a trail blazer in that respect.
That aside, the arrival of the college break groups really heralded a definitive change in the way things were going to be from there on out. All of the sudden, our volunteer recruitment was no longer those men and women drifting with purpose to that coastline— it became organized groups for a week here, 10 days there. If you can imagine, the personalities are a bit different. Your typical volunteer in something like this may very well be a rock star that’ll stick out in your mind for time to come. Or they might be a herd mentality type.
When the Dartmouth group arrived, they set their tents down right near Jer’s firepit. By then, the Termites were really down to two or three of the originals. That night, Jer was up drinking and laughing with friends and a Dartmouth administrator came out and asked him to quiet down. He told her he’d been there a lot longer than them, and he’d do what he damn well pleased. The next morning, Dingo approached Jerry and told him that Dartmouth had come to him and that he would have to keep quiet at night from there on out.
Jerry packed up his truck with those Arkansas plates and left Hands On USA within the hour, cursing everything the whole while. I saw him pack it up, I heard what happened. I stood with Rohde and smoked, he with his Marlboro Red and me with my Camel Light, Rohde whose cynicism kept me laughing at the insane all too many times. We watched it happen.
“Yup. Things are changing around here. Can’t push the wind, brother. Nope. Can’t push the wind.”
Jerry waved to me as he drove out of the parking lot, and I gave him a solid raised hand. Rohde nodded, threw his cigarette down and stalked across the field in his white, dirty tank top.