It honestly seemed like a joke the first time I heard it. Hope VI was going, Ryan had just left, I was charging forward with setting up my mold experiment, working with Rohde and Mark on prepping the houses, getting to know the AmeriCorps kids (one at a time, they all seemed to rotate who drove me around on a given day.) Most consistently, I was still trying to forget the painful wound of seeing Ryan off. And then Hands On Network struck again— along with the MTV kids, the sudden thousands of dollars available for ideas that kids under the age of 26 came up with brainstorming, there was the definitive political connections held by the organization. The CEO, Michelle Nunn, was the daughter of Sam Nunn. Sam Nunn was the U.S. Senator from Georgia and was apparently on the George W. Bush golf circuit and also had close relations with a number of prominent businessmen (including Bob Nardelli, who in his pre-Chrysler days was still CEO of Home Depot. That was helpful for funding Home Depot runs.) At any rate, all of the sudden HOGC was near the top of the list for a volunteer camp that W would potentially visit in an upcoming trip to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. And then soon after, it was set.
Erin called a meeting of a few long-termers— a select meeting. I think Animal Rescue Ben had been invited, but he had already proclaimed immediate disinterest in anything having to do with President Bush. N8 was too caught up in his Moss Point clinic project to be bothered with media events. So the group was Erin, Janos, Cora, Caleb, Veenita, Harlow, Amy, Deke (an older medium-termer), Nick, Alan Petz, and myself. We sat and got the debrief on what would happen when Bush arrived: he was coming with Governor Barbour and his wife, and then a crapload of Secret Service agents. Base would be secure. “Secure” means that SS would move everyone out of the top floor area where everyone would sleep, and there would be snipers on the roof as well as in the golf course. We all took off work that day, and the way things would go down was scripted strongly.
One big hiccup in the planning process was AmeriCorps. Andrew and Caroline were both involved in the conversations on the day, but in the last month Bush had announced a budget cut proposal that included slashing the NCCC* program out of federal funding purveyance. The team leaders had talked to their unit leaders in Charleston and Sacramento, respectively, and decided it would be best if AmeriCorps was either not on base, or if they were on base were in some sort of peripheral area.
By this point, NCCC team members like Elly, Ali, Nora, Popso, Evelyn, Maggie, Dylan, Erik, and others had been leading teams, befriending all of us, making out with some of us, and by and large just a generally standard part of the long-term crowd. The kickback from this announcement was substantial. There was even talk of no one taking part in the President’s visit if it was mandated that our peers could not be part of it.
The ultimate compromise involved the creation of a large banner that said very explicitly: “Hands On Gulf Coast supports and loves AmeriCorps.” It was complete with a humungous AmeriCorps A painted in the middle, and it was hung prominently on the wall of the main dining area where we would meet Bush and his entourage. Even up to that day, it was unclear whether or not our AmeriCorps friends would be part of the process. In the end, the decision was that they would stand back away from the cameras, near the Animal Rescue pen where the puppies were kept, and Andrew and Caroline would manage the potential meet with the President as appropriate.
The day arrived and we conglomerated in the main room await the President’s arrival. There were angry looking men stationed at all entry points to the room. I remember stammering around a bit, wearing a HOGC shirt with the sleeves cut out and not really minding the ensemble at all. Janos, being the politician at heart that he was, was excited and stressed all at once. We decided to put everyone at ease by blasting “Don’t Stop Believing” out of the large church speakers next to the stage. We all forgot about the whole Bush thing and instead ran around in circles, dove on tables, and belted out all the words. It was really, really nice. Then suddenly Erin came in and said that Bush’s entourage had arrived. The NCCC* kids disappeared out the back door, and the eight of us set to talk with the President sat down at a table and waited for what came next.
Some boom mike people came in, and then some photographers. And then President Bush walked into camp, followed by Hayley Barbour and his wife. We all stood up and one by one shook their hands. We were seated in a semi-circle of sorts at a table, and the President sat on the other side facing all of us. The Governor and his wife took seats on the edge between Amy and Bush, and then like that we were sitting.
Prior to this moment, Erin had explained that Bush was probably going to give us 10 minutes of time at most. He just wanted some pictures with some of the volunteers rebuilding Mississippi and be on his way. We were fine with this, but definitively unprepared for what would ensue.
I’m sure Erin or Cora said something safe and gracious about how happy we were to have the opportunity, and that the President nodded. But by and large it was an awkward first few minutes— we probably looked like a bunch of hippie kids to him that just stumbled onto an opportunity. Maybe that was what he thought, who knows. Fortunately, after a few minutes, Janos spoke up:
“So, Mr. President, I know that you’re a Bulldog and everything, and I’ve got to say that Yale football has been looking pretty decent these last few years.”
Bush raised an eyebrow and leaned forward. “Yeah, things are looking better, I’d say.”
“Very good. I have to admit, four of us are Dartmouth graduates and I can’t really remember the last time our team put double digits on the board.”
And with that, everyone laughed, and everyone’s shoulders descended that important ¾ of an inch from hesitant and cautious to relaxed and mercurial. Bush laughed and said something else about Yale football, and Janos nodded and parlayed that into an opportunity for Barbour to talk about the SEC and Ole Miss. And like that, the conversation exploded into an open dialogue among everyone. It ended up lasting 45 minutes, which shocked all of us but we just kept talking to Bush about Biloxi and rebuilding and everything. From there out, subjects switched all over the place, from Amy’s social work to Deke’s history to Air Force Alan having met Laura Bush in January. At one point, low-income housing came up and Janos jumped on it again.
“You know, Mr. President, you should probably talk with Guillermo here. He’s actually doing a lot of work now and this coming summer with Biloxi Housing Authority related to the Hope VI project here.”
Bush shifted his chair and turned toward me.
“Oh yeah, Guillermo? What do you have going on?” I cleared my throat.
“Well, Mr. President, I am working with the head of the Housing Authority here, along with Nick here, to help get all of the Hope VI houses build three years ago ready for rehabilitation.”
Bush nodded, still looking at me, so I continued.
“So the principal problem with rebuilding here is mold. Basically, all of the houses that got flooded along the Gulf Coast were inundated with water for 8, 10 hours or so. So when the water receded, it left all of the moisture and residue in the walls of these homes. And what all the rebuilding organizations are finding is that we can’t just take the drywall and furniture out, and flip around and start rebuilding the next day. In this humid of an environment, mold can be a serious concern, not only for the strength of the wood that holds homes up, but with the long-term health of anyone that might inhabit these homes in the future. We have to consider allergens, and mycotoxins—”
As soon as I uttered the phrase “allergens and mycotoxins,” the President’s face turned from a slight interest in what I was saying to a complete, face furrowed confusion. In fact, it looked exactly like those “President Bush looks like a monkey” daily flip calendars from the 2000’s looked like. So Bush’s face scrunched up and I realized he had no clue what those words meant. And right at that exact moment, Hayley Barbour flung his hand out in front of Bush and spoke.
“Now listen here, Hee-yair-mo.” (Phonetic. Seriously.) “Hoooood’s got millions of dollars that my office in Jackson is pushing into low-income housing. I appreciate everything y’all are doing, but I just want you to know that you’ve got support from my office with—”
“Hood, Hayley?” Bush had turned his chair to look straight at Barbour. The governor shifted his gaze from me to the President.
“What’s hood, Hayley?” Bush asked with a slight smirk growing on his face. Barbour looked down, a little flustered, and then looked back up slightly embarrassed.
“Housing and Urban Development, George.”
“Oh, oh. You must mean Hud, Hayley. Hud.” We all failed at suppressing our smiles, and watched Barbour shake his head. He turned to all of us.
“You know you’re in a bad place when this guy is correcting your grammar.” We laughed and Bush threw up his hands and leaned forward.
“Hey, I barely speak the language myself.”
That led to more laughter, and I had a good few seconds of glancing over at Janos and then back at Harlow. What had just occurred because I talked about allergens and mycotoxins was amazing, and surely something we would recap for years to come (we have.) I finished telling Bush about mold and he nodded and approved, we finished the conversation, and then the entourage stood up with Erin to tour the grounds.
I followed slightly behind— my moment had passed, but there was a component of the tour where Bush was going to tour Niko’s garden he’d crafted halfway down the west side of the field. Niko got a picture next to Bush, flexing a bicep on which he had a giant eagle and the word “FREEDOM” tattooed. They continued the tour to the puppy pen and a few White House staffers even adopted a few of them to take back to DC (we later got AP photos of the “Katrina rescue puppies” frolicking on the White House lawn.) They continued on and surprisingly, Bush waved off the larger part of the entourage and walked to the farthest back point of the field where Andrew and Caroline’s AmeriCorps teams were standing in rows. He shook all their hands and got a few non-official photos with them. Then Bush continued his rounds, got a group picture with everyone in front of our toolshed, got into his limousine, and was off.
Regardless of our independent political affiliations (we tended to be Democrats, shockingly) everyone was exuberant and loquacious beyond measure at our conversation, at the “allergens and mycotoxins” moment, and everything in general. Beth and Mark had been off base having some sort of adventure, and were beside themselves when they realized that a puppy they had half-adopted had been picked up by the White House. I didn’t really know what to say, as they hadn’t actually invested any money in “Stoner Stewie” but rather had taken him out of the pen every now and then to play with Heli, Boss, and Scraps. Regardless, that was a slight downturn on an otherwise decent day. The snipers came out of the field, we were all clear to move around again, and then it was all done.
* * *
Things were getting fairly rough for Mark Deubert come mid-April. Storm Corps was under his skin and couldn’t leave, even though Hope VI was there, even though things had continued. He ranted about the administration every chance he could, always noting to me that I didn’t apply to the people he talked about.
“They don’t understand what work is.”
“They’ve never swung a crowbar until their hands bled, and kept going. They don’t know.”
“They have no understanding whatsoever of what it is we do. What it is to give your life, your life, to this.”
The split between the administration and the volunteers was only noticeable, I think, to the long-termers. Spring Break had been in full effect, and the college kids were there to be as useful as possible for the short period of time they were there. Every Sunday night a barrage of new faces, grouped anywhere from pods of half a dozen to two, walked bright-eyed and bushy tailed through the front doors of the building. They were shown around base by Cora or Veenita, and between the constant shuffle of new faces on Mondays, the struggle to plan and make them as useful as possible in the short time they were here, and the overall chaos of facilitating the logistics of utilizing 200+ volunteers at a time, few were privy to the closed-doors difficulties that had begun to emerge.
Mark and I talked often, day and night. On a given morning, once we had delivered supplies, generators, crowbars, hammers, wire brushes, Tyvek suits, respirators, the like to our respective Mold and Interiors crews and ensured that our team leaders were comfortable and knew how to contact us, we’d meet up around 9 A.M. to scout the next day’s jobs. It was in this capacity that we developed the respect and understanding for each other’s motivations and reason for giving ourselves to the respective managerial positions, a respect that we carry to this very day. It was about planning, progress, and the jobs at hand. It was about making sure that our crews were as effective as possible, and that no resource went by the wayside. Our drives together were based on the work at hand, as we smoked cigarettes and thumbed through our respective work binders, plotting out our necessary stops, prioritizing the dozens of work orders, and always staying flexible for the inevitable instance that one of our eight friends running our jobs called one of us with an immediate need. And even if they didn’t, it was about checking on the jobs as was convenient to our criss-crossing route around that small peninsula.
With regard to the leadership above us, the component of trust that had been so crucial to our efficacy in those early days had waned over time. For Mark and I, we remembered the days of old, when Dave Campbell, Dingo, or Scuba would give us the disclosure we needed to trust our jobs. Although there were times that management became difficult in those early days, that would be the case of any constantly evolving oversight system. We at least knew that the mission was constant, and that Dave above all loved us and respected us.
Things were not exactly the same once Network took over. Having been absent for the actual transition, I didn’t have that first hand intimacy with seeing the old leave and seeing the new that Mark had, among many others. Reflecting back, I feel naïve for not examining it closer, earlier, not asking questions and relying too much on the beautiful satisfaction of doing good every day. However, there were differences. HOUSA leaders had indeed at least shown interest in taking a day a week to work with the crews; before he had caught his arm underneath a two ton fallen log, Scuba had been on Tree Crew. Dave talked with us when he was in town about what it was we did, showed genuine interest in what had been done, taking constant pride in the work of the younger generation of earnest do-well’s who in turn looked up at him with the respect he earned.
This was not what we had now. Our administrative leadership was composed of five individuals. Erin, as director, was content to smile and walk through the dinner crowd at night, every now and then taking the podium when a person or group of interest was in town. Underneath her were the three assistant directors: Janos, Cora, and Veenita. This was the teaser attempt to show the remaining vestiges of HOUSA that it was the same, that our comrades were running part of the show. In truth, everyone was a bit quashed and it was a bit of a show. The worst was that you knew that all three of the AD’s wanted to be out more than they were, but couldn’t. We wanted them out, but didn’t see them as often as we would have liked. As they would have liked. They were in the second tier of management, while I was in the third with Suz and Beth and Mark and everyone else that got dirty everyday. The cost of administration, but however you want to spin it, I didn’t see them as often as I would have liked.
Then there was the fifth.
I have racked my brains on this for awhile, but don’t have enough of a relationship with him to feel comfortable getting the story. Caleb had arrived sometime when I was gone, but a little bit ahead of the HOUSA-HOGC transition. And Caleb had been around for Thailand, and there was a rumor that went around that his ex-girlfriend had some connection to Dave Campbell or something comparable. I don’t know exactly how it happened, but somehow I returned to this spectacled man fresh off of some trip around the world (with a cute little Apple-driven slideshow to prove it) that was our financial manager.
We’d have long-termers meetings every week, and Caleb did not carry himself in a way that inspired trust or concord with crew leads. He was the opposite of them— he never worked, and took some weird pride in presenting his value behind a computer as opposed to facing the grit. And as I mentioned earlier, he always put it in this way where his work was absolutely necessary and paramount to what everyone else was doing. Admittedly, I have spent years trying to figure out why he did or didn’t do. I tried to understand these things so I could communicate out, foster allegiance, and pull everyone together— yet it was almost as if he enjoyed the snarkiness of being separate from the field workers. I would later realize that this was the world of Hands On Network and large established non-profits in general, this idea that the corporate sponsorship and grant writing facets were definitively separate from what was happening on a day-to-day basis. Maybe that works in a global office, but in a ground operation in a world of chaos it only inspires discord.
Mark hated Caleb. I think it had to do with releasing money for him to buy new tools, or just Caleb being a snide little man in general. Regardless, I came home one day in April to some internal disaster of words. Basically, Mark had gone straight to the Pub with some other long-termers after work and gotten wasted. He then came back to base and at some point stumbling around the main room to find the kitchen and get food, ran into Caleb. Some words came out, and I guess they ended with Mark walking away with JP, Jim, and others but turning back to Caleb and saying the following:
“Fuck you, Caleb. You don’t know anything about what we do. You are a joke. And if I had my way, I would bury you on the fucking golf course.”
I only found out about this after catching up with my friends at the fire— I can’t remember where I was, but not there. The altercation had just happened, and Niko and John both indicated that I should let him be. I watched as Mark breathed heavy in and out, not saying anything but staring straight into the flickering campfire. Suddenly he stood up and started screaming:
“FUCK YOU, CALEB! YOU FUCKING GLASSES-WEARING, PIECE OF SHIT LITTLE MAN! FUCK YOU! IF I HAD THE CHANCE, I WOULD BURY YOU ON THE FUCKING GOLF COURSE! THE FUCKING GOLF COURSE!”
We grabbed Mark and tried to calm him down. He looked up at me with tears in his eyes.
“You know how it is, Guillermo. You’re different from them. They don’t understand. That guy doesn’t know what it is. I fucking hate him.”
“Dude, I sort of hate him too. But easy. You are too important to what we do to risk it all over some silly vendetta with a snail. Chill out.”
Mark nodded. Rohde looked at us and laughed. We chilled out over beers at the fire, and went to bed to sleep it off.
The next morning at breakfast, Janos found me.
“Dude, we have an emergency long-termers meeting, can you make it? Are you scouting?”
“Nah. Is this about Caleb and Mark?”
“Yeah, it’s stupid. It’ll probably resolve itself in a second.”
I shrugged. It was Sunday, no one was working. It was fine. I jogged out to the tents and got Mark up to tell him about what was going on.
“Really?” He lit a cigarette and stood next to me.
“Yeah, man. It’s silly, I’m sure Caleb just wants to make sure people listen to him for a second because he’s an insecure little man. And it’ll be done.”
Mark sighed and stood silently for a second.
“Fine. Then we’re doing something else.”
“Of course. Let’s go get free beers on the penny slots at Treasure Bay and have a Sunday.”
Mark nodded. I paused and then said one more thing.
“If this gets randomly serious…I don’t know man, I feel like the world in there doesn’t function as rationally as it does in the field. If that makes sense. But anyways, I know it’s stupid, but I have a hunch that this whole thing is just so you can apologize to Caleb.”
“I’m not apologizing to that coward.”
“Dude, what’s more important? Your pride, or this community?”
Mark paused and blew out a smoke ring.
“You asshole. Fine. But we’re getting off base after that.”
I nodded and left him to go back inside.
So like that, in a short period of time Erin crammed thirty people into the tiny front office. Caleb sat on one side, and Mark sat on the other. I crouched down and waited to see what would happen. Erin started.
“There’s a standard of respect that we have to uphold in this community. It has to do with all of us making sure that we all feel safe. So last night we had a complaint from a staff member that a crew leader threatened his livelihood. Obviously this isn’t something that can stand. So I will, without naming names, allow anyone that feels they have something to say to say it, in front of all of us, so that things can get back to normal.”
Everyone held their breath and paused. Mark shuffled his shoe a bit in the back corner of the room and then spoke.
“So, I think I spoke out of line a bit when I talked to you last night, Caleb. I’m sorry if you misinterpreted what I said. Things have been pretty hard in the field and I was a little out of my element. So…I just hope you can accept my apology and we can get on with things.”
Everyone held their breath, and turned to wait for Caleb.
What happened next is the reason I will never, ever vouch for Caleb, even if we find ourselves in twenty years on opposite sides of some theoretical non-profit leaders table, him with his NYU Wagner degree and me with my Yale SOM degree, no matter what happens. I will never vouch for Caleb because of what he decided to say on this Sunday morning in April of 2006.
“I don’t accept your apology, Mark. You threatened my life. You told me you were going to bury me on a golf course. Do you know how scared I was last night? I didn’t even sleep in my own room, I slept in Veenita’s because I thought you were going to come and kill me. No, I don’t accept your apology. It’s you or me.”
The room was silent. Suzanne sighed and looked down. Everyone was cramped in enough to taste their neighbor’s breath, so silent and warm. Mark looked at Caleb, stood up, and without a word left the meeting. Rohde stood up and left too. I waited a few moments, flabbergasted at what just happened, waiting to see if this was going to be a cascade. Then made my decision. I stood up and left the meeting. In the parking lot I jogged up to Rohde and grabbed his shoulder.
“Car. Out. Now. Yes?” Jeff nodded, and we threw Deubs in a car and drove out of base toward East Biloxi.
We stopped at a liquor store, then drove out to the edge of town. We stared out onto the broken pylons beneath the collapsed Ocean Spring bridge on the boat side. We traded whiskey and let Mark breathe. He started crying again.
“Fuck them. Fuck them. They don’t know. They have no idea.” Mark picked up a piece of wood and started beating it into the ground. Rohde and I watched. He stopped after it had disintegrated. The three of us stood out on the edge as the water drew in to the steps, drinking whiskey and kicking rocks. Mark stood with us and took a long pull.
“OK. Fuck it. Let’s go back.”
We drove back and Mark and Rohde retreated straight back to the campfire. I went inside to see what the decision was. Caleb stood strong on his “him or me” take, and Erin had decided that Mark had to go. He, just like Ryan 3 weeks before, had to be out by noon the next day. I told anyone that would listen that this was a mistake. No one really listened.
The next day, AmeriCorps Erica was ready to go for the drive to New Orleans. No one worked that day. At least I can’t imagine that anyone worked that day, because we took the seats out of the back of the minivan and crammed 12 people in the back to see Mark off. It was me and Rohde. And then also Niko and Harlow. And Russell and Miss Sue. And Donnie and J.P. and Bicycle Ben and maybe a couple others that escape my memory, but we had a full ride. If we’d been pulled over, we would have been absolutely fucked. I do know that the ride had its first pit stop 30 yards from the driveway of Hands On, when we stopped at a gas station and picked up at least two 30-packs. And we had a number of joints lit. Erica didn’t mind. We got high and got drunk and all silently showed Mark that we were on his team, no matter what bullshit reason a disconnected leadership had for pronouncing our Interiors lead’s exodus.
About 30 minutes in, Rohde lit a cigarette, and then randomly grabbed Mark’s arm and pressed it into his arm. Mark let out a slight disregard, but let it happen. We all stared in stunned silence. Rohde looked at us and continued.
“It is what it is, brother. Now watch this.”
Rohde relit his cigarette, took a couple drags, took it in his hand, and pressed it hard into his own right arm. He winced, then looked at us.
“It is what it is, you know.”
We nodded and there was a bit of silence in the car. Then, of all people, Donnie spoke.
“I’ll do that.” He took his cigarette, gave it to Rohde, and turned away. Rohde shrugged his shoulders, and jammed it into Donnie’s arm. I watched. Russell said the same and did the same. Then I said I was down, and Rohde said give me your cigarette, so I did. I turned away, and Rohde pushed it into my upper right arm. I don’t remember it hurting, but I remember being proud of the gooey flesh circle that took the place of the smooth white skin. Harlow did it, and Niko, and then it was done (J.P. was adamant in his opinion that we were idiots and there was no way he was doing that.) We continued driving to Louis Armstrong Airport in New Orleans, not even stopping for bathroom breaks— we had a 2×2 foot space and an empty Gatorade bottle for that.
When we arrived Mark got out and we all disembarked to give him big hugs. He looked at all of us, said “fuck you guys”, turned, and went into the airport with his bag on his shoulders. We got back into the car, but not after Rohde disappeared into the airport and returned with two pizzas somehow. Then Erica drove us back to Biloxi.
Rohde left a week later. Not a lot of explanation, but without Mark he was just some sort of person that existed in the back of the field. I talked with him a lot that last week— maybe we were as different as you could imagine, but time makes fellows of everyone. He wanted out of there as soon as Mark was gone and I didn’t begrudge him for it. It was a smaller trip to take Rohde to the NOLA airport, but I was on that as well. We hugged, and he got on a flight bound for Seattle.
There are some people that I’ll never forget that I was friends with in my time on the Coast. As I write this sentence, it’s February of 2011 and I’ve been trying to finish this for 6 years. So having that span of time pass since these events, I will say the following. Rohde, I see on Facebook sometimes, but not in person since that point. Mark remains a true friend— when his father passed away in December of 2008, I was honored that he asked me to be one of five people that stayed after the funeral to help his brother and him shovel the dirt onto his grave.
This story is not over yet, but Katrina made stronger bonds out of us than I can imagine any other situation makes out of anyone. Possibly Peace Corps. And I guess war, but I feel like an asshole for even saying that.