@ the New Orleans, WWII Museum
(left-to-right) Justin, Stephenie, and Dylan
Answering the Questions:
Who are We, and Why are We Even Here?
The road started twisting sharply. Like Arkansas, itself, was pushing me off the road, toward some sort of unholy and cavernous death. The rubber tires jerked underneath me, following the sudden curves that coiled me around the range. Yeah—those Boston Mountains held steep drops off either side. And thin roads for passing. Clearly lacking any empathy—to me, to the Grand Cherokee, to the nine hour stint I had already travelled. Nine hours since the morning. And something like the same amount lay in front of me. Kearney to Baton Rouge. Home to a place my tires just felt for the first time. Fresh and graying cement. But those past nine hours hit me suddenly—pressing my eyes closed. Making my hands jerk the steel axel underneath, the whole vehicle slamming left and right. I could hardly keep the wheel smooth or the horns from blaring all around me. Get off the road. Some yelled that, or maybe that was the recurring thought in my own head. I don’t remember, now. But I had searched for the refuge of a town, a hotel, a place to park the jeep and crawl in the back to sleep in some contorted ball. I was nine hours from Baton Rouge. Nine more hours and half-way there.
The college graduation date was approaching, and the more I wondered about my uncertain future, the more life began to feel overwhelmingly real. What do I do now? Since the first day of Kindergarten, I had been working toward the same goal: to finish school. Just take one semester at a time, and make “good grades” along the way. But…what do I do, now? I asked my Internet’s search engine, but Google seemed to ramble, giving little substance, really, behind any of her answers. It took a few weeks and a fire to start making sense of everything. I remember looking at him: the way he kept pacing back and forth across the sidewalk and lawn. Sirens, blue and red pulses of flash, that thick campfire smell to the whole scene. He kept pacing, just looking at what was left. I remember how his brow was wrinkled up into itself, and it stayed that way for the whole time we talked–through the paperwork and attempts I made at fixing things. I haven’t seen him since that night, but I wonder. I wonder if his brow is still that way, or if it finally relaxed.
“Hey ya’ll, did you see that new boy there from St. Bernard parish?” I was getting all my books and things from the locker, just fretting over the physics mid-term next period.
“Nah, I hadn’t heard anything. That one from down yonder?” Karly brushed a strand of auburn hair behind her ear.
“Chalmette or something—place is under water, now.” I stopped. Under water—seemed wild, if you thought much about it. The whole storm had happened some weeks before, and when it did, people had put a few pictures up. Mainly on Facebook or Twitter. I remember clicking through the scroll something fierce, not thinking too much on any of them. But, then, one hit me. The house had an old oak tree, with those twisting branches that danced with each other and all. Someone had built a white swing off it, and the swing floated on the water out away from the house. I stopped because I had a white swing myself, but no water for floating. Just a mild wind swaying it this way and that. I guess it, just all of a sudden, seemed different, somehow.
The bell rang in the school hallway.
“Oh, shh—oot. I’m late for my test.” I took off in a dead sprint down the blue and white tile.
I ran plum into him before I even realized he was there. Ten foot tall, I swear it, with dark blonde hair and purple eyes. It knocked all his books on the ground, papers scattering all around us. “I’m so, so, sor—”
He turned his back, starting to shuffle through all the sheets on the ground, making a haphazard order out of all the mess.
“Can I help you?” I bent down and started putting books in a pile.
He snatched them away. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Well, jeeze, aren’t you just wound up like an eight day clock.” I looked at my watch, but it was already five minutes past the bell. I had to go. I had to go, and with him left there sorting through the mess on the floor. Something about that day stuck with me, with me rushing out and him left there. Like a fly on a swatter, it did.
Square and brick. Red brick. Thousands of them, hand-held sized, and a tan mortar to keep them apart. The building housed signs and symbols of the ARC. Also red and square. While the Grand Cherokee hissed in the lot. It’s engine cooling in the stiff heat and thick humidity. Mother Nature was at peace. But I reached Baton Rouge in the thick of hurricane season, expecting some real grit from the old Mother. I imagined high winds bending trees to forty-five degrees, while water slapped windows and the brick. The inside reeking of coffee and a sweating pile of hours unslept. Missed somehow. Could this brick beast stand its own against Nature, herself? And would I be here long enough to find out? Maybe. But not that night. The sun was already stumbling down under the crest, and I had to acclimate to a new housing of sorts. No, not that night—not quite yet.
How I ended up as an AmeriCorps NPRC member came as a result of me being in the right place at the right time. It seemed like a series of near-perfect opportunities. A degree in Disaster Science and Management practically under my belt, a local Red Cross chapter needing help in the form of volunteers. By April, it seemed like I was actually out there. Right in the middle of everything that I learned while sitting in plastic, classroom seats, scribbling notes on the fold-over desk tops. It was in those moments after leaving a fire, driving home with soggy shoes on my feet and clothes reeking of thick, dark smoke. It was in those moments that my existence felt justified. And I was meeting AmeriCorps members who were there, in the process of finishing their year of service, but working full time in the field. They stressed the long hours, hard work, and little pay, but I didn’t mind. Somewhere, in that time, I became an AmeriCorps member, myself. I took over what they had left.
The We, Three
Does this explain who we are? Why we’re here? The decisions we made, the goals, the ambitions? Maybe. In some ways—maybe. But, in all the shades and hues of us, we’re still trying to answer these questions, ourselves. And we don’t find any shame in our stumbling attempts. Just three people—young, dumb, trying to do some good and stay out of trouble. And that’s the key word: trying. Just one day at a time. Repeated again and again over the span of eleven months. Just one day at a time. And maybe, if asked a year from now, we’d have better answers. Or maybe we’ll be even farther away.