Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The best awful week of my life (part 2)

[Note 1: This post will make a lot more sense if you read Part 1 first.]
[Note 2: Team Rubicon could really use your help to keep doing good works. Please consider donating to our Team Rubicon fundraising page.]

It's 4.15am on Saturday, September 9. If you've ever met either Sharon or me, you know that 4.15am is a time for going to sleep, not one for waking up. The absurd hour is made considerably worse by our having had a few too many drinks with our closest friends the night before.

My phone alarm pipes up with a gentle yet profoundly annoying four bars of jazz music. Sharon hates this ringtone, and frankly I don't care much for it either, so it makes for an effective awakening. I snooze it for five minutes and prod Sharon gently. She mumbles something that sounded like "luck cough." I may have heard this incorrectly.

We're at the Crowne Plaza at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). While absolutely nothing, either in the hotel or nearby, is open at this unseemly hour, our room comes equipped with a coffee machine of sorts and Pike Place blend. I drag my entirely unprepared 62-year-old self out of bed, put coffee on, perform my morning ablutions and start to get organized. Fortunately, we had done most of the organizing yesterday, so this consists mostly of making sure I haven't dropped anything. 

The smell of coffee rouses Sharon slightly. "Dime zit" probably means "What time is it?" to which I respond, "It's twenty after four." This was followed by more incomprehensible likely obscenities, which I opt not to attempt to translate. Sharon stumbles to the bathroom. I turn on the lights, since even the sun has the good sense not to make an appearance yet.

After our excursions to REI, et al, on Thursday, Sharon and I washed all of our new gear and packed our full camping packs and day packs. We were, in fact, ready to go on Friday afternoon, which is more than I can say for us in our current state. We are supposed to meet up with other Team Rubicon members at 5.00am at the Team Rubicon headquarters, which is less than a block from the hotel (and also less than a block from the building in which I worked from 1988-1992, but that's another story). 

Once we've each had a cup of coffee, we're more or less functional. We strap on our camping packs, which turn out to be considerably more unwieldy than expected, especially for me. After a few minutes of strapping and restrapping some of the several thousand straps, catches, ropes and fasteners on this highly complex piece of equipment, Sharon points out that my pack has a waist strap. This makes all the difference, and I go from a 105° angle to nearly perpendicular with the ground. We both totter a bit on the way to the elevator, but by the time we reach the lobby we're relatively stable.

The Team Rubicon office is as close as advertised, although it isn't terribly obvious where it is. We stand on Century Boulevard, in the dark, looking a little confused at not seeing a sign that said 6171, when some people working on a nearby construction site ask if we needed help. They tell us that the TR offices are right where we are standing, more or less, and point us to a side entrance. A few people with similar packs are just emerging, and they point us around the corner to the spot where we are to be picked up. A few minutes later, a shuttle bus arrives. We stow our gear and hop aboard. 

The bus takes us to the American Airlines terminal at LAX, which is unsurprisingly abandoned at this early hour. American has already ticketed all of us for the charter, and their staff people wander through our group, asking for identification and providing us with tickets. They gather us together, show us where to check our luggage (with a counter dedicated to us, a nice touch even though there are exactly zero other travelers) and pack us off to security. We pass through without incident, and are delighted to discover that Starbucks is open. 300mg of caffeine later, we are as ready as we're going to be.
Just in case you are unclear on Sharon's feelings about our 4.15am wakeup call.
The next few hours are uneventful. As it turns out, our flight isn't scheduled to depart until 9.00am; the 5.00am meet time is fairly typical military planning. We drink coffee, find a place that is open for breakfast, meet a few people and even doze off for a few minutes. We weren't sure exactly what was going to be happening when we arrived, so we wore our work gear, plus our brand-new Team Rubicon shirts.
They will never look like this again.
We depart promptly at 9.00am. Once we reach altitude, the captain comes on, but doesn't deliver the typical "We know you have choices, thanks for flying American" blah blah. Instead, he thanks us profusely for taking time out of our schedules to help with the disaster in Houston. He then tells us that his wife is an elementary school teacher who has told her class about Team Rubicon's mission, and that her husband is flying the first-ever Team Rubicon charter. The class of 6- and 7-year-olds decided to make cards to send along with the pilot.

I've gotten something in my eye that I'm having some trouble dealing with. I look around and realize it's not just me. Even the normally stoic Sharon chokes up a little. One after another, these little gems circulate, each one different and each one very personal.

The next few hours pass uneventfully. At one point, our Incident Commander (the big boss), Mike, reads off names of who is going where once we land. We learn that Sharon has been assigned to Friendswood, a city about 30 miles south of Houston, and I have been assigned to Beaumont, a city about 90 miles east (near the Louisiana border). We mention this to Mike, who doesn't ask what our preference is - he just says, "Handled."

We both nod off, and at around 2.30pm Central Daylight Time we land in Houston. After some taxiing delays and a few publicity shots (there was a local news crew and a 60 Minutes crew awaiting us), we are loaded on a bus and taken to a hangar that has been donated by Southwest Airlines. 

Team Rubicon's first charter
We are surprised and delighted to find a crew of kids from a local church there to greet us with cheers and signs. We unload our gear and file into the hangar, and learn to our delight that this group of kids (with some help, presumably) have packed a few hundred sack lunches of chicken and burgers. We each grab one.
The welcoming committee.
We're asked to check in at the desk for the area to which we've been assigned. Sharon goes to the Friendswood desk, I head for the Beaumont desk. We quickly learn that, just as Mike said, our issue had been handled - we were both assigned to Beaumont.

The next few hours are all organizational stuff. We have to sign waivers, get security badges and organize the gear they are providing for us (hardhats, gloves, caps). It's all organized with unsurprisingly military precision - after all, this group is about 75% current or ex-military. Finally, around 6.00pm, we split into groups of six and head for our work vehicles (donated by several rental car companies). We meet a few members of our team and start out on the 2.5 hour drive to Beaumont.

We arrive at our home for the next eight days, the Calvary Baptist Church in Beaumont. I will be saying a lot more about this church, their people and their parent organization in future posts, but for now, all you need to know is that they turned their entire church property (about five buildings on three acres) over to us and then provided extraordinary help to us throughout. We are directed to one of a half-dozen large dormitory-style rooms (there are also some classrooms that were converted into smaller living spaces). 
Our double accommodations, complete with nightstand.
Once we drop off our gear, we are all herded to a small arena that has been set up outside as our meeting space/launch point. Mike (Incident Commander) and the rest of the Team Rubicon crew gives us a short briefing on what we should expect beginning at 6.00am the next day (reminder: that's 4.00am Sharon time). They strongly suggest we go to bed. It's 9.45pm, 7.45pm body time, and we've slept several times already. We stay up and meet a lot of our new team members, including an absolutely delightful group of Israeli volunteers from an amazing organization called IsraAid (more about them tomorrow).

By 11.30, we know the wise choice is to go to sleep. We, so used to real beds on real mattresses, attempt to do so.

Tomorrow: Our wildest imagination proves inadequate. 
(yes, I know I said this yesterday. I forgot how much more there was to say.)


  1. Dan, many of the pictures are not showing up.
    Not sure if it is an issue with just my iPad or something else.

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