Soon after I graduated from high school, my buddy Bill Grant and I spent a summer doing
volunteer service work with the Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) and the Red Cross in Paris, Texas.
My high school had always had an affiliation with the Mennonites and the American Friends Service Committee. Each spring the school would spend three weeks down in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia staying with Mennonite families and doing a variety of work from farming to harness making to wagon building to storekeeping. The connection began with a couple of young Mennonite men from Virginia who were living outside of the Mennonite community before deciding to officially join as adults. They spent about a year at the high school, then went back to the community and maintained the ties afterwards.
One of the teachers at the school helped coordinate responses to disasters and asked for volunteers for the summer of 1982. A tornado had come through and destroyed part of Paris and we were rebuilding houses. It was my second stint as an MDS and Red Cross volunteer; a year earlier I had gone to Hull, Massachusetts, when floodwaters swept over the peninsula. Texas was the furthest away from home I’d ever been.
The first thing that struck me in Paris was the massive amount of destruction. There were trees everywhere, garbage everywhere, I remember seeing a truck set up in the top of a tree. We would either build new houses from scratch or fix up and rebuild damaged buildings. I remember one house we were rebuilding and I counted over 100 tubes of caulking that went into that house.
Volunteers stayed in a gymnasium; fifty or sixty of us working there. Most people would go for just two weeks. There was a group of ten or fifteen of us that they called the “lifers” who were there for the whole summer. Lifers were Bill and I, a group from Manitoba, and one from Indiana.
It was so hot, I’d never experienced that heat, and Texans seemed to live off of warm Dr. Pepper. It was hard to find plain water to drink. They’d bring little cans of juice and I’d probably drink 20 of them a day. Our feet would get blistered just walking on the pavement. Our biggest pastime was backgammon, we took a piece of sheet rock and a marker and drew a backgammon board, then made pieces out of bottle caps, and I made dice out of spackle. Playing softball and swimming whenever possible were also high on the list of pastimes.
We’d get weekends off and usually stay with a Mennonite or Amish family. We’d go to their Church service Sunday, then they’d take us home and feed us dinner. Some of the services were in Old Order churches where men and women sat on opposite sides, very traditional but very friendly. Others were more progressive and resembled the Congregationalist Church I went to growing up.
One day after Church and after a really big Church meal, the women in the family I visited started singing around the table. One of the boys brought out a guitar and started playing it, which was unusual. Then the father brought out an electric bass and that was *really* unusual and we spent the afternoon singing hymns around the table. The Mennonite families also taught me about obrumschah (no idea on the spelling) – the sweet center of the watermelon; you cut around it and saved that part for last. They taught me a new way to eat cold cereal – everyone poured milk in the bowl, then sugar, then stirred until the sugar dissolved, then added the cereal. That way the sugar didn’t all wash down to the bottom of the bowl.
I’ve been thinking about the summer I worked in Texas as I look at all the flooding that happened in central Vermont this past week.
My town of Cabot was hit heavily in the last three days of rain. A culvert in downtown got backed up and washed down both sides of the hardware store and the general store. There’s not many days in the week I don’t go one of those places. I often take my work crews from the farm down to the hardware store for either breakfast or lunch in the little diner in back. I remember somebody remarking once that the window bench out next to the cash register was like a therapy chair and there’s always someone in there receiving therapy.
The idea of service and giving is an important part of community. As you pass through Cabot (or any of the other towns struggling with the aftermath of the flood), stop and see if you can lend a hand. Give a few words of encouragement. If I hear of any organized work details, or fund raisers, I will let you all know. If *you* know of any please post them in the comments section.