You Too Can Bring Change
Ezekiel Elliot didn't seek out that Salvation Army bucket. It was right there in front of him and he didn't run around it nor did he try to avoid it. He jumped in feet first. In that one moment, he changed the perception of thousands of people who also jumped in to motivate hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations.
By J.B. Blocker
I used to feel uncomfortable about passing Salvation Amy ‘Bell Ringers’ everywhere I would go during the holidays. It’s not that I am ambivalent about giving. But I am discerning about who I am giving to and how the money will be used. And one other thing… I feel that giving is not seasonal.
That all changed when I answered the call and found myself working in the ‘Red Zone’ of Ground Zero on September 24th as a Disaster Recovery Supervisor.
Now, I look for Bell Ringers. I am grateful to each and every one of them for the time they are taking and the effort they are making for a calling that is bigger than most of us know.
From the first time I stepped into the Salvation Army’s Main Supply and Support area located just outside of the Century 21 building and in front of the burnt-out remains of Buildings 4 and 5 of the World Trade Center complex, I was a believer, fan, and supporter. Before I knew it, some ‘Proud to be Cajun’ was handing a strong cup of coffee and offering me a Po’boy.
I left New York a few months later with huge respect for the work of the Salvation Army and enduring love for the staff and volunteers I have met along the way. Were ever I follow disasters from coast to coast, they are there with giant hearts to go with well-prepared teams.
One friend I made as soon as I returned to DFW is Pat Patey, a long-time S.A. Executive. We have stayed in contact over these past 17 years. Recently I told him a story I had not shared. I immediately realized it is a story that must be told.
I was reminded of it during a Bible study about serving humbly. Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus washed the feet of Jesus and dried them with her hair. You can find that story in Luke 7: 36-50.
Also in John 13: of is the story of Jesus washing the Disciples’ feet.
Both Bible lessons came together for me in the guise of a Salvation Army volunteer within a few short days of my arriving at Ground Zero as a Cat Super. Cat for Catastrophe!
My daily journey to the Red Zone began at the Roosevelt Hotel in Mid-Town Manhattan on 45th and Madison Ave. I would walk the two blocks to Grand Central Station and then take the IRT Lexington Avenue line 4/5/6 to the nearest exit to Wall Street.
When I first got to New York the subway line was only opened to the Brooklyn Bridge and I would walk to Broadway and Wall Street. Soon the Fulton station was opened and by December we could ride the line to Wall Street.
Day One: I can clearly remember the moment my head reached the ground level as I walked out of the Brooklyn Bridge stairway. I could immediately smell the lingering dusty smoke and see a light haze. By the time I had passed the city hall and the great St. Paul’s Chapel, about a ½ mile from my security entry, the smells took on a new weight and texture. This was less than 2 weeks after 9-11. The smoke was still billowing out of crevices in the Red Zone. The air began to thicken as I got closer to Wall Street. I began to curse my culinary skills for taste and aromas.
As I passed Fulton the dust became a looming shadow that carried the haunting flavors of crushed concrete, burnt furnishings, and the diesel exhaust of hundreds of big rigs, cranes, and the endless line of dump trucks.
It was at Broadway and Wall Street that a sickeningly sweet taste of decomposition became clear and ever invasive. For the rest of my time on duty, I always chewed gum or tic-tacs or peppermint lifesavers. The tastes are gone but not the memories.
I learned a lot of valuable lessons to be sure on those long walks to and from and in between work and rest. But one lesson that I learned far too late was to take better care of my feet. It took a few days before I realized that wearing tennis shoes to and from work was exceedingly preferable to my brand-new steel-toed boots!
For the first two days, I was so overcome by the wonder and awe of the unimaginable wreckage and the huge task ahead that I wasn’t aware of the rubbing on my heels. By the end of day two, I had walked a few miles and climbed many stairways in perimeter high rises without the benefit of elevators. My heels were blistering and I had grabbed some Band-Aids that night at a drug store.
On the morning of my third day, the tops of my toes and both sides of my feet were beginning to blister. I was supervising a recon team at World Finance Building II on the 38th floor when a bomb alert was called on my walkie. I gathered my crew spread on two floors and we ran down the stairs with a hurried determination. My friend had a team on the 50’s working their way down and as I ran recklessly down the stairs a few harrowing thoughts ran with me.
“Were we running down the wrong side of the building stairways? Was the threat above or below us? Would my teammates on the ’50s make it? These are all thoughts that meant life or death to those in the Twin Towers on 9-11.
By the time we had gathered outside the building and everyone was accounted for the pain in my feet was unbearable. I had to take my boots off. My socks were bloody and as I carefully, painfully slipped off my socks I saw the skin was dangling off my heels. The top of my arches was raw. As I moved down to my toes I could see the giant blisters on the side of my toes were on the verge of exploding. Finally, the socks were off and I could see the hide rolled back on the tops of my toes where the steel cap of my boots end.
My feet were a wreck and I had just begun my job. This was a personal disaster and challenge!
A side note as to the reason we were running down dozens of stairs in fear for our lives:
One of the support crew had walked into an office of a major accounting firm and seen what turned out to be a gag gift type of 3 sticks of dynamite and a faux clock timer sitting on a desk. He immediately ran to a supervisor and reported a bomb. This set off the all-out evacuation alert.
Before 9-11, I am sure that no one thought anything about the fake dynamite bomb. After 9-11, perceptions had changed.
On one ride from work, I was trapped in a full subway deep in the tunnel. The cars had been stopped because a woman had dropped a makeup compact at the station and someone had yelled out Poison! which shut down the entire line! I helped lead frightened, sobbing, and in some cases, delirious people out of the cars as we walked down the dark tunnel beside the train toward the nearest exit. New York was in a state of readiness to panic!
This was the station that served only the ones with security passes into the Hot Zone. The Red Zone! It served all the drivers of heavy equipment, the National Guard, the fire and police, the government staff, and hundreds of us who were dealing with the damaged but still standing perimeter buildings.
My Angel's name is Sandy.
I stubbornly hid my limp on my way over to the S.A. tent. I was with my fellow Disaster Recovery Super’s and my direct boss was with us. I wasn’t going to let them know that my feet were a disaster of my own making. When I got to the tent, the others went for the food being served by a team of S.A. volunteers from Louisiana who were joyously serving up Po’boy’s and Gumbo with a side of kindness, support, and passion.
By now, I was headed for a bottle of whatever pain pills they had and band-aids. A lady with long salt and pepper hair pulled back and a kind face came to me to offer help in finding what I needed. When I explained my problem, Sandy took control. She immediately made me think of how my mother or two sisters would have acted with me.
Sandy led me to a chair, brought me a hot cup of coffee and when I admitted I had missed lunch, she also grabbed an assortment of healthy snacks. I am not the Healthy Snacks kind of guy, but I have learned not to argue with my mother or my sisters.
She helped me remove my boots so we could assess the damage. By then the socks were literally soaked in blood. Unfortunately, some of the blood had dried around the perimeters and taking them off was far worse pain than after I had run down 40 flights of stairs in a dead panic.
There were dozens of fold-out tables in that giant tent and every seat was taken by another dust-covered, hard hat-wearing, physically and emotionally drained worker. They were just like me.
TV’s were all around and we were watching the news reports of retribution and revenge followed by the world’s attention to what we were doing 24/7 at Ground Zero to find the missing and clear out the destruction. Big, grown-assed, hardened men and women were all taking short breaks before getting back out into the smoke, and smell, and haze of death.
I was basically oblivious to what Sandy was doing. I was waiting for the half dozen aspirin to kick in and weeping with all the others in that tent as we watched a procession of Fire Fighters bringing out the remains of a pocket of their own on national television as it was happening less than a hundred yards from where we sat drinking coffee and renewing ourselves for another push of our own.
Sandy knew what she was doing too. She began by carefully washing away the wet and dried blood covering my feet. I did my best to be brave and tough. She had gathered antiseptics, ointments, bandage wraps, new fluffy socks, and an assortment of pain pills. I looked at her face as she knelt before me oblivious of everything else. I answered her questions about where I was from, what I was doing, and what I did in the real world. She was really quite lovely in her natural state but I could see that she could make a striking figure with a little prepping. Her nails were nicer than I expected too.
She wore no makeup. I guessed that she was in her late 40’s because of the streaks of silver and greys in her thick, long, formerly brunette hair. I realized that she was lovely in her dirty jeans and sweatshirt. Her name was Saundra and she sounded like a Saundra who wanted to just be Sandy. There was a bit of withheld elegance in her. Maybe you might say Subdued.
By the time she had treated my feet and my soul with kindness and care, Sandy had spent way too much time on me than I was comfortable with. There were dozens of others coming and going who deserve attention and direction too.
She took me to the area that had clothing and we found a pair of black tennis shoes that looked passingly like my boots for me to wear to and from work. That was a miracle in and of itself to me. The work was too dangerous and the rules were explicit that we wear steel-toed boots on the job.
She handed me a bag with thick socks, bandages, wraps, creams, ointments, aspirin, and whatever else she thought I might need and insisted I come back by the next day.
It was one of the first cold days the next day. I had been on shift for about 4 hours when I took my break and had some lunch with those heartwarmingly infectious Louisiana volunteers. It was their last day before being replaced by a group from Canada. I fell in love with the spirit of those representatives of the Cajun nation. They were only there for a few days and most of them had barely slept. Groups of volunteers from all over the country and even the world came for a few days at a time bringing the same spirit and energy. They were there to do whatever they could to feed, water, and lift the spirits of the hundreds who were working day and night to clean up and clear out the devastation.
I went into the supply tent and began to gather the things I would need to rebandage my feet. Sandy caught me! She sat me down in a convenient chair, gave me a hot cuppa with a sandwich, and insisted that I let her do her job. I told her that it wasn’t her job to nurse me but she gave me ‘the look’! We followed the same routine as she knelt before me bandaging and interviewing me at the same time. Once again she commanded that I come back to her tomorrow so she could check my progress. This time, she also gave me some thermal underwear, extra plush socks, and a Dallas Cowboy sweatshirt she had found. All were my size.
The pain relievers helped a little. I chewed them like candy for a few days. I had a day off and went to a local drug store to get more healing aides for my feet. It would be days before they were toughened and healed. I didn’t see Sandy for a couple of more days. Then one day, she approached me at the coffee line and insisted that she see the progress of healing. She had bought something called Tough Skin that she had wanted to give me.
How bad were my feet? For several days I would leave the Red Zone and look down the street. I would pick out a spot down the road and tell myself that I would go that far before stopping. The Fulton Street station opened and saved me several blocks of walking. I tried every kind of legal pain reliever and munched them like tic-tacs. I was offered cocaine but figured I would only rub it on my feet. I was working double shifts every day and only had 8 hours to eat twice and sleep. I needed my sleep.
The Tough Skin spray Sandy gave me helped but the tennis shoes were a major contribution. I had to be tough and brave and relentless for about a week with the help of some hydro something pain pills that a coworker gave me.
One day, about a couple of weeks after my feet had been temporarily wrecked, I saw Sandy leaving the security exit. I caught up with her and apologized for avoiding her. You see, after a few days, I had become uncomfortable with the personal attention she had been giving me. Death and destruction were all around and I didn’t feel I deserved such humbling attention among the other hundreds that came into that tent.
I had grown to love Sandy as a caring volunteer but I hadn’t tried to get to know her. I was busy watching everything else that was happening around us and was anxious to get back to doing my job. She had casually tried to get to know me, however. She had fine features and a slim athletic build covered by oversized sweats. I realized how intelligent she was as we walked down Broadway. I was to be moved to the scene of the plane wreck in the Bronx the next day. At one point, she gave me a hug and wished me well. This is where our paths would separate.
“Well, this is home if you ever get back my way.” She said as we came up to a high-rise apartment building. To be honest, I was not paying that much attention as I was thinking about the assignment I had just been given. “You live here?” I asked as we separated.
“Actually, I own this building. I am going to visit my brother and won’t be back for a few weeks.” She replied.
As I look back, I realized that for a few days a multi-millionaire volunteer for the Salvation Army had humbled herself, gotten down on her knees, and nursed a stranger insistently without ever bringing attention to herself.
I returned to Dallas and in a very short time, met the McKinney director, met the DFW leadership, and have loved and supported the Salvation Army and their Bell Ringers every holiday season.
Some of the bell ringers receive a small stipend from the proceeds. They deserve it! Some are well off enough to not need some extra money during the Christmas season. For whatever reasons, they stand out in the cold and wind and rain and it doesn’t matter to me. Because I know first-hand that the proceeds fund 1st Responder tents for supplies and support.
Disasters are everywhere and come in all shapes and sizes. The Salvation Army is there too.
Whether they wear Santa suits or fur coats to ring those bells and raise money and awareness, the money will be well spent. I know that within hours of those commercial airlines crashing into the Twin Towers, the Salvation Army was there. I met groups from all over this great county showing up for days to feed, support, and care for the 1st Responders.
My lesson for you is to honor those who ring those bells and find your own way to be a part of something that is Tangible, Real, Rewarding, and much bigger than a few dollars or a few hours.
- J.B. Blocker is a media consultant based in Collin County in North Texas. Advertise with J.B. by calling 469-334-9962.