The Lost Patrol by Turloch Padraig O’Laimhin
I’m unsubscribed to gallows humor about Hurricane Sandy, however, with incompetence, yes, in incompetence there is humor :
Early Thursday morning I sat in a large hall with my fellow New Yorker s at Red Cross headquarters on the western tip of 49th Street. Lifting my trembling hand –wrapped around a large cup of deli black coffee– my only concern was hoping that my old bottle of Polo Cologne, a 1986 graduation gift, was sufficiently masking my pores pumping out the remaining vapor of a half dozen Old Overholt Rye on the rocks from six hours prior.
I had not been irresponsible, per se. I had signed up to volunteer for the Red Cross during the storm, and by late Wednesday night I received an email asking for food distribution volunteers to report at 7AM the following morning. Now, while I was not wearing a costume this Halloween night, my liver was dressed as Larry Hagman. Yet, I rallied before dawn.
The solicitation email from the Red Cross went out at 10:38 PM (I read it around midnight) asking for 150 volunteers to report at 7AM. Fully 200 people showed up. Average age was 28, a rather equal number of men and women, and, curiously, well over 90% were white. We signed in and took our seats to await orders. It was rather quiet, punctuated by dull grunts from a few pockets of people who knew each other. Generally, though, it was a collection of eager volunteers sipping coffee and reading the newspaper on their mobile devices.
By 7:30 AM our orientation had begun. Our job for the next 12 hours was to fan out onto Long Island with mobile food trucks and feed the destitute from hurricane Sandy. Between the rough overview of what to expect, plus a history lesson on the Red Cross, three things stood out as the most important elements to remember while engaged in this noble effort for humanity:
First, in a staccato resembling the character Carr from Cool Hand Luke we were instructed that anyone handling food, touching food, serving food, moving food, looking at food, seeing food, or saying the word food must wear plastic gloves. If you take a sip of soda, replace your gloves! If you scratch your face, replace your gloves! If you point towards the relief shelter, replace you gloves! Otherwise, spend a night in the box! Additionally, people wearing hats were advised that they should actually hand out food. Apparently, someone without a hat, or hair net handing a cup of soup to a cold, hungry child would cripple the entire relief effort during the worst natural disaster in history with an errant hair follicle…as well as not changing their gloves as often as a new ball in the typical Major League baseball game.
The second most important tenet of the American Red Cross that we volunteers must, must, must know, and our young instructor took great pains, and glee, in drumming this into our heads, was that the Red Cross is NOT a Christian organization! Please understand ,people, that the cross in the Red Cross flag is in no way a Christian cross, does not resemble a Christian cross, should not be confused with a Christian cross, should never be referred to as a Christian cross, does not have the dimensions of a Christian cross, and should never be thought of, even in the farthest regions of your mind, as a Christian cross. [Emphasis ours—ed. note] Why? Because the Red Cross is not, has never been, and will never, ever, ever be a Christian organization! The flag is purely the inverse of the Swiss flag (I sat quietly, but, ahem, all my reading on the subject explicitly mentioned it was initially modeled after the Christian cross). Why the Swiss flag? Because the Swiss businessman, Henri Dunant, was a businessman who witnessed atrocities during the Italian Civil War in the mid-19th while in Italy on business. So, businessman, Henri Dunant, while on business in Italy decided to form the International Red Cross with other businessmen. Also, as per our instructor, to repeat, Mr. Dunant was a businessman, who put his business acumen to work in organizing the International Red Cross…an organization founded while on business. So, it bears repeating that the Red Cross has no affiliation with Christianity whatsoever because it was started by a Swiss businessman while on business with other businessman. I think we ran short on time because our instructor never got to the part about Henri Dunant being a devout Christian, from a devout Calvinist family, and helped launch the Young Men’s Christian Association in Switzerland, as well as, founding a Christian bible organization. And was— again, according to his official bio– motivated by his strong Christian values and compassion to start the International Red Cross–while on a business trip.
So, did everyone in the back hear me? The Red Cross is NOT a Christian organization and the cross is not really a cross!
Then, honest to God, this conversation took place:
INSTRUCTOR: You will be going to 6 different feeding areas on Long Island. There you will meet a private food supplier for this effort. Tim, which trucks will they be meeting?
TIM: They’re coming from the Baptist Relief Organization.
Third, the International Red Cross is a politically neutral organization. This I knew, and think it is wonderful for the Red Cross to go into war torn areas regardless of which side to help fellow humans in need. So, in practical purposes what does this mean? Well, as the third principal which was emphasized more than any others, the Red Cross is neutral and passes no judgment on anyone’s undocumented status. The Red Cross will feed undocumented people! After the seventh mentioning of the term undocumented I realized they were talking about illegal aliens. And by the way , as the instructor continued to tell it : the police, and the U.S. Government, are always lurking about eager to get their hands on these lists of undocumented people that the Red Cross helps.. but, but, but… continues our ever more triumphantly emphatic instructor : the Red Cross will never tell the jack-booted cops where all those undocumented people are in the shelter!
OK, I am now about to serve my fellow man (and woman, be they citizens or nay ), and represent the American Red Cross as a volunteer, but Christianity –by word, gesture and implication — is nothing but an imaginary cult of magic and has no bearing on the history, compassion, or humanity in the work of the Red Cross. Additionally, although feeding the hungry, and housing the homeless , is important, please remember that your primary function is to keep local and national authorities from rounding up all those undocumented people.
And finally, before those cold, wet, starving families, who homes and lives have been destroyed, reach out for help do not do ANYTHING until you put on your plastic gloves…and when you wipe a tear from your eye, put on another set of gloves! Don’t worry, Subway The Sandwich Corp. –correctly using the hard P – donated millions of gloves, so we are in good shape!
After an interminable delay on the bus (1 hour we sat on 49th Street with nary a word from the Red Cross) which says nothing about confusion during a catastrophe, and everything about non-profit inefficiency, we were off! I was in group number 4 out of 6 representing 200 volunteers setting out to help our fellow citizens on hurricane ravaged Long Island. Team leaders were deputized that morning – basically, anyone who had taken a class from the Red Cross before. The three feeding centers that our particular bus was going to was read aloud. I had heard of only one, Lido Beach, which is on Long Beach. Makes sense. However, I was hitting the first beach head – Christopher Morley Park in Roslyn, Nassau County. That didn’t sound close to the destruction of the South Shore, and after traveling over the Throgs Neck Bridge, then past a golf course filled with golfers, I felt like we were that one Higgins Boat that went ashore at Dunkirk on June 6, 1944.
Roslyn, NY, like much of Long Island, had no power. That’s it. Many people had generators in this well-to-do enclave, and most everyone at the very least had a week’s worth of provisions. The damage? A few downed trees. However, 40 able bodied people, eager to help those most in need, stood in the parking lot of a large park waiting. And waiting. Two hours later a van pulled up and we unloaded racks and racks of sandwiches, and dozens of boxes of chips, apples, and fruit punch. We placed them on the ground in this deserted parking lot. Our team leader was finally prodded to call HQ and request that at least some of us be sent elsewhere. You know, a location where we might actually be needed. Answer? No.
Hours pass as 40 strangers walked around in circles not unlike the Turkish prison wheel in Midnight Express. Then a Red Cross bus pulled up with a handful of other volunteers who just came from the large shelter at Nassau Community College. “They need food there! People are stretched thin!” A bunch of us formed a line and we quickly loaded most of the food wasting away on the ground onto the bus, then hopped on to head for the shelter where we could be of some real assistance. We pleaded with our team leader to let HQ know that we would need to be picked up at the end of the 12 hour shift at Nassau Community College. After a long delay the Red Cross was firm. No! Nassau Community College shelter was an Office of Emergency Management operation and we Red Cross volunteers were not allowed to mix with them. Unload the food.
By 4PM a grand total of 35 people, by official count, came for free food that could feed hundreds. And I’d bet every one of them would come for free food regardless if they had power or not.
Finally, our pleas were heard and a passenger bus arrived from HQ to take us to…Staten Island. Great! Those people need help! But within 20 minutes the Red Cross HQ decided that it was best if these 40 able bodies returned to Manhattan and call it a day.
Conclusion : The phone calls and confusion throughout the day were tied solely to inefficiency and bureaucracy, not because of the chaotic events. Even a Red Cross employee, who eventually came to see why we were there, was incensed that this site was even chosen. He decided his services were needed on the South Shore, not in a park parking lot where more people played basketball and tennis then actually needed free food. HQ told him not to, but he ignored them and went to help people. We were going to follow this new captain when word came from Red Cross headquarters for the Lost Patrol to return home, accomplishing nothing.
Dear Roslyn, there are racks of free sandwiches in the parking lot near the centre of town I recommend the turkey on wheat. But please be advised : I didn’t wear any gloves.
Bob Dylan “Shelter From The Storm ”
Mr. O’Laimhin would enjoy hearing from youTurlochOlaimhin@gmail.com