Taking Down my Tree

Well, I just put another Christmas away. Pulled a nearly 13-foot tree out my back door about 1:00 am. It takes me a good day to remove all my ornaments and lights and I got a late start.
Back in 2012, I wrote a piece about the annual ritual. Seeing that the sentiment has not changed and people enjoyed it I have reposted in years since. Seeing this year’s tree was my tallest and I think grandest I’ve decided to do so again.

Taking Down My Tree (a post-Christmas story)
I took my tree down today; except for the pine needles I’ll be picking up for the next twelve months, I packed Christmas away for another year.
It normally takes a better part of a day to defrock my tree.
I’ve always felt Christmas spirit is the collective soul of every person and experience that ever touched you that time of year, as well as every smile you put on another person’s face.
My tree has always been a manifestation of that. About 98% of my ornaments were gifts purchased or made by friends and family.
I was once able to tell the story behind each one, but the sheer number, not mention my age, made it necessary for me to start marking each with whom it was from and when it was given. This makes it much sadder when one is dropped. It has, with the magic of Super Glue, led to some pretty creative puzzle work whenever it was doable.
What makes my tree weird to some, especially those who prefer a color coordinated or themed, “store window” tree, is, in addition to ornaments you’ll find everything from the Hopalong Cassity wallet my grandmother gave me when I was a kid, to my son’s baby rattles, as well as gift tags to me adorned with his early artwork that tugs at my heart every time I look at them. You’ll find a few travel souvenirs and some very unique ornaments, like the famed Gilbert chemistry set test tube fly specimen ornament with added fringe around the top, created by my good friend, Lee. (If you’re reading this Lee, after 30 years, it is in need some new fringe)
Christmas trees have always been special to me, even before mine became vehicles of “Take Me back” or the organic scrapbooks they are. The tree is my favorite part of the season. I’ve hosted a party for 34 years dedicated to decorating it.
I’ll never forget my dad, standing in the tree lot behind Branson’s Dairy where we bought our tree each year, appalled by the price increase over the year before; exclaiming, “I’m not going to pay $1.00 for something we’re going to throw away in 2 weeks!” Of course, like that $1.00 per gallon gas that was going to take us all back to horses, I can’t remember the price ever leading him to not paying the money and us not having a tree. Nor will I forget the year my Grandpa Spike infuriated my grandmother when their tree was a branch he sprayed day-glow orange and adorned with ornaments he made out of aluminum cans. I was teen by then and thought it was totally “modern”, and much more hip than those artificial white trees that were supposed to be “in” at the time.
I spent a lot of time as a kid lying under our tree looking up at my distorted reflection looking back at me from the beautiful glass orbs that hung from the bottom branches, watching the bubble lights bubble, and imagining what would be under the tree Christmas morning.
Ah, Christmas morning! We were not a rich family; we never got toys when we went shopping with mom. We saved our allowance for things like that, but Christmas was different. I’ll never forget gazing upon that array of colored bows and brightly wrapped boxes. To my small eyes, the heap of presents always seemed so enormous. I would remember the sight of all those brightly wrapped packages much longer than I’d ever remember what was in them.
I know my kid was among the many spoiled by parents trying to recreate that experience, not thinking it was seeing it through those “little eyes” that made the colorful bounty seem so enormous.
I was always sad when my mom said it was time to take down our tree and return her house back to normal.
I was a silly kid who thought everything had feelings, which led to, “how could we discard something that had brought us so much joy?” I my mom who had an answer for everything, saw that. She would tell me we had to share our tree, and that the birds could not have their Christmas until we put our tree out. So every year in the excitement of watching the birds, not mention, squirrels and an occasional mouse, rush to breadcrumbs and popcorn we had bestowed upon the branches, I moved past the roar of the tree’s absence in our living room.
Today I found myself thinking, “Thank you, mom,” as I tossed some shredded hot dog buns and some sunflower seeds onto an otherwise unadorned tree in woods behind my house.


In the Spirit

When I made the big move to West Michigan, leaving all my relatives and friends behind. I found myself facing that first Christmas here; I had a choice to make, fold up the holiday, leaving it with everything else I left behind, or look forward. I chose to seek out a tree, get together the small group of new friends I had made, invite them to help me decorate it and continue the holiday in the spirit as I had always enjoyed it. Thus, the beginning of my tree decorating party now in its 39th year, now known as Bob’s Pine & Pasta. As time went on I invited old friends I grew up with, who by the way, have become my most enthusiastic patrons, bringing old and new, East and West together. Those that knew me as Bobby with those who call me Bob. The event marks the beginning of the holidays for many and has become a reunion of sorts.
Some would suspect it was merely a lazy way to decorate my normally huge tree, (Partially True), but as with the first, it is more to lift and carry on the spirit of the season.
People always comment on my Christmas spirit, I was proud my mom used to say I made and kept Christmas special; I still have a card in which she wrote it.
I’ve always thought “Christmas Spirit” is the accumulation of memories made by all the good ways people and experiences touched you this time of year.
As I get older I find as much joy in the memories of Christmas past as in the new ones I am making now.

My Bed, Mexico City and Another Unsung Hero.


Well, I got to spend last night in my own bed. My trip home went without a hitch, in fact, our pilot must have picked up a good tailwind as she got us into Grand Rapids 20 minutes early.
It had been a long day beginning at 5:00 am. Bill and I didn’t have to be at the airport until 9:30, but Eric had to be at there at 6:30. So we dropped him off, went to HQ to turn in some clean-up kits that had been left in my rental vehicle, and had breakfast. I turned in the rental car getting us to check-in desk with much time to spare.

Having only two grids on Thursday we finished early, it was supposed to have been our day off, and our last grid being in that direction we decided to check out Mexico Beach. I didn’t think anything could be worse than what I had already seen, but Mexico Beach certainly fit that bill. Except for a few pillared homes and tall hotel or condo structures, most everything that had stood between the beachfront street and the beach was gone, with mere slabs of cement and a few pillars left. There was much major damage on the lee side of the street as well.


Mexico Beach

On our way to Mexico Beach, we saw large stretches of timber, as I had spoken of further north, laid flat by the wind. I heard on the news the storm had caused 1.6 billion in timber loss.


Timber loss

Almost as if it knew I had a mission to be completed my body had repelled a norovirus, and the sinus and bronchial problems brought on by the red tide spores for 23 days, then about the time I made my travel arrangements to come home, I was hit with a terrible chest cold. As bad as I felt, with the aid of cold medication and cough drops, I was able to keep my symptoms to a minimum on my trip home. I hate be coughing as I hate to be coughed around, in the close confines of an aircraft. I slept most of both legs on my trip home.
My good friend Janet picked me up at the airport. Second, only to my brother, Janet is my other unsung hero. Not often mentioned but they are the ones who support and make our efforts possible. Janet lets me keep my car at her place during deployments and provides my transportation to and from the airport, but with Janet, it doesn’t stop there. She always packs me snacks and a big lunch when I leave, envied by the TSA officials,  as well as those around me when I eat it. I always tell her it is not necessary or I didn’t need it, but in the end, I’ve always been happy I had it. As if it was her fault, she’s washed my car at least twice when it has gathered dust in her driveway.

She outdid herself this time meeting at the airport with a bag of groceries, so I didn’t return home to an empty refrigerator. Then making hot tea and chicken soup when we returned to her place, having told her I was bringing home a cold. She always seems to think of everything. My brother can attest to that, having repaired his broken bicycle seat with her duct tape half way through a mountain bike trip on Grand Island a few years back.

I managed to unpack when I got home, but ended up exhausted and going to bed early, an hour earlier in the time zone I had been working. A trivia question I would have lost if asked how many time zones Florida had.

My internal deployment alarm woke me at 6:30 this morning, it was nice to realize I was home and had the luxury of ignoring it. My second wake up was at my usual wake up time, shortly after 9:00. I started to get ready for the day, but I felt terrible, I made the decision to call it a sick day and crawled back into my half-made bed. I woke up about 12: 30 feeling much better and very hungry; thanks to Janet I prepared a nice late breakfast of eggs, sausage and coffee.

Now to transition out of disaster relief (DR) mode.

Michigan South, Changes, and The Sunset Returns.

Listening to the weather forecast last night I thought I was back in Michigan. Temps dropping to the 30s overnight and in the Forties today. Not only did I don my jacket this morning, after stepping outside I returned to put on a hoodie adding another layer underneath. It did not feel like we reached the 50s. It was clear and sunny by noon, after three days of rain.
On Tuesday we got word we were leaving our bunks at the Blue Horizon Resort and moving to the Sand Piper, a hotel down the beach. I found out this week that the Blue Horizon was like a camp for kids. With the small beds and downsized, low to the floor commodes, I thought it might have been a retirement resort for the actors that played the Munchkins in the Wonderful Wizard of OZ.
On Wednesday HQ and everything else was to move to the high school, the shelter location. Where our office was going was kind of up in the air. Then they decided to close it and run DA from Tallahassee. Bill and Eric had already booked their flights for home Saturday out of Panama Beach, it was impractical for them to move up there. I started thinking about things I had to do at home and decided to leave Saturday as well. My boss wanted me to stay longer but by Saturday I’ll have been here for 25 days.
So, I booked my flight for Saturday as well, I think Bill and I may be on the same flight for the first leg. Then he’ll head to Oklahoma and I Michigan. Eric will be heading to Ohio. We were originally going to take today off but a couple of grids came up and we told the boss we’d do them. We would finish up the new grids, process out Friday and leave Saturday.

Wednesday morning, I uploaded our Go-Gro (DARV) footage to an external hard drive, printed up the map grids for the day and packed up the office to be sent to Tallahassee. Originally, I was supposed to train some people coming down from Tallahassee on how to set up the Go-Pros for DARV and Bill and Eric were going out to assessments. Instead, all three of us went out. It worked out well, Bill drove, Eric navigated, I entered the assessment data and pinned the houses we assessed. We finished all 7 grids. Some of the roads weren’t much more than two-tracks. I was pretty impressed with Eric’s navigation abilities he knew exactly where grids began and ended. I found myself doing a lot of guesswork in that area.
It was near dark by the time we got back to our hotel, but it is dark by 5:30 here and Wednesday had been a dark rainy day.
Despite the cold, I walked out to the beach tonight to enjoy a nice sunset.

Isn’t this the Sunshine State, Who Says There is No Free Lunch, and Goodbye Ronnie

Saturday and Sunday were, “I thought I was in Florida,” kind of mornings. It did warm up near 70 on Sunday but I’d be surprised if we got to the low 60s on Saturday. It’s funny it’s cold on sunny days and always seems to rain on the warm ones. I can’t think of more than two days in a row without rain since I left Tallahassee. It stormed most of the day today, with on and off downpours, in fact, the rain is pounding the roof of my cottage as I write this. They said this morning we might get 7 inches of rain and there were flash flood advisories. We had a tornado warning and I think our tornado watch just ended. I can’t imagine how muddy the base camp must be.

After Mark left there was just my supervisor Veronica, (Ronnie) and I in DA. We went out and did some grids that popped up that hadn’t been done on Saturday. It didn’t seem like we went out that far, going from one grid to another until we returned and realized we were over 50 miles out. While we were on the road, we got a call saying two additional DA workers had arrived at HQ, and they had come with assignments for the day. I called, left a voicemail and texted our boss asking that he call me asp. I wanted to make sure they weren’t assigned the same grids we were already working. I made those attempts in the morning. The boss finally returned my call while I was taking my beach walk at 5:00 pm. I told him it was too late for the information I needed. On Sunday I found out they did indeed do the same grids we had done.
Ronnie was on our way to a Subway for lunch when we spotted a little pizza/sandwich shop. I always strive to eat at mom and pop places if I can, so we stopped and were not disappointed with our fat Italian beef subs. While we were there a guy who looked like a lumberjack sat down at our booth. He asked where we were from. He told us he really appreciated what the Red Cross was doing for his community, as he left and before we could say otherwise, he said he had already paid for our meals.

On Sunday I trained our new team members, Bill, and Eric on how to set up the cameras for the DARV program, and Ronnie gave them some grids to film. She and I stayed at the office for a call from our boss told us to wait for. It didn’t come until late in the afternoon. I asked Ronnie if she wanted to go out and do at least one grid so it didn’t seem like an altogether wasted day for us. She said yes, so I set up our vehicle with the Go-Pros and we headed down toward Lynn Haven. I was glad I had my tablet as I was able to bring up a Google map to see an overall picture of the area, in other words, a computer roadmap. When you get a print-out of a grid it only shows the parts of the street or road in the grid. With an overall map I can see how to connect them, not to mention track the little blue dot that is us. The grid we had was filled with canals so it was like guiding us through a maze of dead-end streets trying to connect the ones that were not. We finished about sunset and it was dark by the time we got back, eliminating my sunset beach walk for that day.

Sunday was also Ronnie’s last night as she left for her home in Connecticut this morning. So, we all went out to eat at a seafood and oyster bar called Shuckums, that sported some pretty talented karaoke singers. I was most impressed by a guy who did some Queen, he sounded dead-on Freddie Mercury but looked more like Jack Black.
Signing dollar bills and stapling them to the ceiling and walls is a tradition at Shuckums as it seems it is at many bars down here, though it appeared Shuckums have been doing it the longest. There must be at least 50,000 there; I wondered if it was the owner’s retirement fund. My friend Diana and I signed and hung a bill the first time I was there. I also thought their baked oysters were the best I’ve had down here. After we finished dinner Ronnie talked us into meeting her roommate at a place called Tootsies. They had a very good band that played for tips. Ronnie even convinced me to dance, something I don’t think I’ve done in at least 15 years; it was my way of saying goodbye. I asked her if my ability on the dance floor would have been included if she had done my evaluation. She said she was impressed. It was a good night to unwind.
With Ronnie gone I assumed the role of supervisor as I’d been here the longest and was most familiar with what we are doing. I sent Bill in Eric out today to assess some grids that were lacking pins. I stayed at the office uploading our Go-Pro pictures from Sunday and doing virtual-assessment on photos someone else had done. I was glad I had my Pandora as without music the latter would have been quite tedious, though I do think I spotted at least one row of Porta-potties Mark had I had captured.

Tears in the field, the Crud and I May Be Here Longer.


Yesterday was one of those days I needed my surf therapy, as I said in an earlier post, the sound and sight of the same is cleansing of the mind for me.
We were supposed to do more DARV work but after we were almost to our grid we got called back to assess some addresses and new grids that had been generated by the call center. All of that mysteriously stopped around the 31st of October. We’ve been waiting, finally, they are now coming in.
One of the areas we went to check out was the hardest hit area I’ve seen, and I’ve seen some bad ones. It was a mixed neighborhood of houses and mobile homes. At least half of them were destroyed and most of the rest had major damage.
Up until now the blue tarps common down here were on the damaged roofs of homes. In this neighborhood, people were living in make-shift blue tarp tents where they once had homes. There are shelters for them to go but some people would rather not live in such close quarters with a large group of strangers.
Seeing all the destruction was sad, it bothered me but I was doing my job which makes it easier to handle, often it hits you later when your mind isn’t consumed with what you are doing. But yesterday as we were stopping at an intersection of two narrow streets, a woman carrying a large basket of wet clothes came around a storm-ravaged trailer with one of those tarp tents attached, and the look of despair on her face entered my heart like a spear, bringing tears to my eyes. My voice broke as I said to Mark, “That was hard to take.”
It always bothers me that the news cycle moves on so quickly and there’s so much more to do. People assume all has been dealt with when they’re no longer seeing it on their tv screens. I’ve actually been asked why I was still deployed.
Most everyone down here is suffering from what we call the deployment or DR “crud” You won’t pass more than two people without hearing one coughing. It is normally caused by mold spores in the air with disasters that involve flooding flowed by heat. Down here it is the Red tide, caused by the rapid growth of harmful microscopic algae called Karenia brevis. It normally comes for a short time in October but has been sticking around for over a year poisoning many of Florida’s waterways. From what I understand when the wind kicks up, the spores can become airborne and have the same effect as mold in the air. It causes your sinuses to drain bringing on an itchy throat and the cough. It can be especially dangerous for those who have allergies. I’ve had friends hospitalized by that caused by mold. I’ve managed to stay ahead of it taking Cetirizine which is the main ingredient in Zyrex. It cuts the drainage and thus the cough. Some days are worse than others depending on the breeze.
I have been going out every day to walk the beach at sunset. I can’t believe it sets at 4:30 here, of course, we fell back for fall and this part of Florida is on Central time. Before this deployment, I never knew Florida had two time zones.
A lot of people have left, my partner Mark, who flew out this morning, being one of them.
There is only two of us in DA now. Today I trained some people from Tallahassee how to set up the cameras for the DARV initiative. I was supposed to go home the 14th but they’ve asked me to extend until the 18th, though I think we’ll probably wrap up before then. If not, I’ll have some thirsty houseplants..


For those of you who are new to Red Cross terminology, DR stands for Disaster Relief.

A Good Reunion, DARV and a Hurricanes’s Fury

Just had a very enjoyable dinner with my friend Diana and two other volunteers at a seafood restaurant here in Panama City Beach. I think I mentioned in an earlier blog entry, Diana was ERV coordinator for my Kitchen in Sugar Land Texas after Hurricane Harvey. It was good to finally have some time to visit. I saw her when we were both working out of Tallahassee, but with the long days we put in we didn’t see much of each other, then I was transferred to District 1.
She’s passing through on her way to work in a shelter unless I can get them to keep her here to do DA, which is what she’d rather do.
Tuesday was a different day or at least we did different things. Our maps still hadn’t come in that morning to initiate our DARV work. So, after our staff meeting. we began doing virtual DA which is kind of the fruit of the DARV (Disaster Assessment Roving Vehicle) initiative. We sat down to laptops and looked at the pictures that had been captured by the recording vehicles and gave a basic assessment of whether there was damage. After a few hours, the maps finally came in to do DARV ourselves. We attached a Go-Pro to each side of our vehicle and one on the hood and headed to our assigned grids. Not unlike a Google camera crew, we drove the neighborhoods capturing the scene around us.
Our first grid was not an easy one, it had many small blocks and because some of the signs had either been blown down or twisted bearing the street name in the wrong direction, the only thing that was easy was getting lost. It took us the rest of the day just to complete that grid. They’ll be able to identify the grids that were done by us old guys by the amount of porta potty footage.
Michael’s fury was more than evident. You would expect to see aluminum siding and roofs tore off and scattered about, but a hurricane of his force is not satisfied with the mere tearing of metal; wadded like one would a piece of paper before tossing it in the trash you see huge balls of debris, so twisted it was difficult to determine its pre-storm purpose.

We were assigned a poorer area of town and it was sad to see all the damage to the homes of people who could least afford it.
After experiencing a day of seeing so much devastation it was good to come back to our oceanfront home. Walking the beach with the sight and sound of the surf has always been mind-cleansing for me, be it the ocean or Lake Michigan.