[from the stabenow.com vaults, 2007]
It’s called, in Coastie speak, a COMREL, short for community relations. Forty-five Munro crew members leave the ship at ten a.m. and present ourselves at a local orphanage for duty. We enter through a locked gate and are led to a courtyard occupying the center of a group of buildings that look as if they could have been picked up from Tucson, Arizona, and put down here.
We are taken in hand by a solid-looking, no-nonsense woman named Ruth, whose lack of English does not hamper her brisk ability to assign us tasks, washing windows, cleaning bathrooms and dormitories, scrubbing, sanding and painting walls both inside and out.
There is part of a scaffold that LTJG Josh Dipietro and crew loses no time in assembling to wash two stories’ worth of louvered windows on the auditorium. Inside, FN Sean Clark piles a small table on top of a large table, mickey-mouses a telescoping rod with a paint roller on the end of it, and starts painting up toward the ceiling while everyone else paints down toward the floor. The color is a brilliant teal green. “El color es muy bueno,” I say to one of the orphanage workers. “Muy bonito,” he says, grinning. Okay, so I don’t remember hardly any of my college Spanish, the color is gorgeous in any language.
It is cooler in there than it is outside, where a gang of crew members dressed in everything from ship’s overalls to shorts and t-shirts is scraping paint. The work goes quicker when the Captain takes up a collection and sends out for more scrapers. The orphanage brings out buckets and buckets of paint, the exterior color a warm peach. Most of the walls require two and three coats. Ladders that would have registered 7 like a gong on a GAR assessment materialize and tall people climb them with safety spotters and paint loaders to paint up, while others climb up on the roof and paint down.
SN Alex Trimble takes a break from cleaning to unwisely enter a room full of tiny tots, and disappears beneath the onslaught. SKC Heidi Eystadt, YNC Eve Helms and HSC Gene Mason clean bathrooms and are then hijacked by a roomful of little girls. I bring out my camera and am mobbed.
Lunch arrives in the form of burgers, fries and cold drinks and we knock off for half an hour. Gene is very quiet. “You just want to take one home with you,” he says finally. “You want to take them all home with you,” I say.
It’s not like the kids look hungry or mistreated, in fact, the opposite. They look healthy and most of them happy. They’re safe, they’re not on the streets. Some of them are handicapped, others low-functioning, and some are in wheelchairs, but the people who work there seem kind and capable and all the children help each other out. Kinda like Coasties on liberty, they all have buddies.
It’s just that there are so many of them, they are so responsive to any attention, and then here comes this big-hearted crew who haven’t seen their own kids (or any kids, really) in two months.
For those same two months, I’ve been listening to OSC Luke Cutburth talk about Zachary who wrote the essay on Thomas Edison (“But I call him Al”), XO Steve Rothchild about Chelsea’s saxophone playing and Erica’s singing, Gene Mason about Courtney, Kevin and Sarah, Todd Raybonn about his two girls and a third on the way (“Scarey,” one of them said when she saw the picture of Charlene on the blog), Matt Sayers about Little Man, the Captain about Matt, Emily and Miss Bridget and their lemonade stand in front of the Ballard Locks. I never again want to see anyone as unhappy as EMO Jimmy Olson was after our first port call, where he had talked to his kids for the first time in three weeks and knew he wouldn’t be talking to them again for at least that long.
At the orphanage that day, I am glad I am wearing sunglasses. Can’t have these big strong Coasties see me cry.
After lunch, the orphanage workers seem to wake up to what a good thing they are on to here, and more exterior walls are discovered to be in need of paint. In the auditorium, FN Sean Clark is still painting up. The scaffolding has been reassembled inside to get at the really high spaces. ENS Gary Kim, who has donned war paint, climbs up to paint the last arch. People are knocking off, stacking brushes, rollers and empty buckets of paint, and gathering on the steps leading up to the auditorium to pound back bottles of water and pop. A soccer ball appears and our crew members start kicking it around.
“We’ve gotta go,” the Captain says, and then they turn the kids loose. They swarm down into the courtyard and mob the crew members and it’s pandemonium. Our crew has kids riding on their shoulders, kids swinging on their hands, kids playing soccer with them, kids playing tag and airplane and hide and seek with them. There is no language barrier here.
Crew and kids assemble on the stairs for a photo op, and then it really is time to leave. Two toddlers almost make it out to the bus with us, cut off at the pass by two laughing workers. The kids and staff are still waving and calling “Adios!” as we climb on board for the ride back to Munro.
Overheard in the bus coming home:
“That’s the coolest thing we’ve done on this patrol.”
“I’ve never been so excited to go anywhere as I was this morning.”
“And it was manual labor. That’s just wrong.”
These people have been at sea for two months. This is only their second port call. Port call is only three days long, and this time, due to heightened security concerns in this particular country, they have to return each night to the ship, no hotel stays. They voluntarily gave up one of these precious days to public service, and it wasn’t even our public.
No. That’s just right.
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