Thursday, January 26, 2006

Let the testosterone fly

The tone was set early. A knock on the door came at 6 a.m. “Breakfast is ready. If you want some, you better get up.”

The roofing crew from Cornerstone Fellowship in Livermore, Calif., had been working for five days closer to the California clock than the Louisiana clock of their home for a week in Hackberry. Breakfast was served around 8, and work started around 9.

Until Monday. On this day, a crew from Mississippi joined forces with Cornerstone to replace the roof atop First Baptist Church. The group of seven men doubled the Cornerstone contingent. The goal was to get the roof replaced as soon as possible, so as to beat the rains. It was raining lightly when the Mississippi crew came in on Sunday night, but on Monday morning, it was sunny yet cool.

Perfect roofing weather. Not too hot, so that the oil-based shingles stick together when being handled.

A good ol’ boy from Mississippi had made scrambled eggs, sausage and biscuits. At 6, the California boys shuffled in, eyes barely in. It was 4 o’clock their time. The entire contingent from Mississippi sat waiting to dig in. The California cook was happy he didn’t have to cook.

It was also perfect weather to prove your manhood. Could the namby-pamby boys, which actually included one female, from California keep up? Would they want to run into Beaumont, Texas, an hour away for a Starbucks run mid-morning? Would the good ol’boys from Mississippi be able to keep up with the younger crew from out West?

No 9 a.m. starts here. Daylight’s a burnin’. Sunrise is at 7, and we’ll be on the roof by 7:30. All that was needed was a little sunlight to see if storm clouds were brewing. Only rain would keep these two groups from working this day. They compared tools.

It was as though a starter’s pistol went off. “Bang!” The blue FEMA tarp that had been atop the church since Hurricane Rita hit town in September was torn off in rapid fashion. Roof was being ripped off at maddening pace. Nails were speedily being pried out from the old roof. Shingles were speedily being placed. Nail guns were firing like machine guns. On the ground, debris was being placed just as fast on tarps and trailers to be hauled away to the dump.

Testosterone was flying! Chests, and in most cases stomachs, were being puffed out. Heavy breathing was seen all around.

It was West vs. South, and both sides were eager to prove themselves to the other.
Mid-morning coffee break didn’t mean a latte run to Starbucks, though coffee was served. A group of women from northern Louisiana came down the night before to cook a few meals and snacks. The Californians demanded real cream for their coffee. The Mississippians drank it mostly black or with a little powdered cream.

As everyone sat around drinking coffee and eating cookies, the men seemed to settle in, as if to say, “Hey you guys are all right.”

“I got any ibuprofen or Tylenol for anybody that needs it,” shouted one from the California contingent. “For fifty cents.”

Five minutes later, the challenge was renewed. “Back to work,” called the leader of the Mississippi gang. “Hey, we been taking a union mandated 30 minutes,” shouted back one of the California crew.

And back to work they went. But in truth, this wasn’t a competition. They were working as a team to get the roof on as soon as possible. Rain clouds surrounded the area. In the South, the church is the beacon of the community. It’s where you turn when trouble, such as Rita, hits. Aside from the roof, the church’s beloved steeple was torn off the top of the roof. The California crew had spent part of Saturday preparing the steeple for affixation atop the church.

The new shingles were flying at a pace never before seen in these parts. Nail guns were smoking from the rapid firing that was taking place. As many as eight nail guns were firing at once. Huffing and puffing was seen all around.

By 1 o’clock, the call for lunch came. The energy that was so apparent at 7:30 a.m. had slowed. The men crawled off the church and into the dining area. “Hey, is that Tylenol still available?” The average age of the combined roofing career was 58. Their age was showing. Bones were creeking.

The gals from northern Louisiana did their part in keeping the spirits up with the crew by providing a tasty hot lunch: barbecued brisket, au gratin potatoes, corn, a bean salad and brownies, cookies and the requisite sweet tea. “Got any without sugar?” asked a health-conscious California boy. A quizzical look gave him his answer. One of the California boys joked “I heard a massage comes with lunch!” “You got the wrong gals,” one of the cooks joked back.
A spirit of pride enveloped the room. “Hey, we got a lot done this morning.” “Yeah, we really moved.”

The afternoon work session slowed down. Bodies were showing their age. Nail guns were cooling off. Action was taking place in slow motion. Men were anxious for the day to end, so they could take a hot shower and lie down for a nap.

By the end of the day, the largest part of the damaged roof had been replaced, the sanctuary. The church had been meeting in fellowship hall since the hurricane because of water damage to the sanctuary. The aroma of mildew still permeates the church.

Both crews would be gone by the time a majority of the church members would see the new roof. As they finished their work and cleaned up, a sense of pride and unity replaced the competitive spirit that so often drives men.

Imagine driving up to the church parking lot and seeing the steeple back in place, the blue tarp replaced by new shingles. Before going into worship, they will stand and marvel at how fast the roof went up. The next Bible study or service will begin with a prayer of thanks, not only for labor-free roof, but for the sense of normalcy returning to the community.

In small communities such as Hackberry, steeples are a haven for safety from the elements, whether real or imagined. Steeples and crosses have always meant security for a community in the midst of tragedy. How many times have town hall meetings been in a church? How many times has the church been the place where people congregate after a storm?

That’s what brought the men from around Yazoo City, Miss., here in the first place. It wasn’t Hurricane Rita that spurred them into action. Throughout the year, they work with the Southern Baptist Association in making repairs or building new churches, here in the United States or in Mexico. Helping the people of Hackberry is what brought the contingent from Livermore, Calif., here in the aftermath of Rita.

The two groups came from different parts of the country with a common goal of putting on a new roof for a church that had about 40 worship the day before, six of whom came from California. They worked together, different faiths, Baptists and Calvary Chapel, as people of faith. While working side by side, they talked about their different worlds. At the end of the day, there was equal admiration. Both sides brought hard work and skills to the roof.

As you stand on the newly shingled roof of First Baptist Church in Hackberry and turn 360 degrees, blue FEMA tarps can seen in every direction. Nearly six months after the tragedy of Rita, there is still much work to be done. Down the road 30 minutes on the Gulf Coast, the neighboring towns of Holly Beach and Cameron are just gone – literally gone. The groups from Cornerstone and Southside Baptist will return to ply their trades again.

The town of Hackberry itself has dwindled from 1,700 to about 1,100, but townspeople are filtering back in. As they drive down the main road, they can now see the steeple atop First Baptist Church.

Just affixing that steeple atop the church will give hope to these simple people. A collective sigh of relief can be felt in Hackberry. Calm, at least temporarily, has replaced the storm that continued long after Rita left.

Aftermath: The next morning, no one got up early for breakfast, which was served at California time. Only one from the California crew attended. Work throughout the morning was more cordial. Everyone joked around more. Individuals from each team worked more together.
After we left for the Houston airport mid-afternoon, the Mississippi crew had finished and were leaving at the same time. One of the good ol’ boys commented, “My opinion of Californians had changed since he met us.” He went on to say he might just hire someone from California.
The contractor that headed the group said he had never worked with a crew that laid so many shingles in such a short amount of time. South vs. West was a winning proposition for the people of Hackberry.


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