Bruce Dixon 2013-07-08 15:54:52
A fallen soldier, a ransacked house and a rebuilding day–how fate and a desire to serve rescued a stricken family. About a block away from my place is a Chevron station and mini mart. I’d stop for coffee on my way to work as a house painter. Ann Allen, 55, was always at the counter. We’d chat. She was a nice lady. This was 1990 in Berkeley, California. For nine years we were friends at the mini mart. Then I didn’t see her for a while. Turns out she fell and broke her hip. She could not get up the four stairs into her house in Albany, so she stayed in a rehab facility while she healed. She was a borderline diabetic, so she was a bit slow to heal. There were complications, and it took a second surgery to get her straightened out. Eventually she was able to get back to work on a part-time basis. Almost in tears, she told me, “I can get into my house now but I can’t live there. They ruined my house!” So I went out there to take a look at it with my friend Mike Charnoky. Wow! While she was away, homeless people broke into it. They totally trashed it. They took all the clothes out of her closets and piled them in the living room. There were “nests” where they burrowed in for warmth. They left the doors open and there was scat from mice, rats, feral cats, raccoons. It was completely uninhabitable. Mike and I were appalled. I went to local businesses and got a nineyard dumpster donated. We began to clear the house. It took a second dumpster and a few dump runs before the place was in any condition to even start assessing the damage. This was when I learned about her tragedy. Her son had been a naval aviator. He was the best of the best. A flight instructor, Lt. Commander Logan Allen III stood over six-feet tall, huge for a pilot. His call sign was “Lurch.” He was a good family man with a wife and two children. Allen was instructing in the F14-model A off the Virginia coast when his plane went into a flat spin. Allen shouted, “I can hold it! I can ... ” The commander he was with ejected both of them. Taken by surprise, Logan slammed against the canopy. His body was never recovered. There was a somber military funeral: the 21-gun salute, a “missing man” formation flyover and a coffin filled with bricks and covered by four-by-six-foot American flag. They folded up that flag and gave it to Ann, along with his flight suit. Ann lived with her grandson, her daughter’s child. Here’s what I never had the nerve to tell her: while these people were trashing her house, as near as I can figure, they dragged her grandson’s bed out back and used that flag to start it on fire. I simply told Ann that the flag was stolen. I cleaned up the charred remnants of the Stars and Stripes. It moved me to tears. I was livid. I have a confession to make. The story about Ann makes me look good. Well, I needed to do some good. I knew I had bills to pay, mistakes to make up for. I grew up under tough circumstances. My mom was legally blind. My dad abandoned us when I was in the second grade on the Oregon coast. You can probably guess I was a handful and the kind of trouble I got in. There were drugs, an alternative high school, scrapes with the law. It took time, but I eventually pulled out of my downward spiral. I’m not sure exactly why but I know when things turned around. My best friend’s mom, dying of bone marrow cancer, gave me her 1982 Nissan Maxima. Humbled by the gift, I vowed to do the best I can, to do good for others. Someone had believed in me. That was the nugget of help I needed to climb out of the hole I was in. So before Ann’s predicament, I had been doing volunteer work for a couple years with an organization called Christmas in April. They have since changed their name to Rebuilding Together. They provide home repairs to elderly, disabled and low-income homeowners. I helped Ann apply with them. There were questions about the house deed. Ann had inherited the house from her mother. Her sister was named on the deed and had to formally renounce interest in the property. Finally, it was decided that Ann qualified. “But who in their right mind would be the house captain for such a large project?” they asked. They really said that. It may be debatable as to whether or not I am in my right mind but I stepped up. I was given a budget of $5,000. And 501(c)(3) donation forms to use. About then I started to realize just exactly how far over my head I was. The first thing I requested were volunteers to sterilize the place. An entire sorority came down. Thirty highly motivated young women scrubbed that place from top to bottom. It was the middle of January. I needed to finish the project by National Rebuilding Day, the last Saturday in April. Did I mention I was holding a full-time job? I discovered that the plumbing was trashed and the wiring was substandard. The fuse box consisted of a couple of twoby- fours pounded into the ground and held together by a few oneby- sixes. Screwed into the oneby- sixes, this assembly was physically touching the gas main. I don’t know a whole lot about electrical engineering and I don’t know a lot about natural gas. I do know that it is a bad idea to mix the two. So I went to our local International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers to explain the situation. After they had assessed the property they made it a project for apprentices, who upgraded the service and rewired outlets. The Rebuilding Together office found a donation of 1,200-square-feet of pristine, extra-thick, cream-colored carpet. All I had to do was round up three guys, tear it out of the penthouse it was in and transport it. That was a bear. At least I had help. Allan Maris, the vice mayor of Albany, was assigned as my first mate. His job was to call the volunteers after they were assigned to my site. Still, it was getting overwhelming. The Rebuilding Together office suggested that I go to local service groups to ask for help. I located the Albany Lions Club and went to a meeting. I told them the situation just as I have told you. Wow! Those guys took it to heart. Bill Johnson, a great man and a great Lion, made certain that, besides my unskilled volunteers, I had at least half a dozen highly skilled guys complete with tools on every work day. Things got a lot easier after the Lions got involved. The connections of Lions also helped a lot. Allan Maris’s son, Peter, lived with Spencer Ferguson, whose father, Steve, is a Berkeley Lion. He owns the local Mr. Rooter franchise. Day after day, they fixed the plumbing, including installing a brand new water heater. That was just after I discovered, to my chagrin, that it takes a certain very specific skill set to successfully install a water heater. Yikes! What a mess that was. While all this was going on I had been on the phone with the Navy’s Funeral Honors Division. A lot of questions had to be answered. All told I was on the phone with them for almost 50 hours. On the National Rebuilding Day we started with 50 volunteers. We painted, fixed the floors, did every last little thing to get the home move-in ready. Over the course of the day other sites sent me their extra people. They created a beautiful backyard garden. The number of volunteers swelled to 100 by noon. I had managed to keep it from Ann that I was talking to the Navy. At noon we were out front eating lunch. Ann was thanking the volunteers on the front porch when an officer in his crisp dress whites came around the corner. He presented Ann with a replacement flag: “On behalf of a proud Navy and a grateful nation …” Ann cried like a baby. It was beautiful. I had basically lived and breathed this project for six months. Mind you, this was before 9/11, back when it was not popular to be pro-military in Berkeley. On average, before and after my job, I put in 20 hours a week, every week for six months. Lions and others were tremendously generous with their time. On a $5,000 budget we completed home repairs worth more than $75,000. Bill Johnson asked me to join the Albany Lions. How could I say no? So that is how it came about that I joined the Albany Lions Club in 2000. To this day it remains one of the most positive things that I have done in my life. My troubled youth stayed with me well into my adult years. It was hard to shake the feeling I was no good. Being a Lion helped heal me. Serving others has been a salve for my inner wounds. To this day, neither Allan Maris nor I can talk about this time in our lives without getting a bit misty. It was a powerful experience. Ann is still alive though not in the best of health. To the best of my knowledge, she still believes the flag was stolen.
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