Columns » John Brummett

Applause, and a vague dreariness

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FORT CHAFFEE – It’s late Saturday afternoon. Somehow fittingly, it rains steadily. The drizzle produces, or maybe enhances, a vague dreariness. It’s heart-warming that our fellow Americans are saved from drowning, sewage, violence and the scent of death. It inspires that refugees receive sustained applause from Sebastian County volunteers as they stagger through the door of the processing room, armed only with a couple of bags containing what’s left of their very recent lives. But it’s heart-breaking that they look so tired, so dazed, so herded, so lost. Somehow they seem anxious and resigned at the same time. Last week they were us. They had cars, homes, beds, refrigerators, ovens, cable television, private telephones, the Internet, neighbors, friends, privacy. Today they get ID cards, used clothing and promises -- of banks of telephones, computers with Internet access, post office boxes and playthings for children. They’ll dine in a mess hall. They’ll sleep on bunk beds inches apart in a military barracks. They will be able to shower, but not with a private stall. They will have toilets and sinks, shared ones. Army Sgt. Russell Vanzant of Mena, in charge of facilities, lauds the air conditioning as he shows an empty barracks awaiting the next planeload. He explains the segregation: single men, single women, families. He says maybe they can build some temporary partitions. He acknowledges, "Yeah, it’s spartan." These accommodations will be infinitely better than those of the night before. But they are designed for able-bodied young men gearing up for their lives, not mature adults who only days before had been in the prime of theirs, or, frankly, winding down those lives gracefully and comfortably. One loaded C-130 has delivered about 140 refugees from New Orleans. By 3 a.m., thousands more will arrive. These volunteers -- assembled by Tonya Roberts, the Sebastian County emergency management coordinator -- wait at processing tables and stations to hand out water and toiletries. Guardsmen scurry. Law enforcement personnel mill about. Drivers of ambulances wait. Others depart for hospitals with wheelchair-bound refugees. The volunteers could be home watching football. They could be over on Rogers Avenue at Outback or Chili’s or Olive Garden. They might even be up the road at Razorback Stadium. One of them asks if I’m willing to help. I say sure and for him to find me something to do. But then I become absorbed interviewing an elderly woman about her dramatic story. Then I stroll to the car and drive away. I have a hard time merely hearing what she’s been actually enduring. I’d pondered taking her with me. But she has a dog, and I have two, and Scooter is not altogether welcoming. She can’t climb easily because of ailing hips, and the bedrooms are upstairs. She’s been hauled enough. A 150-minute trip to Little Rock wouldn’t serve her interests as well as a public shower and a night’s rest on a tiny bunk. That’s what I tell myself in my 75-mile-per-hour solitude. Chaffee is not a prison, and the new residents aren’t Cuban exiles or air-lifted Vietnamese. They are free Americans. Some of the first 140 ask simply for a lift to a hotel or the airport. Others have people to meet them. Any of them has a constitutional right to walk in the rain out the front gate toward Barling or on to Fort Smith. Frankly, that’s probably what I would do. One of the items volunteers hand to refugees is a list of rules. There is to be no indoor smoking, no entering another barracks without an invitation, no leaving the base without checking out. I suppose that’s necessary. But the rule about no alcohol -- I understand the reasoning and am unprepared to argue. But an open bar strikes me as the most thoughtful charity some of those folks could receive.

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