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HELPING FROM THE SHADOWS
Image by Hannah Busing
By Tim Clark
Nancy and I volunteered at Midnight at Moonville. Timed appropriately in the chilly weeks before Halloween and Dia de la Muerta. A celebration of a legend in southeastern Ohio. It’s one of the forgotten places in our freeway covered nation. There is an abandoned railroad tunnel, a ghost town nobody can find and memories, some of which might even be true. A place where shadows lie heavy. Jagged, forested hills, deep dark ravines. Thick blankets of impenetrable darkness, places the sun has never seen. This is ghost country. This place would be spooky even without the stories of a vengeful brakeman waving a ghostly lantern in a dark tunnel late at night. Ghosts are everywhere in Appalachia.
We didn’t go for the ghosts, though, we went for the people. If you ever want to see people, the whole mandala, the kindness, the short tempered, the mean, raging egos, and sweet kind charity, all you need to do is volunteer at an organized festival.
Our first assignment was to help the vendors.
“Hello, we’re volunteers, we’re supposed to ask if you need any help. Is there anything we can do?”
Our first attempt landed us a little gig.
“That would be great. Can you help move the coolers and set up our canopy?”
“Sure, we’d be glad to help, we’re volunteers.”
He gave us a brief explanation of where he wanted the canopy, with clear instructions of what to avoid, and his reason why. He was thorough, polite, and generous with his gratitude.
Turns out moving coolers is something we could handle. Setting up a canopy was more than we could figure out. The instructions were a few uninformative line drawings of simple steps that when replicated did absolutely nothing.
By now we had picked up an extra hand, another volunteer, Emily, I think, something so appropriate for the area. She seemed as lost and ill-informed as us. Three of us staring at the hieroglyphics on the side of the polyester cover, and then trying to follow the steps by pulling and tugging on the various poles and braces and beams and supports, that moved and squirmed and formed various shapes but never a canopy, not even close.
Eventually, the gentleman, a word that doesn’t really do him justice, came, and gave all three of us a lesson in setting up a canopy. He followed his explanations with examples, and by the time he finished there was a canopy.
He thanked us profusely, and we walked away with a sense of pride and accomplishment. Several times I glanced back at the wonderful structure, just moments before there had been nothing, now there was a canopy. It would protect his customers from the occasional, annoying rain showers which we all hoped were going to end soon, or the sun, which we all prayed was going to poke out from behind the grey, menacing clouds.
Officially, the festival started at 3:00pm. Unofficially, it was already a little crazy by about 12:30. Cars came streaming down the one lane dirt road, and we were told to ask them to pull over to the right and wait for the vehicles, a tractor and a little all-terrain vehicle with a trailer, to help take their goods to the area where they would set up their booth. Conversely, if they were not inclined to wait, and many of them weren’t, I would help them carry their tables and boxes and bins and totes, and bags, and buckets and in once a plastic sled, back through the gauntlet of aromas and sounds from the food vendors, scraping spatulas on sizzling blacktops, sweet, salty popcorn plinking, tiny explosions, the alchemy of creation. (I can’t eat popcorn without a touch of awe at the transformation.)
By the time we finished my Fitbit counted 23,413 steps and 57 flights of stairs. There were no stairs, but there was a low area where a bridge crossed a small stream, with gentle but persistent inclines to the tunnel, or the parking area. There was a steady stream of products carried down, across and back up.
We’ve volunteered at various events and always enjoyed ourselves. It always turns out to be more work than we thought it would be. It never seems to involve chairs, and normally it seems thankless and unappreciated. This was different, everybody thanked us, everybody made us feel welcome and included.
A man came over and asked if I was with the festival. I told him we were volunteering and pointed to my wife. He handed me a two-way radio.
“You might need this,” he said, smiling.
I took it and thanked him. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I had no idea how to use it. I did get a great picture of me holding it by my head and looking grim and serious.
At one point, late in the chaos, the guy driving the tractor pulled up beside me.
“I’ll keep moving them back, you keep lining them up. We’ll get through this. Thanks, volunteers make the world go around!” he said, giving me a thumbs up.
“You got it!” I told him and waved him on.
The next car crashed that dream, she wouldn’t let anybody help her. She had a system, and it didn’t account for, or include some hippy looking volunteer. She clogged the road and the entrance to the tunnel area and was unpleasant about everything.
In a tiny act of generosity, Nancy and I were elected volunteers of the year. We polled Nancy and me; everybody was so busy, we didn’t want to bother them.
Festivals are one of the true communities left to mankind. Everybody working for a common goal. An empty space becomes an event. It begins amoebic and formless, flowing from one crisis to the next, until it takes shape, and becomes a show. I like to think I volunteer for the right reasons, a noble effort to help. I just like to watch the chaos take shape, the moving parts, which seem so fragmented and disorganized, coalesce into a finished product, polished and glittery. Maybe humanity has a chance.
Tim Clark lives in Columbus, OH. He is an employee, a husband, a father and a blogger. You can see his blog here, Life Explained. He loves classic rock, and talks about it too often. He loves to write and read, and he doesn’t mind coffee and a little bourbon, either.