I dropped out of college half-way through. My mother gets upset when I say it that way, but it’s what I did. I left college after two years and joined Americorps. Specifically, the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) at the southeast region campus.
The easiest way to explain NCCC was to say, “It’s like the Peace Corps, but you don’t leave the U.S.” I must have said that 5000 times over those years. I also became pretty good at providing other responses “No, we’re not criminals. Yella, over there, went to Brown. So I guess in time she might be a white-collar criminal, but nah we’re good kids.” Also, “No, this doesn’t have anything to do with Jesus.”
My team, as we were still a team at that point, consisted of 11 of us. Trish, Yella, Kate, Zeeck, Dida, Haquifa, Toby, Big Mike, Alli-son, Elena, and me. Our first project sent us to Jamestown, Tennessee. Roughly mid-way through the state near the Kentucky border. We were to rebuild storm damaged areas of a state park and also learn to cut stones to build walkways and retaining walls.
It wasn’t that long ago, but it was different. There was no cell reception in the places we were, and roaming fees were still a thing, so phones would have been worthless anyway. It was pay phones and letters and letters and letters. There were so many letters in those days. Letters back home, letters to Jules, letters to the late night crew you smoked cigs with because it you had reached a point where you didn’t know who else to write to. But it was your only option. Write another letter, smoke another cigarette, read 100 more pages. That is how time was spent in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of Tennessee. A place that is still probably on the cusp of reliable cell and internet service.
Pickett State Park was originally build by the Civilian Conservation Corps. 70 years later we were continuing their work. The local newspaper came to do a story on us. And some of the old CCC guys showed up. A million years old and they were telling me how to handle a trowel. How to place a stone. How to sling mud. “Take your time,” they said. “You’ve got all day to make this, right here, look like it was put there by God. If you do it well, you’ve still got 10 hours of work left today. If you hurry, you’ve got 10 hours of work left today.”
I heard a story about one CCC-member who carved the basin for a drinking fountain from a single stone. They said it was immaculate, as he had spent the better part of a year on it, after the work day was done. When they put on the base, the basin fell and broke. The guy started a new basin a couple days later. The second one is still there. It looks amazing. If you hurry you still have 10 hours of work left. I wrote letters.
Yella went back to Jamestown and Pickett State Park. She sent pictures, so I can claim, “I built part of this walkway. It was me and Toby and Yella and Trish and Kate. Even Jules was there, though I didn’t know her yet. Only her hair. I didn’t know the way we would go on to try falling in love, failing and running into each other in airports for the next few years.” Nonetheless, you can go there, and when you stand before that plaque (Always read the plaque) you might think about how I put those stones there. I learned so much there.
And go with your friends and your family. Sit on this wall for pictures. I cut those stones. Scoring slabs and then tapping and tapping and tapping until they broke, impressively straight.
My name is in there, somewhere. Just the slightest /I on a single stone and it’s probably washed away by now.