“PULL, Fucker!” I screamed at myself in my head. The car barely moved. “What’s the good of all those pull-ups and curls if you can’t move this thing?!”
I heard the count (outside my head) “1…2…3…”
I’ve always gotten by. No matter what has happened in my life I’ve made it through and in many cases admittedly fairly easily. High school, college (with a moderate hiccup my freshman year), and grad school were all relatively a breeze. My career? I don’t kill myself. It has it’s place in my life but it’s not at the top by any stretch. My relationships — some have been hard, sure, but that’s to be expected with the ones that don’t work out. So a moderate level of work effort over my life. I give myself a C+, the + just because I’m wickedly sarcastic and I consider that a positive.
I’m not opposed to hard work. I’ve done a fair share of manual labor in my life. It’s not my trade of choice but I can give a good go at it. It’s just I want to know that what I’m giving my blood, sweat and tears to actually matters. There has to be some meaning to it all and despite what the results say, the effort in and of itself must be it’s own reward. It’s the journey, as they say, not the destination, and I’ve found only a few things over my life that have warranted my full effort.
The people here in Tacloban work and they work hard. They work to survive. They work to rebuild. They work to restore “normal” to their lives. Will it ever be the same as it was? No. It cannot be. By it’s very definition the future must be different from the past. But just because it’s different doesn’t mean it can’t be better. We just have to dare believe it to be possible and work (really hard) to make it the new reality of our world.
Today I was given a task by the UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund Activites). They changed the name but not the acronym so it doesn’t match. Along with Crystal, another US volunteer, and two local volunteers, we were charged with visiting the Evacuation Centers to retrieve data from the DSWD reps (it’s something related to social services) about the number of pregnant women at each center as well as those who had recently given birth, and some other macro-level stats. Then the UNFPA can distribute services to the centers. Easy enough. Talk to some people. Get some information. Basic retrieval task. Right up my alley.
We split up into teams: one US and one local volunteer. I grabbed Ron, a kid 21 years of age, who I had met yesterday by happenstance when he was pulling water out of the ground with a bucket to use for laundry. There’s not much running water here and certainly no electricity aside from a few generators in key places throughout the city.
Don’t worry, I’m getting to the car. This is called building the story. You front load it for a dramatic climax.
My partner-in-crime Ron and I cleared our 5 evac centers in about an hour and a half. If we were competing with the other team, it would have been like (insert favorite pro sports team) against an ant. The ant loses in this scenario.
We regrouped and headed out for 3 more evac centers. The second one is where this story takes place.
It was Cirilo Roy Montejo School, which didn’t have a DSWD rep so we met with the principal instead. Imagine the sweetest 62-year-old grandmother you can and then double it. That’s who Valeria Gabriel is.
We talked a bit about the data, then she showed me the mark on the wall signifying the level the water had reached during the typhoon. It was above my head by a good amount, so maybe 8 feet high. She then showed me the cracked hole in the corner of the ceiling where the family including Valeria’s husband, son, pregnant daughter-in-law and I presume their two young girls clamored out of to reach the roof. A typhoon of god-like proportions and their only safety was on a roof in the middle of it. Let that sink in for a moment. Now let this: Valeria couldn’t fit through the hole. Instead she had to swim around the room in 8 ft water, work her way outside of the structure, around the corner and take refuge by floating, holding on for dear life and resting her head on a stretch of bamboo. For 2 hours. In the worst typhoon known to man. Separated from her loved ones while who knows what the hell was happening to them.
I broke inside. I had no choice. I’ve been able to handle everything I’ve seen here thus far including all the stories of heartbreak and tragedy. But not this. This got me and it got me good. My eyes welled up and it took everything I had to not let the tears fall. I had a job to do I told myself, but it had nothing to do with the job at this point.
I had to let Ron continue the UNFPA interview. I couldn’t focus on data. All I could say to her was “You’re my hero.” It was the complete and total truth. She smiled and said her husband was her hero because he helped push her family up through the crack by standing on a ledge inside the complex. He was now sleeping soundly nearby on a wooden table, his rest well deserved.
I asked Valeria how she was able to do what she did. I’m a swimmer, or at least used to pretend to be one. It’s not easy. I can’t begin to imagine what it is like in a typhoon. She must be the Michael Phelps of the Philippines. Valeria smiled warmly and said, “I am 62 and I was feeling young.” Bless this lady and her invincible will. No matter how strong I think I could ever possibly become, it would be but a fraction of the strength of this incredible woman.
I asked her if they needed anything that wasn’t being provided by the DSWD. She said they had all they needed for the 22 people there, but could use more lights/candles and diapers. Fresh out of the latter, I gave her my flashlight. I have an extra and even if I didn’t, there was nothing in me that could possibly refuse any request this woman had. Ron continued the interview for data.
At some point I asked her again if there was more they needed. Her son, who had been there the entire time, had chimed in occasionally to fill in parts of his mother’s story. I don’t remember who said it, but they mentioned “the car.” I looked over at the green car to my left, the front part stuck nicely in a ditch. It needed to be moved to 1) clear the way and 2) so the car could be used in the future by the family. The battery which sat on a nearby table was useless. Another victim of the typhoon.
“The people you need to help will find you and vice versa,” I was told before I left for the Philippines. Well I don’t know who found who but it didn’t matter. I was here and there was work to be done.
“Let’s get this thing moved,” I said to Valeria and her son.
The area came alive. Almost magically Valeria’s husband was outside beside me. Wasn’t he just asleep inside? Must’ve teleported. Her son was there, Ron, and myself. That made five with Valeria. Jerry, one of the teachers of the school, stopped his work clearing the area and came to help. Another young man, maybe late teens, appeared from behind one of the buildings to the side. We were seven in all against the laws of physics and the remnants of a typhoon.
We tried to rock the car back and forth. The wheel was locked, so the tires wouldn’t rotate. Back was the only option and there was very little room between the front of the car and the concrete wall. Oh, it was muddy and wet as well. Probably good to mention that.
We failed to move it from its position the first couple of tries. Well if you can’t push, how about pulling? Jerry got some rope. We tied it to the back of the car, or rather Valeria’s husband did. Old people know how to tie knots. I don’t. I quit Cub Scouts early on in my childhood. Wasn’t my thing.
Okay, pulling time. In fitness, there are two groups: pushers and pullers. Pushers are those who rock at bench press, squats, and all that other jazz. I’m a puller. Back and biceps are my strengths and this was right in my wheelhouse. We got this, I thought.
1…2…3 pull. Nothing. The car barely moved, just rocked back into place.
There are moments in your life when you decide to do something and that’s all there is to it. It’s going to get done. I might not do anything else while I’m here, but by the love of God or the will of David, this fucking car was going to move and I wasn’t leaving until it was finished.
We regrouped, gathered our strength and got into the ready position. “1…2…3…pull,” came the call from Valeria’s husband. Over and over again. The car began to make progress. “1…2…3…pull.” It moved more. I pulled like I’ve never pulled before. “1…2…3…pull!!!”
The car hit level ground.
“Captain America!” came Valeria’s cheer, in response to my Cap’s cap that I was wearing, turned backwards with the star facing her. I smiled at her. How could anyone not?
It was a momentous occasion not just for them but for me as well. I think we all knew at that point this wasn’t about the car. It was about people coming together to re-establish a sense of normal.
We weren’t done, but the wheel would now turn which meant we could maneuver the car. There was a hole right under the vehicle that we had to deal with. If the tire went into that hole, we were done. We moved a rather heavy slab of concrete and eventually were able to wedge it into place. I credit Valeria’s son in his Dolphins jersey with the MVP for that part. Valeria called out “Captain America” on more than one occasion as we hit more milestones along the way. From that point on it was just logistics to move it back and forth to get the car where it needed to be.
We smiled and gave each other praise once the car was finally parked in its new home. The word hero was used quite frequently among us. Ron, for all his 100 lbs, was a trooper and inspiration.
We took a picture to commemorate the event. It was a group selfie. Ron and I concluded our visit and it was on to the next Evacuation Center which I prayed to God didn’t have a semi out front. I gave Valeria, my personal champion, a big hug goodbye.
There is still a lot of work to be done. Debris is everywhere at the school and, of the 22 people there, a good percentage are children. But I know that no matter what they’ll get it done. They have the hearts of heroes — unyielding and born of love and devotion to their community, their school, and each other.
Valeria and her friends and family at Cirilo Roy Montejo School will probably look back on this day and tell stories of how Captain America used his heroic strength and determination to help them move a car.
But I know the truth.
They didn’t need Captain America and they certainly didn’t need me. They moved that car on their own and they were always able to do it. They just had to come together as a team, unified in purpose, bound by a common belief that it could be done, and work hard (remember we talked about that waaaay back at the beginning) to make it so. They’re the real heroes. I’m just a guy who likes to wear the apparel.
Much admiration and respect to all the unsung heroes out there, wherever you are. Stay vigilant and brave. The world needs you now more than ever. I’ll be there with you, watching from the sidelines, cheering you on all the while. Just look for me. I’ll be the one wearing the Captain America cap.