The location of the ramp-build was typical of the many mobile home lots that dot the landscape along our county roads. Rural poverty is not pretty. The dwellings usually show their age and cheap construction. Yards tend to be cluttered with cast-off appliances, old vehicles and broken toys. Septic systems are often questionable, at best. This time, thankfully, the two yard-dogs were friendly.
All the members of our ramp building crew live in and around the same small Texas town. A gruff old retired guy has led our team for the past decade. He’s 84 now and slowing down a little. Maybe. Most of us are also retirees, having finished careers in air traffic control, public education, law, agriculture and other typical jobs. The younger team members include the owner of an auto paint-and-body shop, a financial investment guy, the owner of an insurance agency, and a wine retailer. Completing yesterday’s work crew were six high school students, a group that included two young ladies.
Most of the team members are churched: Mormon, Baptist, Methodist, Catholic, Episcopalian and this time--Muslim. Yesterday, most workers were either members of the local Kiwanis Club, which sponsors the building team, or the high school Key Club. A few were friends or children of the Kiwanians, and the two high school girls were foreign exchange students, one from Egypt, one from Uzbekistan. Ethnically, the team reflected the diversity of the town, mostly white and Hispanic.
The lean middle-aged man who greeted us at the construction site was missing several teeth. The ramp was for his older brother who lives with him and his wife. Our host said he did whatever work he could get, pointing to a rusting backhoe tractor among the tall weeds. I suspect that work is sometimes elusive and all three of them survive on the brother’s disability check.
Setting aside any qualms about the family, our task for the morning was a project well-practiced by the core members of the ramp-building team, but new to more than half of us. Consequently, there was some hesitation and fumbling for the first hour. But the tentativeness faded away as pairs and trios of crew members took on little bits of the project, old hands demonstrating with tools, new volunteers watching, listening, carrying boards, holding boards, all working together to teach, to learn, and most importantly—to do. Get ‘er done.
With so many willing hands, the ramp quickly grew longer and longer, in a race with the gathering dark clouds. In the end, the last wood screws were driven into the last rails during a sprinkle of rain. But it was done: 36 feet of smooth inclined pathway, from the yard-high porch to the gravel driveway. The ramp is four feet wide, ample for a wheelchair. Guardrails extend high for hands and low to keep wheels from falling off the thick plywood floor.
After three hours of non-stop effort, we invited the gentleman-in-need to roll out of the door of his home onto the porch, his wheelchair pushed by his younger brother. We couldn’t help but look at the legs of the man in the wheelchair. Both legs ended at the knee, the stubs of a double amputee.
His gap-toothed brother guided the chair down the ramp, thanking us. The two siblings both were rough old cobs. The younger one was likely embarrassed that someone else had come in and done the ramp he’d started with scrap lumber and good intentions, but didn’t have the money to complete.
From our perspective, I’ll call the whole morning a nice bit of Christmas gift giving. We each gave some time, just a morning, and none of us had to pull a wad of dollar bills from our pockets.
When I watch my grandkids open Christmas gifts next week, I’ll laugh joyfully and embrace the warmth and love of my family. Thankfully, the little ones don’t usually have to cope with the loss of mobility, having once gained it. Crawling gives way to toddling, then walking and running. The grandpa in me knows that without a doubt, watching wee ones learn to walk is simply one of the great wonders of the world.
Now, regardless of age, imagine a surgeon sawing off those legs at the knee, sawing away that hard-earned freedom of movement. A hundred and seventy years ago, writer English Charles Dickens knew what I’m talking about when he created little Tiny Tim on his crutches in his classic tale, “A Christmas Carol.”
Yesterday, the guy we met on the porch was real, not fictitious, and we didn’t bring him a fat goose for Christmas dinner. His problems aren’t going away. Still, that team of guys and girls, 16 to 84 years old, Christian and Muslim, did something worthwhile for him yesterday.
So, I may well also feel something nibbling at the back of my mind on Christmas morning. It’ll be the memory of that gap-toothed redneck and his legless brother, both proud middle-aged men, both trying to keep their composure, while one helped the other on his first trip down the new ramp. I’m sure their mouths were firmly set, determined to be stoic and manly. Even so, I bet they felt a sparkle behind their eyes, the recognition that the mobility we take for granted, the mobility recently cut away from one brother, was now possible again. Not the same as legs, to be sure, but far better than imprisonment at home for lack of a way down the porch steps.
Those two guys projected a thankfulness that will run much deeper than I expect will my grandkids’ innocent Christmas joy for the gifts we’ll shower on them.
Selfishly, I'll bet a dollar that every one of us felt exceptionally good as we drove away from that hidden home, a place we’ll likely never see again. We'll not forget giving the gift of a Saturday morning's labor and companionship, building yesterday's ramp.
McCoy’s Lumber Company provided the materials and the Texas Ramp Foundation website was the conduit for the referral to us.
Merry Christmas to all of you. Grace and Peace.