Yesterday was a long day — but it was also the most American day I’ve had in a very long time.
Every minute of every hour was worth it. I can’t remember a day when I took more cues and more orders from people who were either half my age or a quarter century my senior. Happily.
At 7am, just a few hours before I was scheduled to volunteer at a Vaccination Site in Arizona, my morning started with what else — a Zoom call.
Board meetings aren’t parties. They’re long and languorous. Whether the nearest clock is on the wall or on your Mac, you’re tempted to keep checking it.
But as I listened for two hours to the Board and Staff of One Million Degrees, I was once again reminded of the unlimited potential of America’s community college students — and the true power of a vast network of American volunteers.
After 15 years and thousands of graduations, we are now seeing our alumni actually joining the OMD Board of Directors. Full circles. Beautiful things.
By mid-morning, I was packing up my stuff for the eight-hour shift set to take place at Grand Canyon University.
Many of my friends had raced to get their vaccinations as soon as needles had begun plunging into arms. Depending on their age and where they lived, I heard all kinds of stories about how they got their shots.
I must confess, I felt no such urgency for myself. What I wanted most was for my 80-year old parents to get their vaccinations, and both of them did in February.
When I signed up a couple weeks ago to volunteer, I knew they’d likely offer the shot. But I still wasn’t feeling that visceral rush to get it done. I just felt it was way past time for me to give a few minutes back to the front line warriors who’ve been sacrificing countless hours to help the rest of us. Every day. For the last year. For years.
I arrived on the Grand Canyon campus half an hour before my scheduled start. I usually run early, but I was pumped for this gig.
Intake for new volunteers was seamless. They had me done with my paperwork, clasping an iPad and sliding into a neon-green vest inside of 10 minutes.
I hadn’t touched an iPad in a decade, but it was easy enough to register folks for their second vaccination, mark their cars and keep their jets cooled in the exit lot until the safety period had expired. All of them had to accept April 1 as their second injection date — you can imagine the jokes being exchanged.
But the real action was happening on the other side of the site, which I was dispatched to soon enough. A seemingly endless line of cars with ID numbers scribbled on their windshields snaked up twin lanes that curled around the building. A dozen of us attacked the onslaught, squinting through the glare of the desert sun as we tried to make out the text on our screens.
The leader of the pack was a 25-year-old name Missy. A quiet drill sergeant in pigtails, she was an actual employee of the program. Cool under fire. And from the sweat-soaked brim of my baseball cap, a blaze is what it felt like.
The drivers who had two vaccination-bound passengers in their cars quickly learned I was from Chicago. That was because they were greeted with an enthusiastic impression of Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks: “Let’s play two!!” Yes, I had to explain it to most of them, too.
At around 4:30pm, Missy deployed five of us to a vaccination tent on the other side of campus. Another lovely Gen Zer named Amanda applied our shots with a smile. We thanked her team profusely, headed back to our posts, then spent a few more hours finishing the shift.
I had promised myself before I’d signed up that I would go back and do a second shift even if the first one sucked.
But it didn’t suck. It was pretty much a pleasure. And the reason, of course, was the people. The staff, the volunteers, even the folks waiting to be inoculated. All genial. All grateful. All respectful.
I know. It sounds a tad mawkish. Nevertheless, it’s true. At least on this day it was.
I might have been able to guess the politics of one driver from another — or even between the volunteers — from the cues and clues that accompanied each interaction. But I didn’t have the time. Or the energy. Best of all, I didn’t care. And I didn’t meet a single person all day who did.
Finally, new friends started saying goodbye to each other and that maybe we’d have a few more laughs together on a future shift.
As I headed home, it dawned on me that the congestion on I-10 combined with my urgent fast-food craving would prevent me from getting home in time to watch President Biden’s first primetime address. But it was almost better just listening to it.
I wasn’t tuning in for the policy details; I already knew the nuts and bolts of what the president would be presenting. What I wanted to hear was the tone. And while I’ve found many of Biden’s speeches to be lacking, this was not one of them.
As I listened, one simple observation kept repeating in my head: THIS is what a president sounds like. Set aside political party or ideology for a second. The values of respect, dignity and compassion are universal. And the American president is still the foremost leader in our world.
When I got home, I nuked my cheeseburger and cued up Biden’s speech on DVR. I had planned on watching the PGA Players Championship, but somehow I wanted to see if the speech he delivered on television was just as powerful as the version I’d heard on SiriusXM. For this is what nerds do.
TV isn’t Joe Biden’s strength. But in this case, the video didn’t matter. As I watched, the same phrases from the president’s speech hit my head and my heart in the same fashion as they did when it was just my ear. Especially this passage:
“I promise I will do everything in my power. I will not relent until we beat this virus. But I need you. The American people. I need you. I need every American to do their part. And that’s not hyperbole…Beating this virus and getting back to normal depends on national unity. And national unity isn’t just how politicians vote in Washington. Or what the loudest voices say on cable or online. Unity is what we do together as fellow Americans.”
When he makes public remarks, Joe Biden has a habit of hearkening back to FDR. It’s almost like a rhetorical reflex. It’s also an impossibly tall order.
But in this speech, without a doubt, the president did sound presidential. In his first national address, he spoke to the country. The entire country. And he explained just how much we needed each other.
Even as Biden mentioned Congress’s passage of the overwhelmingly popular American Rescue Plan, he said nothing about which political party was responsible for it. With obvious intent, Biden thanked “the House and the Senate.”
Here again I can hear my own gooey tone.
Is it possible that I’m romanticizing an average speech after spending a day witnessing what Americans are truly capable of? After 12 hours of watching the quiet, everyday heroes — all the way from students to seniors — trying to keep this whole fragile thing of ours intact?
Maybe so. Probably so.
But it doesn’t subtract one bit from just how American this day felt. For how thankful I feel. For my own fellow Americans. For being an American.
During hard times, it can be easy to forget some of the things that truly connect us. It can be easy to lose sight of the commonalities that we all share: Americans’ desire to help each other and to spend time in the company of one another.
Yesterday, straight on through from sunrise to nighfall, it was a pleasure to be reminded of it all.