It’s a cold gray Saturday morning in Houston, Texas, which is, in my experience as a longtime Houstonian, a rarity. This town has a way of making everything seem sprawled and disjointed, and stepping out of my pickup, I feel the characteristically stark, apocalyptic vibe it can generate beyond the densely populated and urbanized Interstate 610 “loop.” Gray skies, gray warehouses, gray pavement all around.
I’ve got my dog on a leash, and we wander into the enormous Team Rubicon warehouse, just off the 288 freeway and 15 minutes south of the city, where I have come to see the Cohort 19-1 (H) in action. It’s all new to me. This project has landed in my lap, and as a local writer, artist, and educator, I know little about the veteran-run Team Rubicon and its mission to train veterans to rebuild homes for Houston families still reeling from Hurricane Harvey. As a person living in an area of town that saw little damage from the storm, I’ll admit that I haven’t thought much about it since it first roared through. Like most people I know in the central region of the city, I’ve all but forgotten that Houston is still considered a disaster area, the reason why Team Rubicon first arrived here and remains.
Once inside, I shake hands with a few people whose names I immediately forget because I’m distracted by the group of ten men and two women wearing gray tee shirts emblazoned with the letters CHFP. These are the folks I’ve been assigned to follow, Cohort 19-1 (H). They’re currently standing on both sides of a large frame (maybe six feet high and wide) constructed from white PVC pipe. It resembles a small soccer goal, and it’s been subdivided into sections with string, leaving four spaces less than two feet in any direction in the corners and a larger, diamond shaped opening in the center.
Coached by Jennifer Steinmetz, a petite woman with short, sandy-colored hair and a clipboard, they huddle to discuss their mission: maneuver each member of the team through one of the smaller openings at the corners without touching the string. There’s a collective intensity in the group, and moments after I approach, Steinmetz informs them that they’ve just a few minutes left.
With some chuckles about someone’s needing to do a few more pushups, a group of them hoists a man lying face up and stiff as a board onto their shoulders. He’s carefully passed through the web to teammates on the other side without disturbing the string. There’s a moment of group relief, but it doesn’t last long. After all, more must make the crossing, with only a few minutes to get this shit done.
Getting shit done: it’s an unofficial Team Rubicon motto. It seems fitting, then, that my first glimpse of the participants in the Clay Hunt Fellows Program involves crossing a Rubicon of sorts. But the name has a deeper significance. Danielle “Dani” Gilbert — a Cohort 3 graduate of the Clay Hunt Fellows Program and now an — tells me the heroic and tragic story the program’s namesake, Iraq war veteran Clay Hunt.
Clay was one of the first members of Team Rubicon and deployed on several operations, including the first TR op in Port-au-Prince. Tragically, Clay took his own life in 2011. His life, though, was defined by his commitment to service – in the Marine Corps, to his fellow veterans, and in volunteering with Team Rubicon. Hunt is thus both an inspiration and challenge to Team Rubicon and its Clay Hunt Fellows Program. Each member of this cohort has been selected from more than sixty applicants for a year-long assignment of training and community building in Houston because they, like Hunt, search for ways to continue their service as they transition from military to civilian life. Once the crossing of the webbed PVC divide is accomplished, the group is ushered into another room to assemble bicycles for the kids whose homes they will be working on. They are told expressly not to get on the bikes and ride around, but in watching them work on these colorful cycles I can understand the impulse.
“If I had one thing to say to my fellow veterans, it would be this: Continue to serve, even though we have taken off our uniforms. No matter how great or small your service is, it is desired and needed by the world we live in today. Volunteer to mow your elderly neighbor’s lawn for them. Spend a day at a soup kitchen helping feed the homeless, many of whom are veterans themselves. Work on a trail maintenance project. Start a service organization. It doesn’t matter what it is, it only matters that you are continuing to put others before yourself, just like you did when you were in the military. Actions like that are the only sure ways to bring about the positive social change that our country and our world need so badly these days.”
– Clay Hunt
So far, the pace has been quick and so I’m a bit surprised when, after following the group from the cavernous warehouse into a meeting room, Brandon Callahan, associate construction project manager and one of the Houston Rebuild Fellows, begins to speak. He’s straightforward and no nonsense, with a gruff but patient demeanor. Beyond training its fellows for the job market by developing skills in construction, Team Rubicon mentors them intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually for a yearlong journey of self-discovery. Among many activities they will participate in over the next year is a book group. Several of the picks – like Matthew B. Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, and Sir Ken Robinson’s The Element – are influential texts for self-enlightenment and student-based educational reform.
It’s a tight fit in the conference room, with the fellows, the trainers, me, and our dogs. Callahan and Michael Davidson, a 22-year Navy veteran, a Cohort 2 graduate of the CHFP, and now the program’s director, show the team a TEDx Toronto talk by David Dudley, Leading with Lollipops, a message on random acts of kindness.
Then we are back outside. It’s unseasonably cold and windy, and the proximity to the freeway and its endless traffic drowns out much of the conversation. Michael Davidson musters the team to form a circle around him.
This is not an activity for interlopers, so I keep my distance. With all the noise, I can only hear bits of Michael’s talk about time he spent in Hawaii. But when he sets down a khaki colored rucksack, retrieves a bundle wrapped in a black and white shemagh, carefully removes a large pink conch shell, places it to his lips, and blows, its long, loud, mournful sound can easily be heard. An outsider could be forgiven for thinking of the conch scene in William Golding’s classic work of terror and conformity, Lord of the Flies.
But like everything I’ve witnessed in my first encounter with Team Rubicon, the mood is quite the opposite of menacing and terrifying. Here, team members are patient, efficient, and supportive. The conch is passed from one fellow to the next, and if someone has trouble getting it to sound, they’re quickly relieved without judgment and the shell is passed to the next person.
The inspiration for this exercise, Michael Davidson tells me, came from a ritual he learned as an outrigger canoe coach in Hawaii, and he first employed it with Cohort 3. The conch shell, or pu, is a prominent symbol in Polynesian culture, and in this ritual one blows upon the shell to honor each of the four compass points. The first, to the east, honors the new day and the hopes that come with it. The second, to the west, acknowledges the accomplishments made by day’s end. The pu is then sounded to the North Star and all of the universe’s celestial beings, and finally, to the south, to honor where one has come from.
This ritual, adapted here for the first meeting of Cohort 19-H 1, marks a new beginning and feels a perfect conclusion to the morning’s activities. As the group disbands for lunch and more meetings, I hop back into my pickup, dog in tow, to head back home. My house is situated in a part of town that rarely floods, and it feels like another universe. The traffic on 288 reminds me why I rarely venture this way. Nearing the city at a crawl, I think of this new group of strangers to Houston, Team Rubicon Cohort 19-H 1, inspired, and wondering what kind of journey I might be embarking upon here myself.