(All This) And World War 2...

The Power of a Clean Shirt

All it is missing is an eye patch



The first and most striking memory of his day came early: the unintended but consistent uniforms of the people around him were obvious for the first time. Usually, seeing a stewardess or nurse walk by was filed away in a pleasant, knowledgeable manner but today it appeared that everyone was wearing something to indicate some unique allegiance or a distinct occupational leaning. As a fan of war movies, he had grown comfortable with scenes of uniformed people hustling from one side of a movie set to another and for the first time in his life, he was seeing actual, genuine people doing the same without the shelling. It appeared everyone was in some type of uniform, including himself. Dressed in a navy blazer and khakis, his could be liberally interpreted as some type of unofficial preppy issue but everyone else had on some ensemble dictating part of the standard issue of their world. His brass buttons and the maintenance worker's striped pants were only variations on a theme readily available on a standard color palette. His mind should have been focused on the upcoming weeks but he remained, oddly, fascinated by innocuous events that were playing out in front of him. He didn't know much but he was walking into a whole, new world; he became Daniel "Danny" Murkowski, well-dressed but rudderless volunteers.

Her last day before being orientation appeared to be completely different than the nearby man in the navy blazer. Sitting on the opposite side of the country, in her city's major airport, she was looking forward to jettisoning all the creature comforts and artificial luxuries foisted on her from ad agencies worldwide. She wanted to help people who needed help and felt this adventure was the single most important thing to do right now in her life. Marriage and career would have to wait a bit longer: she knew that she was needed elsewhere. She was continually reading her instruction manuals and made a point of basically memorizing everything sent to her from the charity. As a resource from a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO), she was going to go to places with absolutely no support and almost no resources of any kind. If she would have seen him while she sat, she would automatically pre-judged him as some capitalist pig or even worse, a lawyer. When dealing with people from her own race and upbringing, she felt they were usually deserving targets of her opinions: she wanted to save her compassion for the bush. She had taken great pains to choose and wear apparel that was not only socially conscious but devoid of all trappings of brand or empty-headed appeal. She knew it was hard to act condescending based strictly on apparel choice but the way form was getting its hemp-rich ass kicked by function was something to behold: she became Desiree "Desi" Ryan, world citizen.

Both were heading to Miami for a month-long orientation to become volunteers with a variety of NGO's. The consortium of international NGOs is a loose-knit fraternity engaged in wide variety of development, relief and environmental operations in developing countries. All the major players were tied together in some way or another but the need for smart, motivated people was ongoing and never-ending. This was now the new wild, wild west: things were happening in all four corners of the planet and the untold misery and suffering provided the motivation to arouse general charity in most people but this group gave much more; their time and effort. World events were disasters and disaster planning needs one thing to assist in mitigation: creative people on the ground. Too often, tons of supplies and thousands of people show up in one place with no plan or method of distribution. This results in consistently troubling consequences that always ends up hurting the most vulnerable. Both travelers unknowingly converged in Miami and traveled separately to the same place with no understanding of their impending connection.

The first sesson was scheduled to start promptly at eight in the morning. At seven-thirty, individuals began wandering down to the meeting room hoping to find a buffet and coffee service waiting for them. There was no amenities waiting for them except for a stack of documents. At eight o'clock, a woman advanced to the front of the room and began to speak.

"Welcome but before I go further, remember only one thing: All you will have is dirt and brains," said the trainer. "Your computer will crap out due to the humidity and dust in about two months, your promised supplies will not come and you will quickly figure out that you are not in Toronto. You will now be broken up into smaller, more manageable groups." She walked away from the microphone and disappeared in the crowd of natural fibers and scared looks.

Through the medium-level but self-generated hangover, Cecilia knew that she was going to have to fly into Kinshasa with more than a clean shirt. She was a good looking woman but looks were a tricky commodity in country; besides being handcuffed by generations of overt discrimination and oppressions, the folks that she was going to be dealing with on a daily basis were not the most politically correct group of leaders. The trainer, now holding the group in the palm of her hand, finally introduced herself to the well-meaning crowd. At this moment, she became Cicila Blackmond, the best looking woman in the room and the opening act. She sided up to a group leader to prepared for the Director's opening remarks. They knew each other well and had been out the night before.

Her drinking partner smiled and looking at her ability to look so good after such a night, said "I guess I should never underestimate the power of a clean shirt." Just as she said that, Desi slid by to grab a seat by the front. Just as she sat down, an older woman walked on the riser, tapped the microphone to make sure it was hot and said, ""My name is Holly Holy."

Names are tricky things: they can either be said or written with equal impact. However, the combination of an attention-getting name combined with the written word is a bit more inclined to be reviewed with eye-rolling attention. Although words will survive long past failing memories but once said or written, these words climb in to the ether to never be amended but easily recalled. There have been unfortunate names through my generation: ranging from R'Lou to Clyde, but the story of Holly Holy would likely become a charming story for someone in the room, or at lest an interesting one to discuss over a beer. Danny Murkoswski, Mr. Blazer and Moonstore Sequoia (not her real name but quickly becoming an assumed one for the group) both made mental notes that Ms. Holy's folks had to be huge Neil Diamond fans.

"Your uniform was the first thing to go," said Ms. Holy. "You will stick out in the standard issue uniform of some aid agency and trust me, it will be more of a hindrance than a help. When I mean uniform, I mean what you are currently wearing. And when I mean 'got to go,' I mean don't pack it for your trip."

The small group grew quiet: while she was not talking about life and death, she was beginning to strip away every assumption in the head. She looked around and allowed for the dramatic pause; if they can't even look the part of someone who is globally generic, her hopes on their ability to make things better were dimming but her next remark was guarenteed to get their attention.

"There was too great of risk of being shot by one of the ever-changing insurgent groups due to the dynamic nature of the situation on the ground. Your friend today could be your enemy tomorrow so there was never a lot of enthusiasm of sporting a standard look or allegiance. It was just too dangerous: so first thing tomorrow, ditch whatever uniform you are currently wearing. It has to be a new day."

Everyone in the room made a note to make a wardrobe change that evening. They all knew that there was little chance being getting taken out in the boonies but there was also a lot of sense in not making it easy for the bad guys. The rest of the day was filled with overview meetings on general operations as the more specific information would become available in their regional breakout sessions, still a few days away. The group was quiet and all pre-occupied with Ms. Holy's comment about their safety. No one wanted to die doing this gig, especially as motivated care givers with minimal political agendas, but the world was a tough place with only sporadic amounts of logic demonstrated. They concluded on time and walked out in slightly noticeable groups: individuals began to pair up with either regional acquaintances or potential short-term social engagements. Once realized formally, most of the forward-thinking NGO's began to call out to their constituencies the need to find people that could manage initiatives on the ground with consistency but before a group embraced that idea, it was at least nice that everyone seemed to have gotten her main message of the day...and that was a pretty good start.

The next morning found the group assembled for one of the last large general presentations. Heeding Ms. Holy's advice, the once consistently dressed group had broken into a variety of apparel choices complete with striped djellebas, babariga outfits, hand-painted batiks, sarongs and hemp shirts as far as the eye could see. Dressing conspicuously inconspicuously, the group wanted to send a message individually as a group that they understood the world, have traveled extensively and could dress like a local once given the green light. However, Danny remained in a navy blazer, khaki pants and a regimental tie. As people watched him walk in, theories ranged from he wasn't at yesterday's session, had a hard time hearing or completely lacked a sense of the obvious. However, everyone was wrong as he knew he was wearing his interpretation of the targeted locals and looked damn good while doing it.

Ms. Holy walked into the large conference room and noticed the bright and unique smatterings of clothes now worn by her newest group of NGO volunteers. Today was going to be the last day of conventional presentations and the group was collectively itching to get going. Whatever their motivations, their willingness to leave all known creature comforts and be dropped off unceremoniously in some far corner of the world was admirable. And as a matter of habit, Holly always reminded herself that these types of groups needed to some heartfelt appreciation on a consistent basis. Preparing to speak, she began to remember back to her own experiences in sub-Sahara Africa, Bhutan and Micronesia and felt a shudder come over her. Her ten plus years in the field was a tremendous life experience and her efforts accomplished equally tremendous amounts of good as she assisted in improving health standards, infant mortality and basic human rights but she would never, ever go back. She reviewed her day so far: a comfortable bed, fresh coffee, pleasant air conditioning, comfortable carpet and hotel security guards available at a moment's notice. When she started to compare that to drainage ditches, clouds of biting flies, scarce food and adversarial relationships with both the police and local military while at all times being surrounded by disease and despair, she realized that saving the world was still a young person's job.

"I see you have all taken my advice," said Ms. Holy. "And you all appear far more comfortable as well." She hadn't seen Danny directly in front of her; she was too busy scanning the world market of newly worn clothes to adequately survey all attendees. The sheer volume of the visual parade of assuming apparel kept her comments brief.

The group gave out a collective chuckle and Holly began the day's agenda. It was a continuation of all things general and the crowd was appreciative but collectively antsy for the information to get more tactical and useful. Several speakers came up with their generic PowerPoint presentations; all cruelly alternating between reading each slide verbatim and then pausing between each slide as to test the wind for any stray epiphanies. At the end of the morning's session, Holly came back to the podium and thanked all the presenters and then, against her better judgment, opened the floor for questions.

Seizing this opportunity in a manner similar to sharks to chum, hands shot up across the large room like little, frantic weeds. Holly immediately regretting her move: she found herself having to field questions from the newly ignorant with no support system in her backpocket. This was an unplanned event and the usual assistants, armed with microphones, were nowhere to be seen but the slippery slope had been engaged and it was showtime. However, since she was way out over her capabilities, she felt that she could tame the collective beast or at least knock it down a few pegs. It was only weeks later did she realize how wrong she was.

"Yes?" said Holly as her eyes fixated on a smallish woman, decked out in a bright saffron colored boubous, waving her hands as if she was on fire in the middle of Dakar.

"Am I going to have to bring my own medicines?"

"Do you mean 'standard medicines' or do you mean 'prescriptions drugs?'"

"What would be 'standard medicines?'"

Holly drew a deep breath and began to list all the basics for anyone in the field. "I would take with me a good supply of a general antibiotic ointment, some hydrocortisone cream, petroleum jelly, aspirin, acetaminophen, ibuprofen, syrup of ipecac, several anti-diarrheals and calamine lotion. And realize that the entire cache will be gone within two weeks."

"Oh, then I mean prescription drugs."

"I would suggest you begin to re-think your desire to go in-country," said Holly. "I would bring those drugs, which I assume are truly necessary, but I would be fully prepared to have them stolen, confiscated or completely disappear within a week. And for prescription drugs in particular, that is a real risk because everything has value and either you need the drug to be effective or you need the drug because you want it. Either way, it doesn't add up for a successful adventure."

The woman opened her mouth again but Holly waved her hand to dismiss further questions; the last thing she needed to do was allow a single person, and a high-maintenance medical risk at that, to monopolize the conversation. She knew where this was going and she had at least fifty more questions to deal with immediately and she knew she was going to miss lunch as she felt her stomach contract. Yet another reason for her never to leave again.

The crowd noticed this change in tone: she was still cordial but very direct to a person not used to brutal truths. Holly knew this person, full of good intentions, would either implode immediately upon arrival to her or his territory or implode right before she or he was scheduled to leave. The time and resources which would be consumed would be wasted and they would be no closer in alleviating the misery of some part of the world. The need to volunteer was admirable but it was time to get aggressive in weeding out the weak and the spoiled because caring wasn't enough; you needed to include competence in the mix. Too often people try to bring bits and pieces of their old world with them but that was a losing proposition as best practices showed that you jumped with both feet and didn't look back. If you had to haul all your creature comforts from home, you were in the wrong business. Anything you carried with you had a extremely high likelihood of being stolen, ruined or worn out prematurely. A prescription drug was like a teddy bear; if you need it that bad, stay at home.

Another hand began waving, slightly less frantically. Holly pointed at it politely and said, "And your question?"

A large man decked out in a caftan, stood and said, "Will you teach me what I need to know?"

"Ouch," thought Holly. "May I ask what your current skills include?"

The man thought for a moment and said, "My compassion for people, my listening skills, my ability to organize and my desire to make the world a better place." His off-the-cuff remarks had been well-rehearsed and he felt he had effectively delivered them. He remained standing and prepared himself for the warm rush of positive and supportive approval.

There were smatterings of applause in the audience but as Holly began to speak, it died down quickly. "I appreciate those attributes but I view those as 'soft' skills. I want to know what 'hard' skills you are bringing with you." She used finger quotes without noticing it to make a point but once they clicked down their quotations, Holly regretted their use as amatuerish.

The man looked at her with his mouth slightly open.

Holly, tired of waiting said, "Can you build an irrigation ditch?"

The man shook his head and said, "No, I have never worked in construction."

Holly said, "Can you teach people how to begin farming using sustainable agriculture?"

The man shook his head and said, "No, I have never worked on a farm."

Holly said, "Can you teach people how to read or write using their native language as a foundation."

The man shook his head and said, "I speak no other language than English."

Holly rubbed her eyes: she was going to miss lunch; she could feel her stomach churn. Holly listened for a few minutes and made a conscious effort not to dress down the man in front of the large audience but it was evident that this guy was going to be fairly useless as well. Luckily, a few more questions were actually useful and after answering the main ones, she said, "Let's have lunch and we can address questions in the small groups." The crowd seemed to buy it and they collectively broke for lunch fifteen minutes late. Holly waved her directors together and said, "We need to talk."

Holly set an appointment them all at the end of the day. They knew what was coming and they didn't blame her for the obvious concerns. Instinctively, people love large numbers when faced with challenging consequences and it appeared that many in this large group were underqualified while still brimming with misplaced confidence. After the day's last general event, Holly shut the doors behind her in an obscure conference room and said, "Well, better now than later."

The group, still with their heads down, grunted general agreement and waited for her next statement but Holly was not going to do their thinking for them. She left the room, with a dramatic door slam and went to sit down and rest her feet. She was going to make them slog through this challenge. One by one, they popped up their heads and realized that they had to figure this out, right here and definitely right now. Eventually, the conversation started taking shape and they all realized that their fatal flaw rested on the desire to help, perhaps not the ability.

After a half-hour, she returned and asked the dozen, brightly-colored NGO professionals their thoughts. There was a lot of chair-shuffling and paper straightening but no one was taking the lead on the issue. Finally, one of her trusted friends, said, "We need to quickly and thoroughly vet these people in the next 24 hours."

"What is the best guess on how many we will lose?"

"Just a guess, I think we should lose more than half, but at least half."

"Finally, a number I could agree with," thought Holly. "I need to know this information by noon tomorrow. No exceptions," said the exhausted Ms. Holy as she walked out the room.

Her lieutenants began to work immediately. The resumes and C.V.'s of the attendees were distributed and quickly broken into three categories: qualified, not qualified and not sure. Once the "non-qualifieds" were organized, the same lieutenants began the embarrassing and time-consuming process of finding these applicants and having brief conversations with them before sending them back home. The qualified group was not contacted but was re-organized into smaller, more expertise-based groups (versus the initial geographical category) and notes were placed under their doors providing new agendas, topics and room locations. The smallest but toughest group, the "not sures" were set up with face to face interviews first thing in the morning with the goal of placing the surviving qualified applicants with the initial group by the afternoon session.

Desi arrived early that morning to the newly assigned conference room. She was surprised to have receiving a new agenda but dutifully complied. Decked out in her favorite world clothing choice, a bright red terlik from Russia. It had short sleeves, a tailored waist and a great story but no one seemed too interested in hearing each other's story when it focused on their world clothing. The room started to fill up and much to her surprise, the navy blazer guy walked into her room. After a few minutes of introductory remarks about the discovered need to further qualify the attendees, Desi was happy that she was considered a talented resource but still confused why the Brooks Brothers guy was part of the group. Not only did he choose to wear his preppy clothes, she began to think that he was actually dressing up more than originally. Once the general comments were made, the efforts of yesterday were known to all. The group collective ego grew noticeably once everyone realized they were considered the top group and a resulting colleaguial vibe grew as the day went on. Desi remained fixated on the preppy man but no one else seemed to find his apparel off-putting.

Desi was at the diagonally opposite end of the meeting room, surrounded by brightly colored dhotis and impressive-looking Barong Tagalogs, and continued to watch the man in the conservative blazer and tie interacting cordially with his table mates. At his table, he was also surrounded by hard-working and earnest looking people in their nwentomas, hanfus and krojes but he appeared to be holding his own during their small group discussions. Desi got her initial assignment: Micronesia. She, with several other people, was tasked to improve the education and infrastructure on several of the larger islands that make up the country. The country consists of hundreds of small islands, divided in seven territories; put the task was daunting enough as it stood.

Desi moved into further and further training and soon forgot about the preppy-dressed man as trip details, medical clearances, planning meetings and coordination-related preparation shoved all secondary preoccupation out of her mind. Leaving approximately one month later, Desi eventually landed on Yap and was shuttled to a NGO station about thirty clicks straight north east. For the next four years, every single day, Desi and the rest of the team accomplished great things: roads were improved; teachers were identified, nurtured and trained while all around them, schools were being built. The local health programs, strengthened by time-consuming one on one lobbying efforts from the NGO's, made significant impact with new and expectant mothers. The local population was supportive and willing but Desi took nothing for granted. Each day was a war, punctuated by poor communication, general ignorance, desertions and incredible snafus' from all government agencies and every NGO.

The comparison to a war suited Desi just fine: before she was actually on the ground, she found herself avoiding that type of metaphor for personal reasons. But four years in the boonies makes anyone more pragmatic and occasionally, she remembered Ms. Holy's comments about "dirt and brains." Most of her luggage was lost forever, her satellite phone was dropped during the first week, her computer was destroyed through a combination of high humidity and dust and every single piece of paper that eventually found its way to her hand, was deteriorated and soiled to the point of unreadibility thanks to a less than modern postal service. However, she didn't wait for resources (that was rarely promised but never came anyway), general assistance (that was always promised and still never came) or the efforts of people who could direct the philosophies from a vague, almost ecumenical level: she jumped in and never looked back. At the end of four years, her formal commitment was over and she was flying home to reconnect with family and friends who had make an impressive effort to stay connected.

Desi was sitting in the modern airport in Manila wondering how she had every came from this world of chrome, lights and noise. The hustle of the frantic passengers blended into a surreal image of energy and color flying from side to side. Just as she closed her eyes, a four-year old image appeared next to her and sat down. It was the navy blazer guy and he looked the same with a wiry, tan appearance but it was the same guy. He sat down and looked at her. She could tell he recognized her as well; he smiled.

"I remember you, I am Danny Murkowski from the Miami NGO group four years ago."

"And I remember you. I am Desi Ryan from the same group."

"What are you doing in Manila?" said Danny Murkowski.

"I have been in Wanead, Yap for the last four years, up in a remote village, doing what had to be done. What about you?"

"Basically, the same thing but in East Malaysia. In a small town called Miri."

"May I ask you a personal question?," said Desi as Danny nodded a moved slightly closer.

"Of course."

"Did you dress like that everyday?" asked Desi while she pointed at his blazer.

"Everyday. This is my uniform, this is my thing."

"Why?"

"Two reasons: one, it is my thing...this is what I am comfortable in wearing. And trust me, four hot and trying years in Miri, it wasn't easy. I have to thank Brooks Brothers for their regular deliveries and their consistently outstanding quality."

"And the second reason?"

"Never underestimate the power of a clean shirt."

"I have heard that."

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