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Pensacola with a purpose: an ASB diary

From dread to a day at the beach

Part Three of a five-part series.

Wednesday, March 8, 2006

Wednesday gets off to a bad, bad start.

The morning is typical — a frantic rush to get breakfast eaten, lunches made, and everybody out the door on time. We arrive at the site and the first two jobs are easy, thanks to our new expertise: we clear a patch of weeds from a telephone pole and we tear down a rotted porch at the back of a trailer.

Then the plywood arrives.

Our job, we learn, is to lay down new plywood walls and floors throughout the wrecked trailer, using four hammers, two crowbars, a circular saw and a gas generator, and moldy eight-by-four slabs that have been donated from an amusement park in Washington, D.C. It’s about 9:30, and we’re supposed to finish at noon. Unlikely, we think, and even more unlikely as we watch Daryl, our coordinator from Rebuilding Northwest Florida, get ready to leave. Katie flags him down and asks if we could maybe have a tape measure and a pencil.

Cursing isn’t allowed on site, because we are, after all, representing Boston University, but much of it is done internally. We don’t have any nails. We don’t know if we are supposed to remove the linoleum from the kitchen before laying the plywood floor. And only two people in our crew have used a circular saw before, and neither of them feels particularly expert.

But the good thing about RNF, we’ve discovered, is that when you have to, you get to make your own rules. And luckily, Vernon Doucette, a photographer for BU Photo Services, who arrived on Tuesday to shoot pictures for BU Today and Bostonia, has some ideas about rules to get us through the day. It so happens that Vernon is a serious kayaker and a former Outward Bound instructor. Also, we are pleased to learn, he’s a pretty good construction manager.

The orders begin: sweep up everything off the floor or the plywood won’t lie even. Bring two pieces inside and then measure how much you need to cut. Wear goggles when you use a circular saw. At first, he goes back and forth between shooting and sawing, but eventually, he hands the camera over to Karen and dives full-force into the project. We set down the living room floor — or Vernon, Dan, and Katie do, fitting the pieces together like a jigsaw puzzle — and two-thirds of the bedroom. We don’t get to the walls or the living room, but Daryl doesn’t seem to mind. We are finished by 12:30.

Kendrick, a group leader, feels responsible for the morning’s confusion, and in the van on the way home, she apologizes. No big deal. At this point, everybody is thinking about lunch and our afternoon at the beach.

After a quick change of clothes at the apartments, we head back to Pensacola Beach. The drive takes us through the nicer parts of Pensacola, where the homes are painted pastel colors and boutiques line the streets; across from the beach, restaurants wave flags advertising “Beer to Go!” As far as we can tell, this represents about 10 percent of the city. We spend most of our time in the other 90 percent, where Dan once counted seven pawn shops at one intersection, and where people keep pit bulls in their front yards.

But the waves, which are enormous, feel amazing; Amy, Katie, Dan, Matt, and I spend nearly an hour diving through them. Vernon takes a well-deserved lunch break and comes back to snap pictures of us getting knocked around by six-foot swells. The images, I think, would make a good news headline: Boston University students drown — photographer captures it all.

We’re not sure what we’ll be doing tomorrow. It might be demolition, or it might be back to today’s trailer to finish the floors and walls. We’ve got our fingers collectively crossed for the former, but if we go back to today’s site at least we’ll be better off than where we started.

Read Part Four

Read more Alternative Spring Breaks stories.