I’ve been hot before. I broiled in the 105-degree heat of a youth baseball tournament in Knoxville last year. I ran a 5K on the dark clay of Lexington’s Red Mile harness track at high noon some 20 Junes ago. I rode in the way-back seat of a vacation station wagon before air conditioning was available in Ford family cars. So I’ve been, you know … hot.
But I was introduced to a whole new hell-hot in South Florida last week. And it involved heavy manual labor, whose acquaintance I seldom make.
Along with 300 other volunteers, I journeyed to the Sunshine State as a participant in “Tourism Cares for Miami.” I figured I’d work during the day and then maybe explore the city. On the flight down, I toyed with the idea of getting a ticket to the Miami Heat game, as LeBron James and company were playing a pivotal playoff game at home.
Background: Tourism Cares is a nonprofit organization that strives to preserve and enhance travel destinations. It’s funded mostly by people in the tourism industry as a way to “give back” (an act we used to describe as “give”).
The Tourism Cares model is to gather up hundreds of office workers and put them to work, accomplishing in one day a load of labor that would take a crew of professionals as long as, oh, four days to complete.
Our tasks were twofold: 1) clean up all kinds of crap at the soon-to-be-restored Miami Marine Stadium and 2) plant native trees and sea grasses at Virginia Key Beach Park. I say “our tasks,” but we were divided into two groups, one for the trash and one for the planting. I was assigned to the group of planters, and after breakfast and a series of welcome speeches, we formed work groups of three. Our group had four (because … math), which we inexplicably reduced to two groups of two.
At the work site, organizers distributed the tools we would use—a shovel and a mattock. The latter, in case you’re unaccustomed to hand tools, has a pickaxy point on one end and a half-hoe on the other. (Insert half-hoe joke here.) A local expert doled out safety tips, which included the avoidance of the following: prickly plants, poison ivy, heat stroke, snakes, sunburn, alligators, mosquito bites and chopping your colleague’s hand(s) off. Because I had just the one colleague, Maria, my odds of accidental hand-chopping were relatively low.
By then the sun was sitting fairly high, and the long-sleeve shirt I had been instructed to wear was doing a great job of holding in my body heat. After Maria and I chopped and dug our first hole, I traded her for the mattock so that I, the manly male of the duo, would perform the more demanding task of ground chopping.
That’s the last thing I remember until lunch, when I ate a Cubano sandwich, consumed a massive slab of flan and downed two frozen lemonades. Sugar will melt under high heat, and I surely dissolved in the after-lunch work session. I hope I was still planting trees, but I might have been digging up already planted trees. Or I could have planted Maria. I was a little heat hazy.
My next memory is walking (stiffly) to a post-labor celebration at the Miami Seaquarium. At that point I was willing to be fed to the killer whales just so I could cool off. Instead, we were seated and offered a non-Cuban meal, which I did not sample. (No flan, no fun, I always say.)
I do remember a sampling of conversations I had with other volunteers. We were bone-tired and stinky, but we were satisfied. Even though we had worked without keyboards and cell phones, we accomplished an incredible amount. Our (big) group planted 785 trees and 11,000 sea grass plants. The other group filled six huge dumpsters with trash and debris. We pushed both projects forward in giant steps, and because our efforts were covered by local TV stations and the Miami Herald, we helped create local momentum.
More than one of my fellow volunteers marveled that we had just done for free what we routinely pay others to do in our own back yards. And that’s what made it all the more gratifying. Working outside my comfort zone – and my own back yard – to aid a cause that’s important to others made it worth all the sore muscles.
And the spirit of teamwork multiplied the effect. It was the force that brought us together, pushed us forward and enabled us to do more than we ever would have tried on our own.
But gawd, was it hot.
As I soaked in my tub at the hotel, I abandoned all thoughts of finding a ticket for the basketball game, where the Miami Heat eventually won their way into the NBA finals. The city went wild. But for my money, the real Miami heat was a warm feeling that stayed with me even as the dirt of the day went down the drain. I had put in a hard day’s work. I had accomplished something that matters.
I’ve been hot before. But Miami heat was different.