Clothes go in first: socks, boxers, T-shirts with witty slogans on them, blue FEMA Corps T-shirts with “FEMA CORPS” emblazoned on the back and a real patch on the right bicep, not just a decal but a patch actually sewn on. Black dress pants, neatly folded. Brown sandals that need to be glued back together for the dozenth time. Khakis and bandannas and that stupid vest that everybody had to pack all disappear into the cavernous maw that is the red bag’s biggest pocket, there to reappear neatly folded and pressed and somehow taking up far less space than the laws of physics say they should. Willpower trumps reality every time in this area and this area only: packing for a spike.
Next is the gewgaws, the consumables, the borderline necessities. A deck of cards, a pair of toenail clippers, cords for various phones and razors jumbled together into an incomprehensible muddle, half a bottle of shampoo, a straggly bar of soap inside its protective blue shell. A brand-new copy of The Count of Monte Cristo shares space with a blue hoodie and a windbreaker, both of them coiled up into hard balls of cloth. A pair of blue jeans that you just discovered have a rip in the crotch are wadded up in the last pocket of space available, just on top of half-a-dozen folders full of bank information and handbooks on how to be a Community Relations Specialist and a bunch of mostly useless class notes.
All of this detritus probably weighs as much as a respectably sized suitcase, but through an ingenious system of clips and straps, you can carry it on your back for a little while and not collapse. In your other hand, or hanging off your shoulder, will be a personal bag (laptop, charging cord, personal folder and marked-up copy of your senior thesis that are worth more than their weight in gold to you, red Frisbee and peanut butter crackers for the road and a water bottle with a carabineer clip hanging off the side. Detergent and Listerine go in a separate bag that used to hold a brace of potatoes, safely double-bagged and waterproofed. Sleeping bag and pillow, the one crammed under the seats, the other resting comfortably in the back of the van with the rest of your team’s gear.
Red bags always travel in packs. We have nine of them piled up high in the back, ten sleeping bags because somebody from our sister team left theirs behind, countless pillows and blankets and water bottles and laced-up black leather boots. Personal gear shares space with team gear; there are boxes and bags of cutlery, pots and pans, garbage bags, dishwashing soap and sponges and other ingredients of a daily nomadic life. We’ve taken all the food we can—bags of cereal, granola bars, endless bottles of Gatorade, anything that can live in the pantry for longer then an opera—but all the perishable stuff had to go. We managed to give much of it away to a needy family in our motel, but bags of grapes and cylinders of yogurt and carrots and cartons of soy milk tumbled one by one into a garbage bag because there simply wasn’t any way to take them eleven hours to the north.
That’s why we’re on the move. We’re headed up to maybe, possibly, if our FEMA overlords and the whims of the storm smile upon us, respond to Hurricane/Cold Front/High Tide/All-Around Monster Storm Sandy as she tears towards the East Coast. It is entirely possible that we will not lift a finger in the relief effort; it is entirely possible that after driving up to [location omitted, but it's east of the Mississippi] to be “pre-staged” and hunker down and wait for the wind and the rain and the snow to pass us by, we will be told that there is no need for our services and isn’t the weather in Atlanta nice this time of year? and go back to the Sun Suites Motel in Suwanee, Georgia. But all that is still safely parked two days into the future. The happiness of reunion with friends we haven’t seen in a month, the jolt of electricity as the storm sweeps over our city, the bitter disappointment or wild jubilation of being told whether we’ll finally get to do what we were trained to do, all of that is yet to come.