Monday, November 19, 2012

I Got To Meet the Real-Life Most Interesting Man/Men In the World

Disclaimer: This post, by now, is about two months old. I wrote it on the day we left Vicksburg, because that was when I happened to have a 20-minute-long chat with the Director of Operations for the Vicksburg campus, he who shall be known as Wade. Because it's so blatantly gushing because I was that amazed, I held off on it for a long time, but I feel like now is a moderately appropriate time for it to finally go up. This was my immediate, post-conversation reaction.

I don’t think I ever truly understood the meaning of the phrase “hit by a freight train” until just now. I just spent the past twenty minutes or so talking to one Wade Williams, our Director of Operations at Vicksburg Campus, and listening to him talk about the places he’d been and the things he’d seen and done. Wade has got to be the most competent person I have ever met, and that is not an exaggeration. He is incredibly experienced, well-traveled, intelligent—despite his denials—and articulate. He talks at the speed of light and my brain is struggling just to keep up. After twenty minutes of conversation, I feel like it’s been an hour’s worth of in-depth talk and I barely said a word—and didn’t care. It was mesmerizing.

Wade is Wade. This twenty-plus-year U.S. Marine Corps veteran retired at 42 and became the DDO at NCCC in 2009. Wade is a bulky six foot two, with short hair that’s graying on the sides and green eyes that don’t look away from yours in conversation. It is impossible to imagine Wade being unsure of himself or hesitant. He taught our driving safety class and made a bone-dry subject hilarious; he has a great command of words and the mien of a born storyteller. The breadth and depth of his knowledge of the Marine Corps, of the mechanics of disaster relief operations, of the minutiae of this campus, of who-knows-how-many-other-subjects seem limitless. And to cap it off, Wade is an Energizer Bunny in human form. Our conversation was the longest I’ve ever seen him stay in one place; he’s constantly crisscrossing the campus. Down six people on his temporary staff, Wade—being Wade—simply does all their jobs himself. Himself. Apparently, he did without eight people for approximately a year and a half, buying everything from key cards to vans--everything the campus needs--by his lonesome. I'm not sure he knows what sleep is.

Wade’s stories are like nothing I’ve ever heard. One minute he’ll be describing the devastation of a Pakistani village where he did earthquake disaster relief in the Marines—bodies broken on the ground, people covered in blood, amputation tents with piles of body parts outside—and the next he’ll be describing how he dealt with petty Pakistani army leaders who were hoarding earthquake relief supplies (literally blowing them away with the rotor wash from huge Chinook helicopters), all in the same raspy Southern monotone. Wade has done disaster relief in Somalia, where he got in midnight gunfights on the streets of Mogadishu. He was there for flooding in Thailand, for volcanic eruptions in the Philippines, for hurricanes in Port-au-Prince, for earthquake relief in Pakistan, and he’s helped build four orphanages around the world. Wade rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Marines, and as an executive officer, he planned countless operations, disaster relief and otherwise, around the world. You know how people always say they need “the guy” to do things for them? Wade is “the guy”. Outside of television, he might be the ultimate “the guy”. 

On multiple occasions, Wade has described himself to me or to a group of Corps Members as “not very smart”. I would put this down to self-effacement, but Wade does not seem like that type; he is gifted with a marvelous brain and a Marine’s bluntness. Asked half-jokingly why he isn’t running his own campus by now, Wade proceeded to explain how Americorps is already staffed largely by ex-military officers—apparently all five campuses have an ex-military Director of Operations—and that the higher-ups want diversity of backgrounds in the upper ranks. He talked about things I’d never even heard of, how Americorps NCCC normally has a requirement for a certain percentage of disadvantaged kids that he works with personally, but that that requirement was waived for FEMA Corps (those people are Wade's currently-missing staff), how Americorps NCCC members, working with Wade’s stock of thirty-five chainsaws (most campuses only have four) cleared all the tornado debris in Tuscaloosa in two days. To say that he’s quick to grasp the significance of new developments would be an understatement; he effortlessly shifts between conversations and develops contingency plans on the spot. And they work. I’m really not sure there’s anything he can’t do.

The reason why I felt this is appropriate to post now is that I'm currently privileged to work with a team of Air Marshals, who are part of FEMA's "surge force" out of the Transportation Security Administration. The marshals couldn't be nicer to us; they've bought us lunch two days in a row, they've been working closely with us as far as locations for canvassing and getting us organized, and they're generally very easy to talk to. (Brad, the team leader, has the dry wit of a Louis C.K.) But apparently they're also mysterious badasses from the land beyond time. They travel all over the world hunting "bad guys"--drug traffickers, child pornographers, terrorists--and basically functioning as the U.S's most versatile and persistent law enforcement officials. They're supremely good at whatever they do, and they remind me quite a bit of Wade. They're the people who make politicians look good, the guys who make it--whatever it is--happen. One wonders if any government can function without its share of Wades.

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