ASB Everglades

ASB, or Alternate Student Breaks, is a program that sends students to service opportunities all over the country (and, recently, the world) over winter break, spring break, and the end of the summer. There were lots of ASB programs for Northwestern over spring break. I don’t remember most of them, but one was in the Bahamas, I think, and I know there was one in St. Louis that involved homeless people. I was lucky enough to be accepted into the group going to the Everglades!

Unfortunately I lost most of the pictures I took, but I’ll include some taken by my friends.

We left Evanston very early on the Saturday morning after finals week. 6:30 was the meeting time, I believe. We waited for everyone to show up, then we drove south into Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee. We stopped for the night in a suburb close to Atlanta, Georgia.

Driving worked like this. If you took a driver certification test before the trip, you got a ten dollar discount (the trip cost a relatively cheap $275 overall). I’d already taken this test to become a Saferide driver. Only people who took the test could drive, and we were only allowed to drive two hours between stopping and switching drivers. We had to buy something when we stopped to prove to the university that we did. We were only allowed to drive, I think, between 9 AM and 6 PM.

We were encouraged to bring mix CDs and almost everyone did. I burned about 6 or 7 of them, but they quickly fell on the floor of the front seat and got scratched up. A guy on the trip burned a CD of Ukrainian folk music that everyone hated.

It felt great to get out of the car in Georgia. It was early evening and the temperature was perfect, just warm enough to be outside comfortably in shorts and a t-shirt. We parked our van outside the church we were staying in for the night, then we drove around looking for a restaurant. We settled on a 50s diner type place. The portions there were huge, and I couldn’t help but notice that an unusual number of people eating there were fat. I got the country steak and I couldn’t finish it.

We slept on the floor of the basement in the church. Before we fell asleep, we played a few “bonding” games, like telling everyone the story behind your first name. We also played a game called “High, Low, Ha,” in which everyone said what the highest, lowest and funniest part of the day was for them. We played this game at the end of every day. I forgot to bring a pillow, so I wasn’t very comfortable and I had trouble falling asleep. I later bought a cheap pillow at Wal-mart.

We got up early the next day and drove through Florida. It was great to see the change in scenery, which seems to happen immediately after entering Georgia. I wondered when I would see the first palm tree, and it ended up being right inside Florida’s border. I actually enjoyed driving a lot.

In the evening we arrived at the church in Homestead, Florida we stayed at for the rest of the trip. Then we went to Wal-mart to buy food and supplies. They split us up into four teams, each of which would cook dinner one night of the trip. Each group was given thirty dollars to buy the food. My group decided to cook cheeseburgers and fries. We had ice cream for dessert. We cooked our meal Thursday night, the last night we were there.


The next day we woke up early and drove about an hour to get to Everglades National Park, where we did our service work. We met a really cool and funny, kinda weird volunteer park ranger named Jeray, who was basically our guide/leader/helper the rest of the week. He was always there to supervise our work. He was originally from Arizona, but he signed up for a three-month volunteering stint in Florida after being laid off. They provided him with free housing and a stipend, I think.

We were all waiting around before work, so Jeray showed us how to knock coconuts out of a palm tree and hack them open with a machete. It was much harder than you would think. Here’s a picture of me doing it.


He set us to work taking apart an old house on stilts they were about to demolish. The girls grumbled because they expected to do more nature work, but I and the other guys on the trip, I think, had a blast. We got to rip out windows, toilets, doors, and water heaters with as much recklessness as we wanted, then we got to throw them in a dumpster. I really regret losing the pictures I took on this day. During a break, all the guys destroyed a wall in one of the rooms by kicking it and hitting it with a crowbar. It was a great day, and the temperature was really nice.

I’ll write the rest of my account of the trip later, when I have more time. Here is a picture of the entire group:


Vegetable Week: The Legacy of Frau Graf

It all began, I think, when my youngest sister, Jean, was born. I was six years old.

When my mother went to the hospital to deliver a child — and Jean was her fifth — Gramma Neal would pay for a caregiver to stay with us while Mom was in the hospital. In those days, women who delivered babies were in the hospital for a week or so, so the selection of the caregiver was a big deal to Jim, Cath, Margaret and me. Our favorite caregiver was a kind woman named Della, who would make us milkshakes (using ice milk rather than ice cream) and grilled cheese sandwiches. On the occasion of Jean’s birth, however, Della apparently was not available, so our caregiver was a tough, no-nonsense woman named Mrs. Graf. She was a strict disciplinarian, to put it mildly. One day when Jim returned home from school a few minutes late, she tugged his ear (just like you would see in a Little Rascals short) until it was red and he hollered in pain.

For one fateful dinner, she served stewed tomatoes. They were, arguably, the most unappetizing food imaginable — pink and skinless, translucent and veiny, served on a wet dish covered in watery juice shot full of seeds. No rational person would eat them, and I refused. She forced me to do so, upon pain of corporal punishment. They were disgusting and made me physically ill, and I think I have hated vegetables ever since. Now, I’m not saying that I would have grown to like vegetables, even if Frau Graf hadn’t forced me to eat them some 46 years ago. There is no doubt, however, that her insistence that I eat stewed tomatoes contributed to my steadfast disdain for all vegetable matter. And I’m equally sure that, every time I turn down a salad or ask that my entree be served without vegetables on the plate, the six-year-old lurking inside me thinks: “Hah! Take that, Mrs. Graf!”