Snowball Express is an annual event that flies in about 1,500 children and several hundred parents in into Dallas just before Christmas. The only rule is the children must have had a parent killed while serving in the military. This was my first year volunteering to help out at the event.
My diary below --
Saturday afternoon, 4pm CST
Heading into Dallas for two days of volunteering with Snowball Express. American Airlines has flown in for free about 1,500 children who have lost a parent to the wars in Iraq & Afghanistan. A cause this good is about the only thing that could get me to voluntarily revisit the Chuck E. Cheese phase of parenting, but for something this important a couple of frantic days up to my ears with a couple of hundred, hopefully excited little kids is just fine.
Sunday morning, 12:30 am - Central time
It's 1230, and Night 1 at Snowball Express is over. Arrived a couple of hours early, figuring they could put me to work or I could find a spot to lounge around, instead got to go backstage for one of the early shows. Gary "Lt. Dan" Sinise, of Forrest Gump & Apollo XIII fame, fronts the "Lt. Dan Band" which has gone around the world entertaining our troops for the USO. Got to see his show from 10 feet off stage left, while he rocked out to about a thousand people.
Some kids formed a "conga" line and snake danced through the auditorium while the band blared some Stevie Wonder tune. In some places, the kids and parents were having a blast. And, in others you'd see groups of people hugging overcome with emotion. After, 45 minutes I had to excuse myself as I watched some mother get comfort from her children. The one rule that they drilled into every memo that was sent out over the past month was no matter what you faced, you had to maintain a happy face, because the kids were there to have fun and to forget. So, when I felt my eyes getting involuntarily moist, I headed out and found a deserted Men's room where I composed myself.
Headed down to "Kid's Corner" where we were going to entertain about 500 kids, ages 5-10, for a few hours. Met the rest of the volunteers, including a very nice man who had been a defensive lineman with the Cowboys. Figured, I couldn't hold it against him becaue you don't control what team drafts you and while it might be momentarily enjoyable it wouldn't be right to tell him, "Hey, the Cowboys really suck", but I showed restraint...........for the children.
They gave me a choice of where I could work so I was running the "video" room - where I had between 40-75 kids, ages 5-10, watch "Santa Clause 2" and a "Charlie Brown Christmas" - all while enjoying an unlimited supply of Mike & Ikes, Hot Tamales, high sugar flavored applesauce, soda and pizza. There was great potential for mayhem once the sugar kicked in, but it wasn't a bad gig. Some of the kids, were isolating themselves and asked them if they wanted to sit closer to the action, but didn't apply any pressure. And, had the interesting experience of having to pull up the fly of a special needs child who couldn't do it himself. Also, did a stint hanging with a heavily retarded (I have no idea what the currently acceptable phrase is) while his sister ran out for a bit of fun. He showed me some affection by whacking me on the back hard a few times, but it was all good. After that, went back to making occasional "rounds" making sure no one was going to end up in stitches or a cast. When it hit me - every one of these 50 plus little kids had had a parent shot, blown up, burned to death or otherwise destroyed by the wars. Clarity can truly blow at times.
As we neared the end also had to great pleasure of firmly, diplomatically and forcefully telling one of our younger volunteers that if she touched the room lights or made a move to shut down the projector before the end of a Charlie Brown's Christmas, I would tear her a new one. Diplomatically, politely - but I made sure she knew where she stood. I don't care what time we're officially supposed to shut down, you can't shut off Charlie Brown before his sorry Christmas tree has a chance to redeem itself and glory in the spirit of Christmas and a happy ending. Odd fighting words from a Jew, but come on a Charlie Brown Christmas is universal.
Once Charlie Brown had his happy ending, along with a few other volunteers, had the room - which was unsurprisingly a bit of a shambles - put back in decent condition in quick order.
And now, I collapse so I can get up again in 5 hours and do it all again.
Sunday, 3pm Central Time
My Day 2 at Snowball Express is done. For once, the Tollway south downtown was smooth sailing, instead of backed up traffic. All I have to do is limit my trips to Dallas to early Sunday mornings and I'm good.
Arrived at the Hyatt and learned enough from last night to not hang around Kids Corner waiting for them to get going. Took advantage and went upstairs and grabbed some breakfast with a Korean war and a pair of Vietnam vets. They were having some fun at one of the Vietnam veterans expense. Apparently, he lives deep in a rural area and just discovered internet dating in his sixties, having acquired a Cougar pen pal in San Diego where he was headed next week. Had some pleasant conversation, a quick breakfast and then headed back downstairs to "Kids Corner".
The line was already forming a half hour before admission. Today, instead of runnng the movie room I decided to get out and about. Fixed the air hockey tables so they were running fast (elbow grease and furniture polish does the trick) and ran a few Air Hockey tournaments. One girl, Megan, has a great future hustling money in bars playing air hockey and was dominating playing time on the tables - since usually winner gets to keep playing. After beating her four littler opponents by a combined score of 36-3, I challenged her to a game and established adult superiority, by the razor thin margin of 9-7. By punching her ticket, I was able to free up the table for more kids. I then went over and repaired the Ping Pong tables and taught a few kids how to play Ping Pong by the rules. Which they may or may not have enjoyed since it sort of departed from the whole mayhem and destruction theme. I was also temporarily adopted by a little girl named Ireland and we played with her stuffed Penguin. After that, I hauled a bunch of cases of apple juice and stocked the industrial sized fridge with a feisty Texas grandma. Tough, strong and you could tell almost immediately big hearted.
And so forth and so on as mayhem reigned. Had a better handle on my emotions today than last night, but still there were times you'd pause and fight off melancholy at some of the horror. Little things, odd things would bring it to the fore. A pair of sisters wearing t-shirts that said "Daddy's Girl" on the back and a picture of their father in fatigues on the front. A mother who drops her son off at the Kids Corner, where the son is literally bouncing with excitement, but the mother wearing a pin with her Green Beret husband's picture on it has the most tired eyes I've ever seen. Or a elderly volunteer relating to me the story of how one young girl had hugged her, because her perfume smelled just like the perfurme her mother used to wear, before she left for the war.
Finally, after 3 hours they had a rock band made up by some School of Rock wannabes play (not bad) they started shutting down the Kids Activity room around noon. Went upstairs and grabbed some lunch with an Executive Board member and his wife along with some volunteers from USAA. Nice people. The hallways were filled with kids having their pictures taken with superheros enough Star Wars characters to stock a Tatooine bar. Most of the people caught busses to the House of Blues for a Talent Show and while I was invited, but passed on because by then then I was cooked, as in put a fork in me I'd done.
Lying here now, desperate for a nap and reflecting on the past 24 hours, I'm struck but the kids and veterans I had a chance to get to know. I'm proud that I've done a small scintilla of good. Maybe easing some child or parent's pain for a few hours. And, I feel some pride in this community that has put itself out in such a major corporate and personal way to support such a wonderful endeavor. As a Lawyer or with Business people it is so easy to place outsized importance on the latest contract, or deadline or sales push or budget. But, it is so easy to forget that something as simple as a child's smile can be worth so much more.
I know all the good and bad reasons for our wars. Bastion of democracy. Leader of the Free World. The Greatest Nation the World has ever known. Jihad. Containment. The Global War on Terror. But the cost when measured in children's tears is so goddamn high. I just hope in the end it all has some meaning. And I look forward to the day when no one will understand why something as blessed as Snowball Express has to exist.