poor georgie’s almanack
GRUNT WORK, SOARING GLORY, GLITZ, MISS UNIVERSE, TEARS, AND A DONUT HOLE
Mexico City. 7:17 AM, September 19, 1985:
A violent earthquake demolished buildings, killed at least 5,000 people, and injured untold thousands.
As a veteran Pan American Development (PADF) board member, I loved how a small professional staff and a few highly placed volunteers could jump into disasters and do really important stuff, like changing lives for the better and keeping lots of people from dying.
When the earthquake hit, PADF, had:
- A Florida warehouse full of useful tools to excavate people from fallen buildings … like saws that cut through concrete … and a stockpile of basic medical equipment.
- A board member who was an exec at a major oil company. He quickly corralled a corporate plane to move equipment from the warehouse to Mexico City and Miguel Aleman Velasco, high among the entrenched political and business elite of Mexico. His father had been the FDR of Mexico. When I knew him he was a co-owner of Mexico’s largest TV network and rather serious.
Fast forward a few years. The city leadership decided to honor PADF and its board for what it had done. Aleman sent his network’s corporate jet to pick some of us up.
By far, I was the poorest board member, but for years had been willing to do grunt work. Because my office was nearby, I usually could show up when a board member was needed for some seemingly important function, like signing a document.
PADF, essentially, is an operating arm of the US State Dept., the Organization of American States (UN for the hemisphere), and a few corporations that donate executives to be board members along with some money. I was on the board because the PADF founder liked work I did at the USAID agency and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Upon arrival in Mexico City, I was immediately, and embarrassedly, taken in by the glitz, the pomp and ceremony of the official reception, and all the usual self-congratulatory stuff that goes on when governments are patting each other on the back. I’d seen it before in places like Kenya, and Washington, but this one swept me into the stratosphere.
It started in the hotel room. On the coffee table was the usual elegant all-you-need-to know-about-Mexico-City book. On its cover was a high quality reproduction of a painting by the world famous Mexican artist Diego Rivera.
A few hours later, as the door to Miguel Aleman’s mansion swung open, the first thing that caught my eye was that very painting … the real one.
Nearby was a large weird-looking floor lamp. I learned it was an incarnation of the trophy Señora Miguel Aleman received as the second Miss Universe. Seeing the lamp and its inappropriate lamp shade, I immediately wanted to meet her because she certainly must have had her stuff together. Luckily, my seat at the long dining table was next to the Italian girl, Christiane Martel Magnani, who somehow morphed into Miss France, then Miss Universe, and then a movie star, who had caught Miguel’s eye. Or vice-versa.
We spent a couple hours being serenaded by a very loud mariachi band and talking about her life and hard times raising kids. Not surprisingly, she was a terrific story teller.
The house sat upon an immaculately landscaped golf-course-size property. It was an oasis near the teeming, highly polluted center city.
She told me about a teenage daughter and her boy friend. His birthday present to the daughter was a lion cub. Apparently, it pretty much had a free run of the estate. One morning while the Italian/French/Mexican Señora Aleman still was in bed, sipping coffee and reading the paper, the now not-so-small lion cub took a running jump through an open bedroom window and landed, plop, on Miss Universe’s bladder.
Deportation papers arrived soon thereafter.
As delightful as the mayor’s pomp, Sra. Aleman’s home decorations, and her family stories, were, the most memorable image that lingers from the visit was much more sober. It brought me back to Earth and made all those volunteer hours worth every minute I missed billing real clients, and making real money.
Our meager band of board members were at a small neighborhood hospital that had been devastated yet flooded with patients after the earthquake. It’s equipment was either buried or useless. Somehow a supply of the most simple medical instruments and almost primitive hot water sterilizers from the PADF warehouse quickly showed up.
As nurses explained in Spanish how they and the sterilizing steamers helped save lives they became emotional. Even without translation their message and emotions were clear. Tears flowed down their cheeks, and soon we all were crying.
At that moment I was reminded of the poem on the wall of the old Mayflower Coffee shops.
“As you go through life brother, what ever be your goal, keep your eye upon the donut, and not upon the hole.”