In Hawaii, on a small Military Community, there is a playground. They call it a "Super Playground" because it is not a small neighborhood playground – it is one of those large plastic and wood community playgrounds. Slides, swings, stuff to climb on, and 18 inches of soft stuff to fall on should you loose your grip on the big stuff.
In 1996 it cost $120,000 USD. It was a VERY expensive playground for the time. And on that playground is a brass plaque, with the names of the Community Commander, the Command Sergeant Major, and the Mayor. I was the mayor. Nobody that sees my name on that now decade-old plaque has any idea who I am, or what my role was in getting the playground. So having my name on the plaque really means very little to me – but knowing the playground is there, and that every day there are dozens of families enjoying the park and the equipment does mean something to me. It’s one of the few things I have built in my life that I consider to be almost totally "good".
It wasn’t easy – I had to raise half the money from private sources and apply for federal military housing grants to cover the other half. The paperwork, and the endless "down-selection process" were as tedious as anything else the Federal Government is involved in. We were competing for that funding with every other US Army base in the world. We had to meet some critical safety standards (like the 18 inches of rubberized "pea stone" or whatever they called it that we had to put down under the entire playground. That had to come from the mainland – and it took months to arrive – and it took two entire semi trucks full of the stuff to adequately cover the surface area we were working with – and the timing of delivery and installation of the material was critical – we had to have the material in-place the same day construction was completed on the equipment.)
The worse part of this is that there was no budget for this material – or for the installation. When making the initial grant application there was no requirement for the material – so by the time the grant was approved, the rules had changed, and we now were short over $25K for the materials. Even more counting labor to install the stuff.
The grant was going to be rescinded (you only have so much time to use it), so we were under a lot of pressure to come up with a solution.
At the time, as the Mayor, one of the things I did was send out a monthly newsletter – I usually had a variety of sections that would interest both new and old residents of the community (our average duration of residency was well under three years – we had a huge population turn-over annually – not unlike any other Military base).
I would warn new residents about centipedes (yes – they get huge in Hawaii, and their bite is more painful than a scorpion – I know!)
I decided to forgo anything else in the monthly newsletter besides an explanation of the position we were in, a full-color artist’s rendering of what the finished product would look like, and a plea for volunteers. I figured if we installed the equipment under the supervision of the factory rep, instead of flying 8 of their installers over to Hawaii for 4 days, and we installed the "little rubber safety ball stuff", we would save about $38 K in labor costs… but the project HAD to be completed in two days – the authorities were adamant about that (it is very difficult to keep kids off half-completed playground equipment, so they wanted it completed very quickly).
Basically I told the commander that I had things covered, and that we would get the playground and safety gear installed in two days – and he approved the grant. I still didn’t know how exactly we were going to accomplish it…
In my newsletter I asked for volunteers to show up on a Friday afternoon, bringing tools, shovels, wheel-barrows, etc. The equipment was delivered on that Friday morning, and the safety "rubber balls" were being delivered on Saturday afternoon.
Friday morning I was VERY nervous as I waited with the factory rep., and the Command SGT Major for the equipment to be delivered. There were just the three of us. The factory rep. didn’t even want to start unloading the truck because he just didn’t see any chance of an installation actually happening…
About 2pm a couple people showed up – by 4pm a couple of HUNDRED people showed up! On Saturday we had so many people we had to break into military like squads, so everyone could keep track of what they should be doing next. It was an amazing feeling of community to see people not just from our community, but from other bases in Hawaii as well.
Saturday afternoon the Commander showed up (oh yeah – I’m a civilian then, BTW – my ex-wife was in the Army – I wasn’t). He saw how many people showed up – he saw the equipment was 90% assembled. He couldn’t believe it either! He made a phone call and in about 20 minutes another 50 or so soldiers showed up… they immediately started the unpleasant task of manually scooping two semi trucks full of "little rubber balls" out by hand – there was TONS of this stuff, and they emptied the two trucks in a matter of hours. I can’t remember where they came from, but we probably couldn’t have finished it without them.
While they were unloading the truck another vehicle showed up – it was a portable dining facility – basically a chow line. Somehow the Commander had managed to arrange feeding the several hundred people, "in-place", so we could quickly get back to work.
We finished the playground in about 30 hours – sometime after 3 am on Sunday – some of the volunteers were there the entire time. The military brought us portable lighting so we could work in the dark. Neighbors would bring water, and food, and snacks. It was an amazing atmosphere!
You might think that being part of that outstanding team effort of strangers coming together for a common good is what I am proud of in this story – but that’s not what gave me the most satisfaction – that came the next morning, when several hundred screaming kids ran through the "construction tape" and invaded the playground. It was one of the happiest moments of my life, even though my hands were blistered, and I was dead tired and had hardly slept in two days.
Several days later I was summoned to the Commanding General’s quarters – a most unusual summons for a civilian mayor. I arrived to an informal celebration of the completion of the playground and was presented a very nice framed certificate of appreciation, or some such thing from the US Army, and a four star general gave me his "challenge coin". The significance of the coin was not lost on me at the time – I knew the history of the coin, and I knew how rare it was to receive a challenge coin from a four star general.
Although the significance of the coin wasn’t lost on me, the coin itself might well have been. I’ve moved a dozen times since Hawaii, been through five hurricanes (six if you count my divorce), and I may very well have the coin – I just don’t know where. I just recently found the framed "thank you" in a box I had not unpacked in 8 years.
It doesn’t matter much to me anyway, because what I remember about that time, and what I’m proud of isn’t the coin, but the "carnival-like" atmosphere that popped into existence against all odds. I remember the laughter of the people as they worked together, and mostly I remember the joy of seeing so many completely exhausted parents smiling, as they watched their kids break the tape, and christen the playground.