My work efforts over the last 2 1/2 years since I started at UT have been focused almost exclusively on two things: research and teaching. Something I have done very little of is volunteering. When our service program on campus issued an email asking for faculty volunteers to serve as advisors for service trips, I thought it would be a good opportunity, so I filled out the requisite forms.
The service program is called PEACE, which stands for “People Exploring Active Community Experiences.” The center organizes a variety of service projects, include some large ones called “alternative breaks.” The basic idea is that, rather than spend their breaks (winter, summer, spring) partying, students can spend their breaks serving others. As a research-focused professor, I can really only think of two good things for students to do on breaks: do research or volunteer. Ergo, I can get behind the alternative break idea.
I was contacted a few weeks after I submitted my paper work to see if I was willing to serve as the advisor for the 2009-2010 winter alternative break. The original plan was to work for Special Spaces in Fort Lauderdale for 4 days. After checking with Debi, I signed up. However, the director of Special Spaces in the Fort Lauderdale area flaked last minute, so the student organizers put together a backup option – volunteering at Horses and the Handicapped in Coconut Creek, just north of Fort Lauderdale. A former UT student was working there as the Volunteer Coordinator and was therefore able to arrange for us to help out for 4 days on short notice.
As the advisor, I actually had very little to do. The students planned everything, from the service activity, to the lodging, to the costs, to the food. My responsibilities: drive the van and volunteer. If an issue came up for which the students needed some advice, I advised. Otherwise, I let them run the show. And that’s exactly what I did. It was actually kind of nice not really being in charge. It was also nice to have good students along – it takes a certain kind of student to spend his/her break volunteering rather than drinking him/herself into a stupor all the while trying to hookup with anything with two legs. So, I had it pretty easy.
Ten students went, including the four organizers, for a grand total of 11 people. We left early on the 12th and arrived in Fort Lauderdale just after noon. It was at this point that I learned about our accommodations. I’m familiar with the idea of hostels, but I had never stayed in one. Basically they are budget accommodations in which you share a room, possibly with strangers. Well, given our numbers, having strangers in some of the rooms was an inevitability. Four of the girls were put in an all-girls room. I think they had a stranger stay with them one or two nights, but otherwise they pretty much had the room to themselves. The other six students – 2 boys, 4 girls – were put in another, co-ed room. That room became the base of operations as boys were not allowed in the all girls room. If your following the math, that leaves 1 person without a room – yours truly. I was put in a deceptively labeled “semi-private” room, which means I was rooming with three complete strangers. However, as luck would have it, the strangers were pretty cool: Tony (young guy from Orlando hired to work on a millionaire’s yacht), Steve (old guy from Jersey looking for work on boats), and Dave (who left after the first night and never even said hello to me). They were all laid back and pretty cool. The only issue – Steve snored. But I was so tired most nights I didn’t care.
Anyway, after checking into my room, we headed to the service location in Coconut Creek for an introduction and overview of what we were going to be doing over the next 3 days. That lasted until 5 then we went back to the hostel (stopping for some additional food on the way). Back at the hostel, the student organizers prepared dinner while I got settled in my room. After dinner the students ended up watching American Idol, which bored me to tears, but at least none of them were interested in partying with the 5 or 6 young Europeans who were drinking in the courtyard who extended an invitation.
At around 9:00 I went back to my room. As I was getting ready for bed in the bathroom, one of my roommates knocked on my door. It was Tony. He needed a towel. Why, you ask? Good question. Let me tell you why…
In the room next to ours there were two guys – an older Asian guy who was a certified ship’s captain. I never met him, but everyone called him “The Captain,” so that’s what I’ll call him. Also in that room was a younger guy who everyone basically thought was crazy. His name was Barry (I think). Apparently The Captain was something of an oddball himself, but Barry was quite insane. No one else wanted to room with them as they were so odd. In fact, Steve, the older guy in my room, had spent the previous night in their room and asked to be moved because they were so strange. Anyway, The Captain and Barry apparently hit things off earlier in the day when Barry went out and bought some beer and brought it back to the room. They sat around drinking and schmoozing for a few hours until… Well, no one is sure what happened, but apparently their cordial schmoozing took a rather drastic turn for the worse. A fight erupted.
No one in the hostel heard the fight, but the owner/manager of the hostel, Nicole, walked in on the aftermath. She was delivering some sheets to the various rooms when she walked into their room. On the floor, semi-conscious, was The Captain. He looked pretty banged up. The room was literally covered with blood – large pools of blood all over the place, including on The Captain. Nicole yelled for Tony, my roommate, to grab a towel to wrap The Captain’s wounds up. Tony came running in to get one, only to find me in the bathroom. He improvised and grabbed something else. Nicole then asked him to help her put The Captain on the couch and talk to him to keep him conscious while she called the police and paramedics. Tony spent the next 10 minutes or so chatting with The Captain. The Captain told Tony that Barry just went crazy. He also said that the blood all over the place wasn’t his own; it was all Barry’s. According to The Captain’s story, Barry had thrown a first punch that missed. In the process he hit something, cutting open his knuckles. Supposedly the pools of blood and the blood covering The Captain, including a large bunch of dried blood in his mustache, all came from Barry’s cut knuckles. Since The Captain seemed to have gotten the worst of the fight, including having been kicked repeatedly in the head, Tony believed him and just sat with him until the paramedics arrived and took him to the hospital for observation.
The next day some of my students were in the office when one of them asked Nicole about the incident. She had learned a bit more since the previous night. Apparently The Captain wasn’t completely truthful telling his story the night before. There was a fight, and The Captain did get beat up pretty bad. But he got a good “lick” in himself (pun intended). Some how during the melee Barry’s finger made its way into The Captain’s mouth, but it didn’t come back out. The Captain bit off Barry’s finger! Barry went even more insane after that, beating up The Captain pretty good, then ran out and made his way to the hospital where he checked himself in. He then proceeded to press charges against The Captain, who had also pressed charges against him. By the end of the second day, both were in custody.
I was already thinking our hostel was a bit sketchy, but this definitely confirmed it – someone had his finger bit off in the room next to me. Right… Welcome to Fort Lauderdale!