John Oldfield was busy this year responding to natural disasters across the country from fires in California to floods in Texas.
The televised weather channel is alive with dancing isobars, warm and cold fronts and apocalyptic possibilities.
Telegenic newscasters are in a frenzy as they warn of hurricanes, tornadoes, forest fires and earthquakes.
Amid the chaos, Burlington’s John Oldfield checks his foul weather gear.
Oldfield, known to friends as “Barney," is a local volunteer for the Red Cross disaster team, poised to pilot the organization’s Emergency Response Vehicle (ERV) to wherever in North America disasters — natural or otherwise — strike.
Oldfield, a Georgia native, has been a volunteer for the Red Cross for seven years. He retired from Burlington’s now moribund C & E Mattress in 2000, but later decided he had extra energy to help others facing catastrophic problems. The Red Cross seemed like an ideal outlet for that sense of commitment, so for eight years Oldfield and his ERV have appeared at disasters throughout the U.S.
This year, Oldfield and other Burlington volunteers responded to hurricanes along the Gulf Coast and Carolinas and forest fires in California’s Pacific Crest mountains.
But when Oldfield is not waiting for Mother Nature to jump the rails, he can be found solving maintenance problems with Industrial Services Corporation (ISC) — a local manufacturing and logistics company.
There, his can-do manner and wealth of experience with all things mechanical make him a valuable asset in keeping up operations. Those same skills and attitude also make Oldfield a valuable member of the Red Cross team whenever a natural disaster strikes. He has a straight-forward manner, and when pointed in the direction of a problem, he will quietly find a solution.
“Back when I was working for C & E I had a bunch of different jobs but when I left there I was not ready to sit at home so I came to work for ISC. And then they figured out that I could handle a lot of maintenance problems,” he explained. “I was working full-time but now I have cut it back to 2 1/2 days a week, but I figure I could probably work 120 hours a week if I had the energy.”
A shortened work week gives Oldfield and his wife, Beth, the welcomed opportunity to interact with his two children, two grandchildren and enjoy his adopted hometown that he came to after serving in the Navy.
“It was in the Navy that a friend said I should come to Burlington because I would love the changes in season and the chance to be outside,” Oldfield said. “I got here and found out he was right on all counts. I don’t miss Georgia or Florida and have even reached a point where I enjoy the snow.”
Snow was the furthest thing from Oldfield’s mind in a recent Red Cross deployment that took him to Houston in the aftermath of a hurricane that ravaged Texas' largest city.
He and ERV co-pilot, Burlington’s Pam Jackson, drove into a chaotic disaster zone made even worse by hot and humid weather.
“We were directed to Austin, Texas first,” Oldfield said, “and then it was on to Houston where it was really a mess. Everything was torn up, people had nothing and it was so hot and humid nothing ever really dried out. Everyone was constantly hot and sweaty. We were not on the ‘front lines’ but backing up the first responders and storm victims with meals and other supplies.
“There were 14 to 15 hour days of preparing and serving meals that began at 4 a.m. Then we tried to get some sleep and next morning we were back at it. It went that way for two weeks.”
Jackson and Oldfield’s ERV was part of a group of 10 trucks that were serving up to 5,000 meals a day to flood and storm victims.
“People would come to us and say this was the first real food they had in days. They were so hungry that if they could have figured out a way, I think they would have eaten the cardboard boxes the meals came in.”
On some mornings, Jackson and Oldfield loaded up to 150 meals in their heavy truck and drove into unreached neighborhoods to gauge the extent of need, returning the next day with a full haul of meals.
“It was a rule of our operation that if we promised we would be back the next day we would be there and not disappoint the people.”
The Red Cross teams were also distributing cleaning supplies, personal care items, ice and “comfort quilts." Sometimes, the crew had special items to distribute.
“We had a quilt that had been made by volunteers in Cedar Rapids and were told to give it to someone in special need,” Oldfield recalled. “At one of our stops we had a young woman come in that was very pregnant but we were really busy that morning. Afterwards we asked ourselves why we had not given that quilt to her, so the next day we kept looking for her.
“We didn’t see her but finally her father came up without her. We asked and he told us his daughter had a baby that morning, so we gave the quilt to him to give to her. When we did that he began to cry and said it was great to know there were still good people willing to help. That’s a big reason why I volunteer.”
At the end of their tour, Jackson and Oldfield flew back home to Burlington to rest, but he soon received a call directing him to fly to Orlando and recover an ERV to bring north. Then, he was given less than a week to recover when a second call came asking his team to go to California where, once again, they were serving as support to fire crews and victims at the site of record-breaking conflagrations that swept the state.
He eventually returned home and shortly thereafter was asked to go to Puerto Rico, but this time Oldfield felt he needed downtime and declined.
Oldfield’s frequent forays to disaster sites are greeted with fortitude by Beth, who is a faculty member at Southeastern Community College.
“I really think she appreciates it when I am gone. It is sort of a vacation for her, but I don’t want to make a habit of it,” he said.
“These trips can take a lot out of you, but a ‘thank you’ or the tears you see when you help someone makes it all worthwhile. The Red Cross could really use more volunteers doing this because there always seems to be a need to help someone.”