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LIVE LOCAL: Gwenyfar and Jock get by (and wash their hands) with a little help from their friends

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Jock Brandis with a completed hand-washing station outside the main branch library in downtown Wilmington. Courtesy photo


“Sweetheart, I fully admit, in the case of a natural disaster, you are the person to be with: Your superpowers activate, and there is no one else more likely to get through in one piece than you.”

“Thank you,” Jock said.

“But an epidemic? I’m just not sure how your skill set applies to that. I’m sorry. I’m not trying to be mean. I’m just … worried.”

Jock hemmed and hawed about preparations, stocking up and other things, and then we both drifted off to an uncomfortable and anxiety-ridden pseudo-sleep. At 3 a.m. I rolled over and realized I was in bed alone—not an unusual occurrence. Jock was in the living room, furiously working on something. Hilda padded out, surveyed the situation, wagged her tail and corralled me back to the bedroom. The next morning Jock announced he had an idea and would be in his shop all day.

Well, that’s what I get for challenging his ego, I thought as I sipped coffee.

That particular invention didn’t pan out, mostly because testing it proved to be impossible in the current situation. It would require careful medical supervision, and right now those resources are needed elsewhere.

Now, three weeks later, I must eat my words about Jock’s superpowers not meeting an epidemic’s demands.

It all started with Randy Evans and Walking Tall Wilmington.

No, it started with the libraries and public bathrooms closing due to the state and county going into virtual lockdown.

It goes without saying poverty is not evaporating suddenly just because of the stay-at-home order. People who depend upon public services are still in need. Walking Tall Wilmington shares five meals a week with our homeless community. As days passed into weeks and now a month, Evans’ concern grew about the ability for people to wash their hands with no access to public bathrooms. It is the main thrust of the news: Wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands! Right now, we are all vulnerable to the virus, but for people who do not have access to clean water and consistent sanitation, the risk is exponentially higher. The well-being of the community depends upon the strength of its weakest link.

If only, I thought, we knew someone with a water-efficient hand-washing station developed for rural schools in Africa…

One of Jock’s longtime collaborators, Toby Keeton, a gifted designer and architect, modified one such design. It included both soapy and rinse water, and was intended to be used by a class full of kids all at once. Created by materials around his house, Keeton simplified it for single-person use with a 5-gallon water bottle (the kind found in water coolers). He and Jock emailed pictures, and Jock tweaked the design as needed. Then I woke up on Tuesday morning to find Randy Evans in our backyard with a pleased grin on his face. He and Jock were discussing logistics: soap, placement, signage, materials, etc.

“I’ve got like 200 bars of soap,” Randy assured.

Since he would be close to the hand-washing stations at mealtimes, he promised to empty the drain buckets and replace the clean water.

And we were off to the races. Jock launched into what he loves best: assembling a group of friends to solve a problem.

“You should call the place on 23rd Street and see if they would donate some empty water bottles,” one friend suggested.

The answer came back an emphatic “No.” Not “maybe next week” or “sure, we have some damaged and leaking ones you could have”—just “no.”

So we went to plan B.





Michael Satrazemis at Filmwerks offered empties from his company’s water cooler. Then Joe D’Alessandro showed up on our front porch with more empties from his house.

“You know, we really do have wonderful friends,” I commented to Jock when Joe departed.

“The best,” he agreed.

John Wolfe mobilized to help Jock mass produce the wood stands for the stations. Our next-door neighbors agreed to let Jock and John set up in their side yard, adjacent to our garage, noting they had just mowed it and it would be the perfect workspace.

“And it is large enough for you to stay 6 feet apart,” I reminded. “Remember? Social distancing? Six feet apart, please.”

I kissed Jock and headed out the door with Hilda. We had work to do at the bookstore.

“Of course, of course,” Jock murmured. “I wonder where you buy soap dishes. Do you think Family Dollar would have them?”

Clearly, his AutoCAD design program was running in his head and he wasn’t hearing me.

By lunchtime the first station was in place outside the library. Jock’s favorite moment of the implementation began: People interacting with the design.

“After washing their hands, people are washing their faces!” he noted with glee.

It takes so little to make him happy. The hand-washing station was received enthusiastically. So Jock doubled down on production.

“Made by ‘UFO Jock’?” I pointed to the hand-lettering on the bottom of the sign. The front of the station contains a drawing of two hands being washed and Walking Tall Wilmington’s contact info. Then in small letters at the bottom: “UFO Jock.”

“Yeah, that was John’s idea,” he admitted bashfully. He gestured to the garage. “This is the UFO Jock clubhouse.”

“Unidentified Friends Of Jock”—it’s a reference to an old motorcycle gang Jock belonged to 40 years ago called “UFO Bob,” or “Unidentified Friends Of Bob.” The group congregated in Bob’s garage. Over the years the reference had become quite the family joke. When we started building the garage, which Jock always saw as a clubhouse for his friends to hang out in and work on projects, we started jokingly calling it UFO Jock. I made him a sign and coffee mugs for his official “garage warming.”

Now, what Jock had envisioned was manifesting:. His a group of people were in fact congregating to solve a problem. Along the way, they were strengthening what makes our community so wonderful. It’s people like Toby Keeton, Randy Evans, John Wolfe, our neighbors and our amazing network of friends who make that happen. I don’t need to look to the skies for a UFO, but I do look up to them, every one of the UFO Jock.

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