published Wednesday, September 12th, 2012

David Cook: When first responders meet

CHICKAMAUGA, Ga. -- What was I going to do with the invitation? Say no? To the one group of people who never say no?

"We've had seven calls already today," said Lt. Jordan Gitgood, a Walker County firefighter.

A car wreck. Helping someone off the floor. Helping someone else into a wheelchair. More medical calls. And it was barely lunchtime.

But man, what a lunch it would be.

I was invited to the Walker County Patriot Day celebration Tuesday, which gathered together a marching band, hand bell choir, free hamburgers and gift bags as a way to honor first responders: The police, firefighters and emergency personnel whose job it is to make being a hero look easy.

"When the firetruck pulled in, every one of these guys stood up and started clapping," said Sandra McBride, case manager for the Area Network of Community Options and Resource Program.

Each day, developmentally and mentally disabled adults across North Georgia migrate to the program as if it was a magnet. It gives them what few can: resources, job training and placement, fellowship and attention. Sometimes, the disabled adults like to give back.

On Tuesday, in the parking lot and green yard on Lee Clarkson Road, the program folks threw one heck of a party for first responders. They tied red, white and blue balloons to the maple trees. Arranged the chairs in neat rows. Dressed in red, white or blue shirts. Parked the Coca-Cola trailer in the right spot. Turned up the stereo, past loud.

Police officers and firefighters from North Georgia came. So did the Gordon Lee High School marching band, ready to perform. Twenty-eight businesses and groups in the area offered donations. A small breeze blew.

But the real joy came from the ANCOR adults. They're like first responders of a different sort.

I hadn't been in the parking lot 20 steps before individuals start yelling for me -- from way far away -- welcoming me and waving. I almost looked over my shoulder, thinking some long-lost friend of theirs was right behind me. Nope. They were talking to me. A total stranger.

What a ... first response.

"Their heart," said McBride. "They try to please people."

Across the parking lot, under a white tent and using yellow, red, blue and green hand bells, a nine-person ANCOR hand bell choir is playing -- slowly, you could take a breath between each bell ring -- "God Bless America." When it ended, you could almost taste the pride. It was the exact opposite of a plane flying into a building.

Putting down her hand bell, Allison Lewis, 39, who would later give a short speech to the crowd about 9/11, got up and moved as fast as she could to her mother, Betty, who sat in a swinging bench 20 feet away. They hugged one of the best hugs I've seen in days. As if too excited to stay on her body, Allison's arms swung and waved and swung.

A little earlier, the Gordon Lee marching band arrived, pouring out of the yellow school bus with trumpets and tubas. The school's theme this year is "Heroes Fallen, Not Forgotten." Designed as a tribute to veterans, the theme is part of each half-time show at football games. And Tuesday's celebration.

Within five minutes of getting off the bus, some of the high schoolers and ANCOR adults had formed a dance circle: some shuffling, clapping, swaying. The stereo played "shoop shoop de roop." Or something like that.

Look. Go anywhere in the U.S. and try to find a spot where -- within minutes -- teenagers and adults who are strangers to each other can begin dancing, laughing and shoop-de-rooping. Doesn't happen. Not this side of East L.A.

Unless you have someone to take the first step. A first responder of sorts.

On the way out, I ran into Gitgood again. He'd stepped away from the party for a little while.

Called out, again, for an emergency.

Contact David Cook at or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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