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Standing. Waiting. Yet doing so much

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By MARY JO MELONE

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 13, 2001


The frat boys had him ticked off good.

Brian Helton was behind them in line Tuesday at the Home Depot on South Dale Mabry in Tampa. Like them, he was waiting to donate blood to the people injured at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Helton isn't so far from his frat days at Mississippi State University. He is 28.

But when he heard one of those kids joke how great it was to have this excuse to be out of class, he about flipped.

He wasn't alone. An older voice from further back in line sounded: "Do you realize what you're saying?"

Brian Helton went to the Home Depot right from work. His company, AT&T Wireless, had closed early. He waited in line three hours Tuesday to give blood before Florida Blood Services told everybody to go home.

Only so many people could be processed so fast.

Would-be donors were told to return Wednesday to the parking lot at Legends Field, where technicians working out of four buses took blood from as many as 40 people an hour.

Helton did as he was told.

He was going to donate one pint of blood, and it was going to be packaged and put on a small plane and shipped to New York, where they were crying out for Type O.

But first Brian Helton had to wait.

It was his scheduled day off.

Taking part in history was, to him, a fair way to spend it. Taking part in history was not wasting time.

Helton stood uneasily to one side as a line of men and women, and occasionally their children, made several loops across the parking lot. He spoke of himself as a very bit player. Only the stage was large, as big as the world.

"This is part of what I can do for everybody up there. It's part of being an American."

Brian Helton has spent his life in Tampa. Except in places like Mississippi, where his family comes from, and picnics sponsored by veterans groups, it hasn't been okay to say that -- it's part of being an American -- since I can't remember when.

Your politics were too hick or your music was too country.

You were one of the few who still talked of waving the flag out your front door, of missing parades through town on the Fourth of July.

No more. Four careening, killing aircraft changed that.

Giving blood is the only connection between the rest of us and the people in New York and Washington, those who will eventually heal and those who will eventually have to come to terms with speechless hurt.

The connection between here, the lucky, untouched here, and the blood-spattered, smashed-up there, is powerful, uneasy.

I start looking over my shoulder too? Should I fly again? Are we going to war?

Purplish clouds were piling up as Brian Helton and I talked. Cold rain fell, splat by splat.

Somebody else in line passed along the news that the airports were going to be closed even past Wednesday. The deepening crisis, like the wait to give blood, ran on an independent schedule. Nobody was in charge of time.

Brian Helton had already been waiting two hours. The word was, it would take two more before he'd get to the front, get strapped down to the chair, get that needle stuck in him. Volunteers came by with bottles of water and silvery packets of cold juice. A woman with a microphone announced that the Tampa fire department had set up a triage site on the parking lot for anybody who felt on the verge of collapsing from the heat.

When I left, Helton was standing quite straight, still off by himself, still waiting.

-- Mary Jo Melone can be reached at mjmelone@sptimes.com or (813)-226-3402.

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