Jim Bracey and Vernon Doyle have learned to count on each other in times of crisis. When a tornado touched down in Mokena in 1996, Bracey, a Salvation Army chaplain, brought Doyle along to help hand out food and water. He did the same thing a year later, following an explosion at a Joliet power plant. Three weeks ago, as fire tore through a chemical factory at 87th and Cottage Grove, Bracey sent Doyle to find ice. Doyle ran the half mile back to the scene with a ten-pound bag in each hand, and when that was gone he went back out for more.
Bracey and Doyle already had their heads bowed in prayer when the first plane struck the World Trade Center on the morning of the 11th. They’d just finished the prayer breakfast held every month at the Salvation Army’s Harbor Light Center. Housed in a hulking monolith on West Monroe, Harbor Light is a treatment facility for addicts who find themselves subsisting like Bracey was 11 years ago–homeless and sleeping on cardboard boxes in a basement on South Jefferson.
During the prayer breakfast’s closing hymn, Bracey excused himself to answer a page from his wife, Della, who also works for the Salvation Army, in disaster services. She was calling to say there had been an attack on the World Trade Center. The next call came from Della’s boss, Major Patrick McPherson, who told Bracey to load up ice, food, and propane and get Number Eight out to O’Hare.
Canteen Truck Number Eight, which looks like a U-Haul but comes with a kitchen that can churn out hundreds of meals an hour, was parked in Alsip. Bracey took Doyle and volunteer cook Gerald Katzmarek with him to fetch it, and they were almost through with preliminary setup when the Pentagon was hit. Ten minutes later they were back at Harbor Light, picking up supplies and crew. As Number Eight raced west on the Kennedy, the south tower came crashing down. Next stop: Norridge, where supplies were loaded as the north tower crumpled and a fourth hijacked plane went down outside Pittsburgh. Pulling into O’Hare, Canteen Number Eight snaked around Departures and came to a stop just outside American.
Inside was bedlam. Airport workers were being sent home, cops and firemen were arriving, and stranded passengers were trying to figure out what to do. Every TV had been turned off, and what was presumably an antidote to panic instead left the people inside to wonder, often out loud, whether a missile was headed for O’Hare. Doyle nuked microwave hot dogs as the airport shops and restaurants shut down. Takers were sporadic at first, but by Wednesday morning the canteen could barely keep up with the demand for pancakes, which were served nonstop for eight hours.
Bracey and Doyle are bright-eyed gentle giants who’ve bonded over disasters and the fight to stay sober. Bracey, 46, had been on the wagon for almost five years when he met Doyle in November 1994. He’d just finished a bell-ringing shift not far from the Salvation Army office in Elgin, where he was a corps assistant. Doyle, who was on the outs with his longtime girlfriend, the mother of his three children, was coming off a bender. “I was homeless and I was hungry,” recalls Doyle, now 41. “I asked Jim for a job.”
Bracey gave him one. “Vernon was a very good bell ringer,” he says. Doyle started bunking in the Elgin office’s downstairs shelter, but he disappeared once the holidays were over and he was out of a job. Back on the streets, he kept an eye out for Bracey. “I liked to stay in contact with him,” Doyle says.
When Bracey got promoted to the Corps Community Center in Joliet in 1996, Doyle got word and showed up for the going-away party. Afterward, it wasn’t the same. “Jim’s a good guy, and when he left Elgin I was lonely,” says Doyle. “I had no one to talk to.”
Around this time, Doyle had a run-in with the law; he backed into a police car while the cop was inside, writing him a ticket for running a red light. “I thought I had it in park,” says Doyle, who was also charged with DUI. A judge ordered him to pay $1,000 and go to traffic school. Doyle didn’t have that kind of money, but he did have enough for a train ticket to Joliet, and he put a quarter in a pay phone when he got there. “Jim picked me up at the train station.”
“Yeah, that knucklehead slept at my house again,” laughs Bracey. “But you see a guy who’s got potential, who really wants to do good, and you want to help him out.”
Doyle started doing day labor when he got to Joliet, but what he loved was cooking. He’d honed his trade at nursing homes, and this training in mass quantities was an asset on the Salvation Army’s mobile canteens. “And Vernon has the right kind of attitude,” Bracey said Wednesday, as Doyle switched seamlessly from pancakes to sloppy joes.
By Thursday afternoon, Doyle says, “I’d been in the van cooking for three days–I needed to get a little break.” So he took over the coffee cart: a five-gallon coffee container on an airport-issued luggage carrier. Even without his apron many airport employees recognized Doyle from the truck outside. “Hey, how are you, Vernon?” a security guard called.
In one 20-minute period, he managed to cheer up an Irishman trying to get to Brazil, a ticket agent wishing aloud that the terminal windows were made of bulletproof glass, and a woman from Long Grove who’d reluctantly bid her cousin good-bye, then sat for three hours to make sure the plane was safely on its first leg to Sydney. “If they feel like they’re real scared or depressed,” said Doyle, “I tell them we’ve also got a chaplain they can talk to in the van outside.”
Never above filling a special request, Doyle was about to fetch lemonade for a woman heading to Memphis when he remembered a mother and baby he’d promised to check on. Doyle pulled a diaper out of a supply bag on the cart and hustled down the hall, but he was still holding it when he returned a few minutes later. “I couldn’t find them,” he said. “I guess they must have gotten on a plane.”
Doyle last saw his three children in spring 1999. He was working a carnival in Elgin, and they happened to be there. “That was when I was running from the police,” he says. “I got to talk to them but I couldn’t very long.” A few weeks later Doyle turned himself in to the Elgin police. He got 30 months and was sent to a work camp in downstate Jacksonville. “It was prison–prison, work camp, it’s the same thing,” says Doyle. He was assigned to the laundry room.
“They loved him at work camp because he’s a hard worker,” says Bracey, who’d encouraged Doyle to turn himself in. He and Della picked Doyle up when he was released on August 24 and brought him back to their house in Oak Lawn. “I’d kept in contact with Jim while I was locked up,” says Doyle. “I called and told him I needed a place, and he said he was going to help me.”
Bracey, who’d been transferred to Harbor Light in July, asked Doyle if he wanted to go through the substance-abuse recovery program there. Doyle said yes, and got the next available appointment with an intake counselor–Monday, September 10. But when he got there it turned out there were no beds open, so his interview was rescheduled for Friday the 14th.
Doyle thinks maybe that was fate. “I said to Jim, ‘If I get in, I’m gonna be kind of isolated for a while. Maybe I’ll get to go out on one more big job with you before I go.'”
Thursday night Doyle was on rounds with the coffee cart at O’Hare. Only a handful of planes were leaving, but the disproportionate number of passengers who showed up hoping to fly made for plenty of pouring. In terminal three every Delta flight had been canceled, and the ticket agent who approached Doyle apologized profusely for asking if he had cream and sugar: “I’m so sorry to be asking for so much.”
“You’re not, you’re not asking for too much,” said Doyle, who had lots of both. “Don’t worry, when I needed help, I didn’t feel bad asking.”
As Doyle handed the agent her second cup, she said, “It’s great having him out here, because people can be such jerks.”
Doyle said he’d see her in the morning for breakfast, even though he knew he was scheduled to be at his interview. “I feel it’s a good time to help people out now, when they need the help. But we’ll have to see how it goes with the interview tomorrow. If I don’t get in, I’ll come back out here. I’ll try and catch all the trains without getting lost. I don’t know. Maybe they’ll need me on Saturday.”
But come Friday afternoon, it was without Doyle that Bracey got Canteen Truck Number Eight ready to move from O’Hare to Bridgeview, where 350 riot police needed to be fed. Not long after he’d finished his intake interview Friday morning, Doyle, who’d been awake for three days, went right to sleep in his assigned bed, number 23.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yvette Marie Dostani.