QUEENS, N.Y., December 4, 2012 – Presidents seldom offer life advice to their staff, but when then airman Doug Scarlett, a cook for Air Force One, needed something to do in his spare time, President Lyndon Johnson suggested he go see the Red Cross.
And since 1965, the Red Cross is the place where Scarlett has volunteered, beginning with first aid instruction in the Washington, DC, chapter, and subsequently supervising kitchens at more than 51 disaster sites across the country. Since the first days following Hurricane Sandy’s landfall on October 29th, Scarlett had been overseeing kitchens across the Tri-State area, first serving hot meals to clients in New Jersey and now helping Emergency Response Vehicles (ERVs) bring meals and supplies to people in the Rockaways.
“We didn’t fly that much back then – the Cold War was on – but I saw what the Red Cross was doing and got more and more involved,” said Scarlett, the former chapter executive of the American Red Cross Cumberland County (TN) chapter and a volunteer member of the chapter’s board of directors. “My initial role on Air Force One was to please the president” – then an honorary chairman of the American Red Cross who declared March 1965 national Red Cross Month.
“Now, I just get the food out, and it’s been a lot of food.” The Red Cross kitchen in Jersey City, New Jersey was built for 30,000 meals per day and in the beginning, Red Cross and Southern Baptist Convention volunteers were turning out 41,000.
In 33 days of Sandy Relief, the Red Cross has mobilized more than 15,000 workers – about 90 percent of them are trained volunteers from across the country – to support shelters, provide food and water at fixed sites and drive ERVs through neighborhoods affected by Hurricane Sandy to deliver food and other emergency items. In partnership with the Southern Baptist Convention – Scarlett’s ally for most of his deployments – the Red Cross has distributed more than 7.7 million meals and snacks.
Hurricane Sandy is the Red Cross’ largest U.S. relief effort in more than five years, and the organization is still in its emergency phase. It will remain involved in the effort – whether in direct response or to help victims in finding the right follow-up agency – into the New Year.
While most disasters have a common element, Scarlett said, each one has its own heartbeat. “I always thought New Yorkers to be a tough bunch of people who didn’t accept help from anyone. But they have been some of the friendliest and gracious people I have ever served.
“During one of my first weeks here, a waitress learned I was a volunteer for the Red Cross and bought my meal and brought me a slice of cheesecake,” Scarlett said.
It was a sharp role reversal for Scarlett, who cooked on Air Force One for four years under Johnson and then President Richard Nixon. After signing up with the Air Force in 1965 to avoid the draft, Scarlett requested the medical corps, but was sent to cook school by a superior.
When he finished first in his class in cook school, the Air Force paid his tuition at the School of Culinary Arts in Richmond, V.A., followed by dietary school in Montana. On the same day he received his transfer orders from Malmstrom Air Force Base in Glen Falls, he was shipped to Andrews Air Force Base in Washington, D.C., with an assignment to serve as a personal assistant to a high-level general.
“I drove dressed in my civilian clothes and unshaven – the guard shack directed me to the base commander’s office immediately,” Scarlett said. “I asked him, ‘Sir, what is this about, sir?’ and he replied, ‘You’re going to be cooking for the president!’”
President Nixon could know the particulars of his favorite pasta recipe, but Scarlett’s wife couldn’t ask about his Air Force job, which remained classified for ten years after his honorable discharge. Scarlett has since parlayed his culinary skills into a catering business in Tennessee, which he runs with his wife, Sarah, when he is not on a Red Cross mission.
“You never stop learning from someone like him,” said Joseph Apicelli, a volunteer from Mystic, C.T., on his second disaster assignment. “There are people from all over the country speaking in different dialects and doing things in different styles and Doug can manage them all.”