Chris Cox, an artist with springy curls and an arsenal of power tools, gained folk-hero status during last month’s government shutdown when, brandishing the South Carolina flag of his forefathers, he stormed the lawn of the closed-off Lincoln Memorial and single-handedly mowed it. On Wednesday afternoon, Cox returned to the hallowed site of his rogue yard-care, where a power equipment retailer and executives from a fundraising Web site recognized his service by presenting him with a chain saw.
“It’s an honor to be able to present Chris with this chain saw,” said Belmont Power Equipment’s Robert Hill of the Stihl MS 660, which retails for approximately $1,200.
“I didn’t set out to get this chain saw,” said Cox, 45, accepting the saw on the steps not far from where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. “But I’m flattered.”
Then, before a small crowd of onlookers, he hoisted the 5.2-kilowatt engine-powered saw into the chilly November air, though he did not turn it on. In the middle distance, a police officer appeared to be monitoring the situation.
Originally, Crowd It Forward, a Tampa-based Web site that raises money for do-gooders nationwide, wanted to buy Cox a riding lawn mower. But when Kendell Almerico, the nonprofit group’s chief executive, contacted him, he learned that Cox wasn’t a professional lawn-care specialist but rather a sculptor.
“I do bears, sea captains, cigar store Indians, tiki heads,” Cox explained in a pre-ceremony interview. He is, in fact, a Northern Virginia chain saw artist and makes wooden sculptures under the name Cox Creations. He’s working on a football display case, carving the Redskins mascot out of reclaimed wood, and positioning him as if he is cradling the ball. Cox was commissioned to make it by a local real estate developer.
Conveniently for the company providing the gift, “My chain saw of choice is Stihl,” Cox says. In his experience, “it has a lower vibration and a higher horsepower” than other saws of comparable size.
This particular saw being presented on Wednesday was larger than what Cox would use for his artwork, and suitable more for outdoor work like tree-cutting. He plans to use it — as well as $1,701 in cash donations Crowd it Forward collected for him — for his new endeavor, the Memorial Militia. He wants “to continue to pay it forward.”
The Memorial Militia will be a network of volunteers who take to the homes and yards of infirm veterans and perform random acts of lawn mowing, brush-clearing, tree-trimming and leaf-blowing. Some 1,800 people from around the country have contacted Cox via his Facebook page, expressing interest in participating.
What Cox was doing during the shutdown really spoke to people. It made sense. It was a tangible way of restoring order to a government that had become, in Cox’s words, “emotionally constipated.” It said to the government, You know what? I’ll just do it myself.
He never intended for his volunteerism to become a movement, though. At the time, he was just worried about public safety. Although he was not a military man himself, his grandfather, uncle and stepfather were, and Cox was concerned about vandalism on the unguarded war monuments. For the first several nights of the shutdown, he merely patrolled the area, bicycling around the Vietnam and Korean memorials. But on the third or fourth night, he noticed that the trash cans on the Mall had begun to overflow, so he went to Wal-Mart and bought some trash bags. Then he picked up cigarette butts. Then he began clearing fallen branches from paths.
The Lincoln Memorial mowing was only the most visible act of his 16-day service project. When the Park Police found out he was doing it, they asked him to stop and he did, but he continued picking up trash, and, as news of his deeds spread, so did his base of supporters. On one day, 200 additional volunteers joined him in his mission to give the memorials the dignity they deserved.
“These buildings are our buildings,” he said on Wednesday, gesturing around the Mall as assembled onlookers snapped his picture. “We are their stewards.”
In the foreground, uniformed Park Service officers, back on the job, raked a large pile of leaves.