WISE, Va. — Parked at the edge of the field, they covered the windows so the little girls could sleep inside the car. The grown-ups slept on blankets outside on the grass.
Before 5 a.m. Saturday, the family joined the sleepy crowds drifting toward the fence of the Wise County fairgrounds. Soon day two of the Remote Area Medical clinic would begin letting people in. Some had camped overnight, others were just arriving in the dark. The day before, more than 1,250 people from all over Appalachia showed up for free medical, dental and vision care.
Puffs of cigarette smoke curled in the cool morning air. The sky was still dark, but at 5 a.m., workers switched on floodlights. Late sleepers got up, stretched and pulled on shirts.
The family with the little girls stood in a circle. They had driven the day before from Mount Carmel, Tenn., needing dental and vision care. Ron McGrady, 33, checked the numbers on the blue tickets they’d gotten earlier — 230 through 235.
Mornings at Remote Area Medical clinics can be stressful. There’s a limit to how many people can get in on a given day. Miss your chance, and you’re out of luck until next year. Hundreds were slowly gathering at the entrance, but the number system meant there was no need to jockey for position. You’d get in when they called yours. People were polite, quiet, expectant.
Stan Brock, who founded the RAM program more than 30 years ago and wears an open-necked khaki shirt with epaulets like the host of a TV wildlife show, stood at the entrance and began calling numbers.
A Lions Club volunteer, Greg Hart from Winchester, worked the crowd, explaining the rules.
“If you drove all night, let them know at registration that you’ve got that kind of stress in your life,” he bellowed.
“Fifty-three,” Brock called in his clipped English accent. “Fifty-three?”
“Coming!” a man replied, taking a last few puffs on his cigarette.
Hart, the volunteer, meandered through the crowd and stopped at McGrady and his family. He checked their tickets, reassured them they’d have no trouble getting in. Any number under 800 should be fine. Were they there for medical care? Dental, McGrady told him.
Hart bent down to the two young sisters. “You gonna get your teeth cleaned, all polished up pretty so you can go to the prom?” he said.
Breanna, 8, covered her face. Everybody laughed.
Her mother, Jessica McGrady, 32, was there to have her own teeth worked on — she had the uppers treated at a RAM clinic a few years back; now the lowers needed attention.
Ron McGrady, her stepson, said they’re grateful for the care. “This is a wonderful thing they’re doing. I hope they never stop,” he said. But then checked himself — it would be better, of course, if the family could afford insurance and didn’t have to wait in the dark for a free clinic.
“Canada’s got a pretty good thing going,” he said. “I wish we had that here.”
But McGrady, a self-employed carpenter, said he had faith that President Trump would keep working to get a better national health-care system in place. “He’s our president, and we’ve gotta support him,” he said.
By 5:45, the sky had lightened to violet behind the nearby hills, birds were singing and Brock was calling out numbers in the 200s.
“Any numbers less than 200 out here?” Hart thundered. “Unless you’re trying to kill yourself with nicotine, come on in.”
McGrady and his family moved closer. Breanna and her sister Jayden, 11, led them, now excited and awake. Brock hit 250 and paused in the count, but resumed a few minutes before 6 o’clock. McGrady, his stepmother, the girls and two other family members pushed forward, past Brock and Hart and into the fairgrounds. The day was underway.