FORT WORTH -- Seventy-five-year-old Charles Wilson keeps a duffel bag packed and an eye on the news.
Flooding in North Dakota? Better find a heavy coat.
Hurricane in Florida? Get the bug spray.
Wildfires in San Diego? Call mom, 93, in southern California and tell her he's headed that way.
Such is life for Wilson, the most-traveled disaster relief volunteer for the local chapter of the American Red Cross. In the five years since he joined the organization, the retired locksmith supervisor at Texas Christian University has crisscrossed the country.
He has seen strange things along the way.
"I saw chickens at a farm in Arkansas that lost their feathers in a tornado," Wilson said. "People were running around trying to catch them."
Wilson didn't join the Red Cross to witness catastrophes. He was just looking for something to do. When he retired from TCU in 2004, he already volunteered with Meals on Wheels of Tarrant County.
The problem was, he said, it only took him about 45 minutes each week to do that job.
"I sat around for about six months and couldn't take it anymore," Wilson said.
In 2005, after watching television images of Hurricane Katrina's destruction, he strolled into the Chisholm Trail chapter of the Red Cross just east of downtown Fort Worth.
"He basically walked in and said, 'Here I am, put me to work,'" said Albert Gonzales, community and resource development manager. "He is a real humble guy you can depend on."
Wilson spent months in training, learning to drive a canteen truck, set up shelters, assess disaster, even operate a forklift, he said. His first deployment didn't take him far -- flooding in Eastland, about 100 miles west of Fort Worth.
After that, he saw flooding in New Jersey, tornadoes in Oregon and ice storms in Oklahoma.
Some trips are heartbreaking. In March 2007, he was deployed to Enterprise, Ala., after eight teenagers were killed when a tornado tore through a high school. Other memories are closer to home.
He will never forget the death of a young Haltom City girl who was ripped out of her mother's arms by floodwaters. "I saw the scratch marks on the mother's arms where she tried to hang on," Wilson said, shaking his head.
More often, he encounters people who have lost homes and possessions, he says. But volunteers can't get too emotional.
"You have feelings for what they're going through," he said. "But, in some ways, you have to detach yourself and do the job."
Wilson enjoys the travel. He has lived his entire life in Fort Worth. He graduated from I.M. Terrell High School.
Sometimes volunteers leave town the same day they are notified that they're deploying, he said.
"That's why I keep the bag packed with some jeans, some shirts, a toothbrush," he said. "I'm ready to hit the door."
Is he slowing down at 75?
Nah, Wilson says. A few years ago, he met an 85-year-old volunteer while responding to a tornado in Georgia.
"He said to me, 'It keeps me up and moving,'" Wilson said. "I figure it does me, too."
Wilson doesn't know where the Red Cross will send him next. Tornado season is approaching. And the Bismarck Tribune reported recently that flooding is likely in the western part of North Dakota.
"Don't know if I'm going," he said. "But I'll be ready."
Alex Branch, 817-390-7689