Things that go bump…

I was putting the finishing touches on my latest attempt at writing a best-selling novel and practicing my Pulitzer Prize acceptance speech, I got a phone call. It was my wife calling from work to inform me that she’d seen reports on local news that a treacherous fire had started north of town and was spreading my way fanned by fifty-mile-an-hour winds. She could see a tremendous cloud of smoke  over Paradise from thirty miles away. She told me to grab a couple things and get out of town;  "NOW!"   I hung up from that call and got a second call, from my daughter. "Dad, there’s a giant fire heading your way, you’ve got to get out of there."

I hung up the phone and immediately got a third call, a robo-call, informing me that all Paradise mountain folks, were commanded to immediately evacuate the town. I got in my car with the body parts I thought Cindy was referring to and a few belongings then began what was usually a half hour drive to Chico, but owing to the traffic jam, this journey took over three hours.

When the call came for evacuation on that fateful November morning, the town was somewhat ready. In the previous ten years, Paradise had been evacuated three times and most families had prioritized their possessions so they knew what to take in the car. Still, many new families had never evacuated while others had ignored preparing behind a 'not me’ belief that had saved them so far in life. Still others,  had rehearsed escape plans for family and pets to flee the danger and, take off to a safe-place. Previous evacuations never lasted more than a couple days and with the Mountain folk’s four-day option of first turning underwear  front-to-back for the second day  then repeating the front to back pattern with underwear inside-out on days three and four, Paradise evacuation veterans left town over-prepared for the customary two-day escape. People who didn’t wear under wear were readily identifiable when they appeared  on the second day wearing fly-in-the-back Levis.

For the entire day, a horde of new homeless vagrants descended into the already full community of Chico. They arrived in an array of over-used vehicles packed full of salvaged family treasures. Many who had escaped the conflagration with substantial transportation and gas, found sanctuary in relocation centers in neighboring towns, Oroville and Gridley. Simultaneously,  many of the less-mobile displaced persons set up tents on vacant patches of grass all over Chico. Still others holed up in their automobiles.

We recovered our motorhome from a service center in Redding where, miraculously, it was being serviced. Along with our daughter, Chelsea, son-in-law, Sean, and Georgie, the pug, we relocated in Trader Joe’s parking lot in Chico. As the day progressed, we got an invitation to relocate to the nearby town of Durham away from the frantic hub-bub of Chico and into the driveway of a man named Steve, a business partner of Sean’s dad. However,  before we could get settled in, a news update told us that the fire had jumped Highway 99 and all Durham residents were advised to prepare to evacuate. Rather than waiting to rerelocate in the early morning, we opted to evacuate back to our parking lot in Chico while we were conscious. Morning temperatures were near-freezing and we were blessed with an on-board heater, and further rewarded with a shower and a  flush-toilet.

The generosity of local residents abounded. Stations were set up around town where evacuees could obtain free clothes, blankets, toiletries and most local businesses offered  discounts. On our second night of relocation, I witnessed two people with bicycles and large green yard-waste trash-bags packed what looked like  a hundred-pound-each of free clothes that they’d apparently absconded from a station in our parking lot and intended for Paradise’s homeless (donations with name-tags?). Morning temperatures hovered around and below freezing, and pilfering giveaways seemed more a matter of survival than theft. However, the generosity afforded the invading  fire victims needed protection from the resident destitutes and so, a policy popped up requiring fire victims to show proof of Paradise residence to differentiate us from the local homeless population. I lay in bed several nights wondering how homelessness had acquired status, privilege for some and a penalty for others. I couldn’t reconcile compartmentalized generosity; it seemed to me that helping others didn’t include choosing who might be undesirable recipients of donated goods.  
After two days of refugee invasion, Chico looked more like a war zone than a rural community. Within those same two days, the newness of our neo-primitive lifestyle wore off and grief caught up with us. By day three, it was obvious that this evacuation was different from the previous ones and the reality that we’d lost our home and all our belongings seemed imminent even though we tried mightily to hold on to hope. If access to all the things in our lives was forbidden by the laws of evacuation, it was the memories of our belongings in pristine condition that gave us hope. We were, after all, good people who did good things and to whom only good things should happen.
We weren’t allowed back into Paradise, but had been told that if we’d gotten a robo-call to evacuate, we’d eventually get a second call telling us when the evacuation order was over and then we’d be able to return to see how we’d fared in the crap-shoot that had become our lives. Our faith that Robo had survived the fire dwindled in daily increments until at some point it became a cruel joke.

The first steps we took  were baby steps, minor bits of 'trying on' our new, homeless identity. We were all wearing the only clothes we had and restaurants provided the fantasy of a world-wide journey from Mexican tacos to Chinese noodles to Israel for  bagels. We dined internationally without having to leave town. But, as the challenges in newness wore on and our patience wore thin, it became obvious that in order for us to survive, we would need to restructure our styles to contend with the situation. So, one-by-one we discussed and implemented survival rules in order to maintain our sanities.

The first rule was to avoid our TV. Having a TV  in the motorhome had originally seemed to be a blessing second only to our toilet/shower facilities. However, each of us carried a full load of depression that we’d manufactured on our own. Then as days wore on, and the magnitude of our situation captured the attention of the entire country,  TV stations displayed repetitious ticker-tape reports on the bottom of the screen . Local news stations actually appeared to glorify the catastrophe; reporter’s images were transposed for days over the same videos of active flames devouring Paradise while voices enumerated the rapidly-growing number of houses destroyed and the meager percent numbers of containment of the fire. Morning TV began with updates from "authorities;" police, medical experts, mayors and superfluous celebrities including former governor and self-destruct marital infidel, Arnold Schwarzenegger. All this added to the heavy load of helplessness and depression we already felt. We  seemed  to be in a dark hole, too much to hear repeated several times throughout the day.

As the weight of our occupation grew heavier, it became necessary, in a family conclave to institute rule #2; avoid groups of people at places like the post office, Wal-Mart, and fast-food restaurants. We had discovered that wherever evacuees gathered, a plethora of escape stories and versions of  "Listen to what happened to me," were followed by tales of loss in catastrophic proportions that added considerable weight to the pity salad that we were already overwhelmed by.

When, after four days of evacuation, and still not knowing if our houses were among the 6,000+ reported destroyed, we generated Rule #3 'Wash your hands well and often' in response to news about Norovirus and E-Coli epidemics that were infecting relocation facilities and from there, to the communities of Chico, Oroville and Gridley. Both epidemics  are highly contagious,  and E Coli bacteria is sometimes fatal.


While, as I said, there was no good news forthcoming from the "Robo" center in the hills, the first three days in relocation showed us a wealth of what I came to know as mental diseases; insecurity, helplessness, fatalism,  dependency and materialism. As days passed, what proved to be the worst of the bad things, for me, was night. Every evening, as the sun went down, dark clouds from the bad things that had happened to our lives merged with the darkness of night and the combined darkness devoured the perceptible world that in daylight provided distraction options. In the mounting dusk, dark thoughts and their nestling dark feelings were reborn.
The thousand-siren symphony that enveloped the three-hour evacuation route to Chico returned like echoes in my head and my nasal congestion from the smoke in the air sounded remotely like distant sirens. In the stillness of predawn, I reheard unexplained anguished shouts and prayers that I’d found so easy to ignore during day light. When my eyelids sealed out the last real-world images, the horrorific visions of my daughter’s cry face tortured in her attempts to restrain the love she had for sacred things probably lost, returned with a vengeance and supplied a background tune with words that reminded me that I could do nothing  to help her endure.
It was during these dark nights when I first identified differing crying styles; Chelsea’s wave-crying; anguish with mountains and valleys that rose and fell as her memories were replaced by visions of fire devouring her past; the duck-pond, where we’d had her third birthday party to the pink two-wheeled bicycle I’d stored under the house when she out-grew it. If the things in her life were burned up, her remembrances threatened to evaporate in the disappearance.

For the first two days, Chelsea seemed to struggle hardest, unable to walk away unscathed, unwilling to let go of her things until each item received its ablution in Angel (my nickname for her) tears. One morning in an outburst that seemed unprompted, she started crying heavily for what she explained was her sorrow that many people weren’t going to rebuild and she felt devastated that it seemed that everyone was deserting Paradise leaving the town alone and lonely. Likewise, in the darkness, silent tears streamed down my cheeks for every tear she cried but mine were for the image of my Angel’s face crying,  an image that seemed to be etched on the underside of my eyelids.
It was on the third night that I was awakened by the sounds of a new cry. Cindy who had been consoler to all finally broke down.There in the darkness, I stretched out my arm until I reached a body part unlike anything I knew. I had memorized charts of female anatomy from my biology textbook and  I had a subscription to Playboy magazine. In addition, I’d done some exploring on my own. This exposure prompted dreams of girl’s body parts before but nothing like this. I was shocked into full consciousness, and in short order, I resolved my question when further exploration revealed that Chelsea’s pug had joined us in bed and had found her way underneath the covers. What I thought was a girl’s body part was in reality a dog-leg, the body part of a female Chinese pug.  I slid my hand under the dog and found Cindy’s hand which I rubbed as I whispered, "I love you." With no other tools at my disposal I hoped physical contact  would have at least a modicum of power against our boogiemen. I knew I couldn’t rescue her but I hoped that a reminder of our togetherness might awaken in her and diminish the horror of the whispering we both heard but never said out loud, that our house was one of the thousands  reported ravaged in the devastation.

Morning brought with it the story that Chelsea’s husband, Sean, had met with a friend who was allowed access to the  town under siege. He had taken photos of our daughter’s home, and confirmed fears worse than the fear that my own house had been leveled, Chelsea’s and Sean’s dream home was now a sepulcher of ash. The news crushed their spirits and called Cindy and me to account on the limitations of our love that proved impotent compared to the anguish of a young love torched.

Night after night, the horror of our tragedy reappeared, each time exacting the same fee-after reminding us of the seriousness of our losses, it milked the joy out the sacredness of things in our new lives. Things like the in-the-door ice dispenser on the new fridge, the photograph from our 25th anniversary party and the new $5,000 4K TV I’d purchased seemed superfluous. The pool table downstairs in my man cave seemed unnecessary, and the exercise equipment that I’d bought and never used seemed an asinine waste to me now. Every night seemed to contain thoughts that I’d begun in my childhood; wonder at the idea that I would lie down and go unconscious for eight to ten hours while all my things came to life and played without me. Remembering the horror of nightmares I suffered from as a child, I resolved to avoid the dark by staying awake.

I stayed up as long as my family allowed, then went to bed and struggled to stay awake as long as possible. I listened to the sounds of traffic on the road that ran beside our parking lot, I recited poems I’d studied in college, I rewrote the list of  people I mentioned in the god-bless part of "Now I lay me down to sleep;" seventy years after Mom taught me to pray since attrition had substantially altered my litany. I wanted to do whatever I could think of in order  to stay awake hoping that if I stayed awake late, I would eventually collapse in a stupor; a deep sleep, exhaustion deeper than nightmares, and stay there far into daylight hours, long after the demons of darkness had fled from daylight and left behind the objects that vision would provide. Never-the-less, what I planned for effective demon dealing, only worked sporadically.

Two times, my attempts at late-night collapse failed me. Both times, I was dreaming of our house, and my mind took an unguided tour of every room, every closet, every corner counting up precious things that I feared would be gone. Two times I woke myself up with a running nose that evidenced the quiet sobbing with which I’d been laundering my memories . I kept my dreams to myself because we’d instituted family sanity rule #4 To talk only about positive things and the future.. The toughest dream I had was one wherein for a short period, I dreamt that everything was ok, that our house hadn’t burned. I experienced incredible relief from the depression that pinned me to the mattress for almost a week. That all changed when I opened my eyes, saw the reality of my situation. I closed my eyes but I wasn’t able to get back to my fantasy.

Bill Sandeman