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
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
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.