A Wisp of Smoke
Not One, but Many
A Wisp of Smoke
It began as a wisp of smoke, harmless and lazy on an Indian summer Sunday. By the time I had put my tools away and contemplated another excuse to remain outdoors, the wisp had risen to a cloud. The day was warm but clear, a day for bicycles, little league, flying a kite, or, as I had chosen, tinkering with the car, so as to ready it for sale.
After several years traveling the world I had come home to sort things out. Slowly I was getting back on my feet and readjusting to life in America. The dichotomy between life in America and life as much of the world knew it, was startling. Traveling had been a sobering witness to the human condition. I grappled with the conspicuous consumerism and resource consumption. Much of America seemed distracted as it raced along the freeway, billboard to billboard, or browsed malls flush with treasures - jewels and trinkets, sneakers and penny loafers, videos and adventure gear, Range Rovers and Power Rangers. Meanwhile I road the bus to job interviews and university alike. The decision to sell my car had not only been a divorce from my past but a political statement. I recalled a traveler telling me that it was not only what we chose to do in this world, but also that which we chose not to.
Distant sirens penetrated the tussling, warm air, and pierced the day's quietude. Parched Santa Ana winds brushed the golden grasses and ruffled trees and brush. Our neighbors were just beginning to come to their front doors to look at the expanding black cloud. California's autumn grass fires were rarely more than an inconvenience; there was no reason this time would different.
Inside the house, my parents away, it was quiet. I told my sister that it appeared a fire was going on over the hill, toward the freeway. We decided to walk up the hill to a finger of land stretching above the freeway interchange.
Cresting the hill and coming upon our first glimpse of the interchange, we were unexpectedly confronted by a wall of heat and a thunderous roar akin to that of the greatest of waterfalls. Nearly a half-mile away, across an eight-lane freeway and its flanking frontage roads, an inferno was being pushed up an opposing mountain by the winds now whipping at our backs. The thick black smoke obscured hundreds of homes on the mountain's crest. Only momentarily when the air hesitated, as if weary from its throws of anger, did the cloud lift to reveal the timbers of buildings burning orange. I could not imagine anything surviving such a tumult.
To my right, around a bend in the freeway, the cloud of smoke - the size of a thunderhead - funneled upward from an apartment complex at the base of the steep hillside. Fire had quickly skipped down along the shoulder and medians, lighting patches of grass and scrub as it went. Monterey pines exploded like struck matches along the steep terrain. To my left, a canyon area behind the mountain - where I had attended kindergarten - was becoming engulfed. The freeway traffic had come to a halt and many cars fled back the way they came. Most of the automobiles crawled off the exits and down the frontage roads. Few emergency vehicles were arriving. When a grove of eucalyptus downwind at the base of the interchange erupted in flame, it was clear the fire was moving toward Berkeley. I became mesmerized. We had little fear of the fire crossing to our side of the freeway in the face of the gusts. Yet, fire, I would later learn, created its own winds.
From the burning grove of eucalyptus the wind carried the fire across the interchange to the near side of the freeway where another grove of trees burst into flame. From our hilltop perch, looking out across a smaller canyon and a second and narrower freeway, I had a clear view of a helicopter circling over a burning ridge. It would dump its bucket of water into the rising plumbs before dipping downward over steep forested terrain to a jade-green lake to refill. The smoke, acrid and black, told me not only trees were burning.
Looking back toward the burning apartments, I spied a small fire upwind on our side of the freeway, burning unattended. A plumb of dust from a nearby baseball diamond blew it back toward the freeway and the blazing mountain, where it licked at the frontage road. Nearby fire engines sat idle, their crews entranced by the blazing mountain across the freeway. The fire slowly crept along the base of the slope, the winds keeping it impotent. I convinced myself that the firemen would be upon it.
Nervously we returned home, leaving several neighbors still captured by the spectacle. Once below the crest, the roar became replaced by an eerie quiet. People filled the streets but only spoke softly. Many watered their roofs. A few packed their automobiles with boxes of belongings.
My sister telephoned my parents. In the event the fire reached us, what was it they wished us to take? Over the telephone I told my father the fire was being fanned away from the neighborhood. Outdoors again, I was astounded to see the fire upon the hill and burning at the rear of several homes.
By the time I had returned the telephone to my sister, two homes were ablaze and the flames raced toward a third. How could it move so quickly? A friend was near our mailbox in hysterics. Her home was beside those on fire. I could only comfort her for a moment before scrambling upon the roof, garden hose in hand.
The synthetic roofing was hot to the touch, and only allowed the water a brief purchase. Of more concern was my neighbor's cedar shingles, tinder dry. With the hose on full pressure I sprayed across the ten-foot gap separating our homes. The gusting, dry air tossed the water back at me and quickly stole it away as vapor.
House to house the fire skipped along the upper reaches of the street and then across the face of the hill where it attacked homes on a second street directly upwind. Where were the firemen? I gathered several lengths of hose and repositioned myself at the rear of the house in the hope that the wind would aid my efforts from this new vantage. When I unloosed the nozzle, only a trickle came forth. The water pressure had been lost. Below on the street, two police cruisers called for the area to be evacuated. I tossed away the hose. There was no time to spare.
My mind focused, I scrambled inside and quickly located the diaries from my travels. Next I retrieved the scrapbooks my mother had compiled on her seven children. Unknowingly I moved baby books and home movies aside. Thinking back, I don't fully understand why I didn't carry full loads to the cars. Was it that I didn't want to drop anything? Was I anxious to check the progress of the fire? Was I only taking the most important items - just in case we didn't return? The home was a fortress, the stage where a lifetime of memories played out. During times of tumult and despair it had been a safe haven. Joyous moments filled it with happiness. How could a fire, or anything, take such a place?
On my forays I paid little attention to the homes ablaze, I simply knew the fire would soon be reaching the end of the block. Only a few neighbors remained. A man on the neighbor's porch called to me about the fire. Couldn't he see we were busy? Strange how people behaved in such situations, I thought to myself. But when the young man told me his throat was dry and asked for a drink, I retrieved a soda from the refrigerator and tossed it to him. He kept babbling but no one was listening.
Again inside, I stuffed several changes of clothes into a duffel and then considered what else to take. What was I forgetting? I picked up a book and just as quickly tossed it down. I could buy another. My sleeping bag. No. My passport. I went to the drawer. I did not see it and realized I could easily replace it. Old coins - they were not flammable. I grabbed an Olympic coin from France and closed the drawer. Scanning the shelves my eye caught Grandpa's gold watch. That was what I sought. Truly irreplaceable. I removed it carefully from its glass housing and placed it in my pocket.
Outside, I stuffed my belongings into the back seat of the car of which only the trunk had been filled. With the exception of my sister waiting at the wheel of the other car, the streets were deserted. I raced inside one last time.
Upstairs, beginning on the far end of the house, I began closing doors and windows. The air was cool and dry, the tumult of the street shut out by the solitude of the deserted house. Peacefulness settled upon me as I moved through the rooms, effortlessly, instinctively. For the last time, I looked in on the bedroom I had once shared with my brother. The floor stared back at me. It was the stage for so many childhood games and adventures - an expansive ocean to boats, a plateau for our cars and trains. I crossed the family room, the domain of games and slumber parties. I closed a closet to my first work suit and my grandfather's handmade bamboo fly rod and gave a parting glance to the desk where I struggled over Spanish and the chair where I first read Shakespeare. The room adjacent to my mother's childhood Victrola played host to another brother's youthful business opportunities, his forays into disco, and his experimentation with electricity. I slid shut the window whose aluminum sill had once nearly electrocuted me when wired to an electric transformer. The linen closet recalled weekend chores, hand-me-downs, and distant relatives and their visits. My sisters' bedroom brought memories of pottery, stuffed animals, the guitar, and rock collections garnered from family vacations. At the cupboard, my eyes searched ahead but my mind recalled costumes, chemistry sets, and stamp collections.
The bright light of the entry cast upon the head of the stairs and the door as it closed behind me. The door was a favorite of the cat who drummed upon it at morning feeding time. Upon the quiet carpeted steps my mind saw a family gathered for pictures, Christmas lights, a little boy learning to tie his shoe, and an adolescent boy punching his older brother in the face.
Through the living room I moved to the den whose accordion style door had only closed for music lessons. At the dining room table my mind clouded with a thousand images- dinners, projects, parties, arguments, and laughter. Sliding shut the door to the laundry I saw once more the pencil markings noting ages, heights, and weight. In my mind's eye I clearly saw a small tyke babbling to his mother as she folded clothes warm from the dryer.
Lastly I ventured down the hall to the back bedrooms. There, silently waiting was my mother's desk and the shelves crowded with her books. Brass lamps restored by my father were perched on the bureau. On the wall was a black and white photograph where Cousin Edward, a casualty of the Battle of the Bulge, built a model in a time warp. I closed the hall closet where boxes of slides and home movies waited patiently. The main bath, glowing pink in the early afternoon, stirred toy sailboats, submarines, and bubble bath in my memory. At the end of the hall was the bedroom where a little boy often saw his father getting dressed for work, the radio chattering. Led by a toddler's memory of a tray of change and keys, I checked the bureau drawer.
Outside I discovered that upwind the fire's creep had stalled at the intersection. My sister urged me to get in the car. I turned to see my brother pull up, worry and concern enveloping his face. Downwind, behind a home across the street, a thirty-foot flame leapt into the air, engulfing a pine tree in one explosive flash. With the burst of sparks and the snapping of timbers came the realization that, against the head wind, the fire had crawled back through the lesser canyon, around the lake, and over the smaller freeway. Fire was now approaching us from two directions.
In tandem the three of us drove down the street past people standing in their front yards contemplating the fire just as we had done fifteen minutes earlier. I called to a young man riding his bicycle toward the heart of the catastrophe. He paid no heed. Near three idle fire engines the police directed us onto the freeway. As I picked up speed I looked back to see rows of homes burning.
Away from the blaze, the tranquility of the balmy Indian summer day returned. In our adrenaline rush we fielded phone calls from family and friends and recounted, over and over, the details of our misadventure. With this came the questioning of our troubled decisions and the sudden twist of our destinies. But soon, too, that was exhausted, and we sat depleted with our private thoughts, waiting for news of the turmoil being played out upon the landscape of our childhood.
I contemplated what we had salvaged and what we had chosen to abandon. So much of my life seemed to be pivoting upon the story told within my diaries - the details of a solo journey around the world taken only years before. And what if the rest were gone? Where would I begin again? They were only possessions, I told myself.