Yesterday morning across the top of the front page of The New York Times was a color photograph of a burly man wearing a baseball cap backwards squatting, forehead pressed to the top of the head of a dark brown terrierish dog. Caption: “Pets Lost in Paradise.”
Inside on page 10–headline across the top of the page: “Mad Scramble to Save Beloved Pets as Fire Charred Lahaina…”–another photograph of the man bent over a picnic table weeping. Caption: “Rafael Ochoa ran into his burning house to rescue his dog, Bella, but then had to give her up because his family has no home.”
Many days since wildfire struck the west coast of Maui, ending the lives of untold hundreds of residents, hundreds if not thousands of animals, leveling an historic town.
If you’ve never experienced fire, these numbers, images, are frightening.
If you have been through fire, of course it stirs memories…
In my case, Malibu, September 25th, 1970.
Our rambling house was in a eucalyptus grove near the Serra Retreat, rustic heart of old Malibu. As was my habit, around ten that morning I walked up to the road to fetch our mail. As I bundled letters and magazines, I noticed in the distance east of us a rosy glow over scrubby hills. My brain did not compute–it was morning after all–and I did not string rosy glow and mountain brush together. I had no context for such a sight and was pleasantly distracted when a young woman on her big horse came loping up the road from the back of the canyon. It was Sharon Adamson, wife of Merritt Adamson, grandson of Rhoda Rindge, the Malibu’s founder/doyenne. Sharon, a tall Olympian, Stanford graduate, cool customer, often rode by of a morning. She sort of smiled but didn’t say a word–we were only casual neighbors, but I remember being puzzled at her not saying Hello. Then suddenly I noticed there were large fluffy black and gray cinders floating down around us–as if the Stage Manager in the Sky had given his cue and the rope was pulled, spilling abundant puffs. Surprised, I was jolted into putting rosy glow and cinders together and started to go back to the house when a few paces further down the road Sharon twisted around in her saddle and called back, “Sylvia, I think it might be a good idea to pack some valuables…” lope lope lope “Oh…and down in the canyon they probably could use a hand getting out horses…”
Now stunned, I pushed through our front gate, ran back down to the house, yelled to Gene in his study what I’d seen, heard, ran to the phone and called the grammar school then junior high school for instruction as to what we could do about our children. They wanted us to come get them but everything was congested, please wait an hour. Of course that made me more anxious so I invested some of my nervous energy sweet-talking our four cats into a big crate, tucked the crate into the station wagon, got cartons for my writer husband because I knew he’d want to pack his two dozen years of journals. Then mindlessly I found myself in the kitchen lugging my pristine (not yet used) KitchenAid mixer out of its cupboard and up to the car. My brains still weren’t working and I could not think of anything else I wanted to save…Oh gosh, the Rodier…ran to my closet and pulled out the costly bolt of French blue wool I’d just bought to make myself a skirt. Couldn’t manage rescuing papers (I had an article all lined up on my work table, was loathe to mess up a week’s organizing)… Photographs? Letters? Jewelry? Not really. (I still use that KitchenAid mixer.)
Since there seemed to be time, I called to Gene that I’d be back and raced down the road. I was in thin thong sandals and a long cotton patchwork wrap skirt I’d made –it was a trying period in my life and for solace, I’d settled on Becoming an Eccentric.
These fifty-three years later I don’t remember whose horse it was, but in moments I was leading a jittery filly along Mariposa de Oro Lane through Malibu Creek–it was a paved one-car-wide causeway, water only a couple of inches deep. By now the cinders were raining heavily and I don’t know who was more nervous, me or the filly who kept pressing her hundreds of pounds into me, nearly knocking me into the creek. I kept up motherly crooning as we walked and I was frantic trying not to get stepped on–the thong on one of my sandals broke, the sandal fell off, I managed to kick off the other sandal (something I’d have difficulty doing now)–but the two of us stayed the course and I was proud to deliver her to the stables on Cross Creek Road far from burning brush where other neighbors’ horses were sheltered. A tanned young woman in shorts took the filly’s reins, curtly thanked me. Today I’d give the girl a hug and send up a prayer for their safekeeping…then I just…I don’t know what I did. I just was grateful I’d delivered my filly and was in one piece. Hitched up my nuisance of a skirt and fast as I could ran barefoot through the creek and back up the road to our house. (Heavens, I could run in those days…can’t run any more. Isn’t that something?) Cinders now were frightening.
The hour waiting to pick up our children had passed, so Gene and I grabbed Cassius and Arabella, our boxer dogs, stuffed them into the station wagon while the cats yowled…I told the kitties all would be fine. I closed our big front door but didn’t lock it–just in case–just in case of what?–threw a kiss to our dozen elegant old koi in Mr. Yamashiro’s carp pond–oh dear, oh dear, no way to evacuate them. Gene and I embraced, and now cold with fear, I drove my red Volvo wagon down to the Pacific Coast Highway and the couple of miles up to Webster Elementary School for our two small daughters. In his–I think by then he’d bought it–gray Mercedes coupe, Gene drove the ten miles up PCH to Malibu Park Junior High School for our two sons. We’d all meet at my parents’ near UCLA. Deo volente.
The children were excited, didn’t know to be afraid.
Even though it was early afternoon, the air was gray with smoke and ash. Of course the highway was clogged, vehicles of every description creeping toward escape. Catching sight of friends and acquaintances–Malibu in 1970 was still a one-market village, if you had kids, you knew everybody–we’d wave, call out encouraging salutations, wondering which of us would be lucky, which would not be. Courtesy reigned–no horn honking, no cursing, no vrooming ahead should a lane open. I remember thinking how fortunate were the friends with houses on the beach, that nothing would burn by the wonderfully wet Pacific Ocean, whereas we were in the thick of Santa Monica Mountains’ dry brush…
Frantic, that night Gene and I drove back up Serra Road for a quick look. Shock. Many houses were burned to the ground, trees above them shaking shards of vermilion. Oh no, the house next door to us was a red-pulsing shell, uncapped gas jet whooshing blue flames. Out of a horror movie.
As we walked down to our gate, I thought of little Mary in “The Secret Garden:” what would I find on the other side? I bravely pushed the gate open.
The house was all there.
Spared by turns of fate.
To begin with, Gene’s mode of coping with a script problem was to go into the garden and stand with a hose, watering, watering, watering till he got what he needed. This happened regularly, and everything from the Sears Roebuck grape stake fencing to redwood decking was sopped. We reckoned this had been an immense deterrent but there had to be more to the story…
Later we learned a neighbor around the corner, a volunteer sheriff, had gone down to the highway and commandeered a fire truck. But the traffic was so impossible by the time he got the truck up to his house, his house was burning. Later later the firemen told us when we took brownies the children baked for them, their protocol in a fire was not to try to save a burning house but to move on to the house that hasn’t begun burning. When the neighbor’s fire truck continued up our road, ours was the house not yet burning.
(Fun detail: curiously in the kitchen I’d stashed a new quart of Jack Daniels high atop a cupboard. First thing that night when I entered the kitchen, I found the bottle in the sink, drained. I was so happy I’d left the front door unlocked…and at that moment knew why I’d hidden bourbon in plain sight…)
But while our Thistle, Mirabelle, Mariposa, Booboo, Cassius, and Arabella lived, we did lose animals. Fire did not enter our garden but its blazing air heated the water in our koi pond and our beautiful carp poached. Terrible to discover. Death of loved ones is death, even if it is fish.
But of course we had incalculable blessings.
Not so a great many neighbors and friends. Half the houses in our canyon were lost. And the fire was capricious. Sweeping down from the hills, still not satiated by its prey, it leapt across the Pacific Coast Highway and devoured a swath of defenseless cottages along the sea. So much for protection from the wet Pacific Ocean.
In the painful months that followed, I observed something about the men I found fascinating. No matter what age, status, background, or line of country, the men walked around in shock. Quite natural, you say. Indeed. But I came to sense they felt they’d lost more than their house. With the bricks and mortar or wood with which they’d sheltered their family pulled out from under, it was as though who they were…what they had to show the world…proof of what they amounted to was gone. They’d lost their very moorings.
The women? After grieving a few days–as one friend told me, “Who has time for grieving?! it doesn’t get you anywhere”–the women set to putting their households back together. Picked up the pieces painful bit by painful bit. Endlessly made lists, made phone calls, drove carpools, conferred with architects/electricians/plumbers /gardeners, ran interference at schools, marketed, cooked, and when their husbands felt more secure, began to go out in the world again. No woman that I watched regarded bricks, mortar, wood as exemplary of their persona. It was a home, pure and simple, and they got on with making it.
It was usually one full year from the date of The Fire that a household was back to that cherished time when there was mustard in the fridge, pencil and paper by the phone, Kleenex in the bathroom, geraniums in the garden, a return to blessed ordinariness.
One charming bit: A large family, dear people, with three young sons lost their marvelous house. It was only about five years old and they asked the architect to supervise the same plans in rebuilding. The day the ribbon was cut at the front door and everyone ran in hollering with joy, one of the boys dashed off to his bathroom…did his bit. At that moment, the dad hit his forehead with a fist, whooped, “Oh no! We forgot! When you come in the front door and look to the right, there’s Jake at the end of the hall peeing! I wanted to change that!”
Well and well. The anguish continues in Maui. Also in The New York Times story was a photograph of volunteers working at the Maui Humane Society. How I wish Bill and I could be among them.
And I wish we had the means to give Mr. Ochoa’s family a house so he could have Bella again…