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At the Gates of Paradise

Lookout Point, Paradise, Spring,2018

Lookout Point, Paradise, Winter, 2018

So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life. – Genesis 3:24

Yesterday for the first time we took a drive up the Skyway to see how close we could get to Paradise. When we arrived at the gates of Paradise we were greeted not by an angel with a flaming sword but by a Highway Patrol officer with a kind attitude and a Smith & Wesson. He informed us that my home on Scottwood was not in the zones now open for return and directed us to go back down the Skyway.

Up or down the Skyway the landscape is not what you expect in your imagination. Instead of a charred and shattered scene, it looks almost clean; almost scoured.

The fire of November 8 came down Butte canyon and those around it like flood waters swirl and plunge and rip on by. The winds behind the fire drove it down at high speeds and it stripped out the scrub and underbrush and blankets of pine needles turning them to ash. The leaves on the trees were toasted a tan brown color for the most part and the sick trees with openings into their trunks were hollowed out by fire and lie toppled here and there.

I say here and there because the trees along the Skyway and up through the canyon seem to be about 80% upright. Whether they will put out fresh green leaves in the spring I have no way of knowing, but the odds favor it. Beneath the trees, there is on all sides a sort of charred surface with tiny chunks of charcoal crunching like tiny pumice pebbles on some cooled volcanic beach. In the middle distance, all is burned black, but closer in you see that the late, very late,  rains of December have already caused the green shoots of grass to push up through the burned soil surface and tint the ground with Spring.

The earth at my feet

The horror of the burning one month back will, in time, be darkness visible when I am allowed into Zone 11 to access to what was my home. For now, in these startlingly beautiful clear winter days, the scene on the road up and the road down is one that hints of, in the spring, something that will look very much like a carefully manicured park.

In the town of Paradise, they are still waiting for recovery to begin. Nature doesn’t wait.

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Boomer Anthems: Touch of Grey

Thirty years ago, in the summer of 1987, the Grateful Dead released “Touch of Grey,” from the album In the Dark. Peaking at #9, the song was– and remains to this day– the only Grateful Dead song to reach the Billboard Top Ten. Or even the Top 40. Or even the Top 50. (“Truckin’”— the Dead’s highest charting song prior to “Touch of Grey”— peaked at #64.)

June 19, 1987: MTV premieres the video of “Touch of Grey”— a first for the Dead. The video’s concept: life-sized marionette skeletons wearing the same clothes and playing the same instruments as the Dead musicians gradually morph into the actual performers. The video was shot in front of a live audience at California’s Laguna Seca Raceway.

June 24, 2017: The reunion band known as Dead and Company (which teams John Mayer with original Grateful Dead members Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, and Bill Kreutzmann) plays at Citi Field in New York. During the performance, a nearby skyscraper synchronized its lights to the band’s rendition of “Touch of Grey.” That skyscraper? The Empire State Building. And no one cursed the glare. — Like Totally 80s [click to continue…]

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Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. — Hebrews 13 2

When you’re like me and have to buy all things new that a month ago were old, you get your fill of the brand spanking new fast. When you’re like me and the only thing old in your apartment is you, you yearn for the old and worn things; things that fit your life like comfortable old shoes. When you’re like me you yearn for things that have a touch of grey, a wisp of Wabi-sabi. When you’re like me and you are replacing your life on a budget, you go to tag sales; a lot of tag sales.

She was haggling over a cast-iron frying pan and I was there to haggle over a chair. It was inside a cold Quonset hut out by the railroad tracks at about 8:00 on a Sunday morning. She was almost old and certainly haggard with long lank strands of white and grey hair around a too old for her eyes face. She was making jokes and laughing with the tag sale lady as she worked her down a buck at a time. She worked her down with that tone people have when every dollar is important to their cash flow. Then she heard me ask the quiet question we are all asking in Chico when we shop for everything to replace everything we’ve lost, “D0 you have a Camp Fire discount?”

She came over to me with her hand already holding her cell phone and asked the question Paradise refugees ask each other when they first meet, “What street were you when the fire came through?”

“Scottwood. Where were you?”

“Driving my school bus. We’d started at 6:30 and then after I picked up some kids we were called back to the bus yard near the school.”

“Did you go?”

“Couldn’t get there. The fire was already there. I just told the kids to stay in their seats and I got to the K-Mart parking lot.”

“I thought that burned to the ground. The whole shopping center.”

“No. No. It was okay when I was there with the kids. They had other cars there too and a fire truck hooked up to a pump.”

She flips her fingers back and forth on the screen of her phone looking for the pictures we all took of what we were up to on that day. I think a lot of folks took pictures of the fire surrounding them thinking that at least something, maybe their phone, might survive that recorded their final agony. Some might have. We don’t know yet.

“Here. See that? That’s the fireman who trained his hose on my bus. Kept us cool inside all that heat. Took nearly four hours to get us out. Kept it up all that time until we could move then went along with us with the fire truck.”

“Four hours?”

“More like four and a half really. Little girl in my bus couldn’t hold it. I told her it was okay and she could just pee in the back of the bus. She was embarrassed. I told her, ‘It’s alright honey. Nobody’s gonna see.”

More images of the school bus being wet down in the parking lot flicker by with a flick of her fingers. Then images of the tunnel of fire on Clark or Pentz with a fire truck in front and the fireman still hosing down the bus behind him in this fire tunnel caravan.

“What did you lose,” I ask, knowing the answer.

“Oh, house and garage. Everything.

“I even lost my car. Here’s a picture a friend sent me of my car parked in the bus yard.”

She shows me a grim, but far too common, image of a row of gutted and burned out cars. Her’s is in the middle. It’s some sort of small hard-used banger common among the Paradise people who lived on a “fixed income.” It’s just a gray burned metal shell like those to the right and the left of it. It’s beyond minor body work. She’ll have to get a new very used car. She’ll have a hard time affording one.

“It is what it is,” she says. (We all say that a lot these days.) “But it could have been worse. Much worse. Look there.”

She blows up the photo and scrolls to the right of the burned cars. There are two very large metal tanks about 15 yards away from the ranks of incinerated automobiles. They’ve got “3,000” stenciled on them.

“Those are full of diesel for our buses. And in front, underground, are some of the bus yard’s gasoline tanks. The fire took the cars but left the tanks. Could have been worse.”

It’s hard for me to imagine anything about the Camp Fire that could have been worse but I see her point.

The tag sale lady behind her is making that turning away move people make when they need to get on selling the old junk they don’t need to someone who does. The bus driver shrugs and puts her phone away.

“Yep, could have been worse, but we got the kids out.”

 

 

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The Editor

The “month that will not end!” has ended but my chronic cold has not. Like a lot of colds, it seems to move around inside me from day to day. Yesterday, bronchial tubes. Today, nostrils. Tomorrow, toes. Who knows? At any rate, enough!, begone my complaining at such mild complaints!

(Oh my Lord! It’s five in the morning and I’m so out of it I haven’t even made coffee. Just a moment please… There, that’s a bit better.)

Sick or not my editor will not let my seething cranium be and I find myself remembering odd bits of Paradise from my boyhood and my dotage. I’m also still bumping into people who, a month removed from the burning, struggle with their changed situation much more than I am. I still hear the stories as we all try to reassemble, not the lives we had in Paradise, but the lives we have now in this and other small cities in the north state.

My readers and many other kind souls have returned me to life and I, with my small gift, would like to return the favor.

Paradise, as it was, is not dead it is gone. There will be another town named Paradise but it will never again be Paradise because, as noted right above, Paradise is gone. But I had a boyhood once in Paradise and, if memory serve, I can recall my own days in the gone world and some of them should be told. So memory shall serve. Here, because I have no place else to put them.

For now, I’ve decided to let others concern themselves with the heat death of liberty and/or the saving of the Republic. I’ve put my shoulder to that wheel long enough. And I am heartily sick of our political sickness.

Instead, for a bit, I’ll be writing about the life and the death of this one small town. Somebody’s got to and it might as well be me.  After all, I had a boyhood once in Paradise.

Here’s my list of working titles so it can stop being scribbled on the outside of all these envelopes.

[click to continue…]

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Sick… AND Tired

 

I apologize for the lack of postings. After the last month, it would seem I have come down with a virulent cold. In addition, I am moving into my new digs and they lack internet connections. Hence I am thrown back on the connection at my mother’s apartment — which I use when she’s out at one of her ladies’ luncheons to avoid transmitting my cold to her.

I continue to be amazed and moved beyond measure by the outpouring of support here and elsewhere on the Net. I am sustained by them in all ways and without them I could not even begin to rebuild my life from the ashes of Paradise.

At some point, I will face the Herculean task of thanking you all individually but at over 600 kind and generous souls have helped me it may take a bit of doing.

In the meantime, God bless and keep you all.

 

 

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The caption at NASA’s “Astronomy Picture of the Day” page reads: “Atlantis to Orbit.”

The filename of the picture reads: Nightlaunch.

And I am moved by the poetry of this most modern of images, not by the triumph of Reason which it seems to enshrine, but by that which is beyond Reason yet within this Nightlaunch all the same.

In thinking about this brief essay I could not help but think of a longer one by Doctor Bob at The Doctor Is In about a “civilized” European nation that cannot stop itself from taking the next step down into the pit; its people driven, as “reasonable” people always are, by the inexorable demands of “what is reasonable.”

In the work of Goya we see how that great soul, having walked the carnage cloaked landscapes of his era, came to understand the deepest cry of the Enlightenment: El sueño de la razon produce monstruos. [“The sleep of reason breeds monsters.”]


Ah well, the bones of the Enlightenment lie buried in a shallow grave somewhere along the Western Front. It had some nice ideals, but left us living rapt in the spell of Reason.

And now we are a “reasonable” society. Now we are a “scientific people” swaddled in a million theories of management — convinced that all of creation can be, somehow, managed through the limitless employment of Reason. Many of us, as we have seen in the past month, worship “intelligence uber alles,” that strange and deadly viral god of the mad mind that kills the soul long before it kills the nations that embrace it. We see the apotheosis of this worship leap up from the dazed lands of Europe. We see it arc across our own skies. We feel the sting of its acid rain on our upturned, stunned faces.

Reason. Its gifts are many. It enables us to raise “Atlantis to Orbit.” The poetry of that is only exceeded by the reality of it; by all that lies behind the sheer raw ability of the smart monkey to organize itself to achieve it — the mathematics and the metallurgy, the pulses in the silicon chips that hold and control the fire that slices up and beyond the sky. And the systems and wires and waves that bring these thoughts from my fingertips to your eyes now.

All these, and whole Alps of others, are the gifts of Reason.

But there are darker gifts of Reason; gifts revealed by the languor with which a whole people fall “half in love with easeful death.”

Why? Why abort this child? Because it is reasonable.

Why kill this old and feeble person? Because it is reasonable.

Why take from them according to ability and give to others according to need? Always because it is “reasonable.”

Reason commands it and Reason has, in this modern era, become a vengeful and a jealous god.

If it is true that the sleep of reason breeds monsters, can it not also be true that the constant wakefulness of Reason breeds its own peculiar hallucinations; its walking horrors?

We depend on Reason when we flip a switch, step on a brake, or seat ourselves in pressurized thin metal tubes that hover 40,000 feet above the earth and move at 500 miles an hour. This power would seem to argue that Reason should be trusted in all things, that the intelligence that runs up and down the synapses of our brains in an endless flickering web of electo-chemical space-time events is the ultimate arbiter, the final judge, the self-obsessed lodestone of our lives.

And yet… and yet…

And yet, hovering outside of Reason, we still somehow sense Immanence; we sense there is something more going on here, something vaster unfolding all about us, no matter how sternly Reason rules.

We sense Immanence, no matter how many times we are told the opposite; we sense that myth, legend, soul, magic, miracle and mystery still hold us, and that

The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze decor,

And that,

The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.
*

As we now move more deeply into Advent, we move — in our long sweeping orbit about our home star — closer to the moments when that which is most deeply our gift and most certainly our curse is made manifest in the music of our being in a manner beyond all reason. And no matter what our faith — even if that faith is that there is no faith to be had — this turn of the year, this Advent, will inexorably bring us once again to the memory of the miracle made manifest all about us in every moment if we could but pause to see the forever present revelation.

Our Here.

Our Now.

Our miracle.

Impossible but actual.

Our actual existence on this most unlikely melding of earth, air, fire and water, fused far ago in a forgotten eternity from starstuff, and now circling a single sun swimming in some out-of-the-way arm of a second-class galaxy, where we lift Atlantis into orbit; where we seek to populate the stars in our searching.

On the one hand, it is clear that Reason demands that “We shall not cease from exploration,” while on the other it may well be that:

“… the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

And while nothing in our Book of Reason can tell us why, its endless banal chapters on irony would need to be excised were we to discover that all “Enlightenment,” all our “Age of Reason” has wrought is but a frail and flimsy ladder to the stars where we could at last put out our feeble hands “to touch the face of God.”


For Donald Sensing who put it in my mind, and for Solomonia who pointed me to the picture.

First published 2006-11-27

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Fire Walking: The Body Cam of Deputy Aaron Parmley

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My Mother at 103 104! aka 37,960+ Days on the Planet

Her earliest memory is being held on the shoulders of her father, watching the men who lived through the First World War parade down the main street of Fargo, North Dakota in 1918. She would have been just four years old then. Now she’s 90 years old and she comes to her birthday party wearing a chic black and white silk dress, shiny black shoes with three inch heels, and a six foot long purple boa. She’s threatening to sing Kurt Weill’s ‘The Saga of Jenny” and dance on the table one more time .

She’ll sing the Kurt Weill song, but we draw the line at her dancing on the table this year. Other than that, it is pretty much her night, and she gets to call the shots. Which is what you get when you reach 90 97 and are still managing to make it out to the tennis courts three to four times a week. “If it wasn’t for my knees I’d still have a good backcourt game, but now I pretty much like to play up at the net.” [Note: Alas she had to give up tennis at 95 back when her knees finally gave up. She didn’t. Water walking twice a week. She gave all a scare a couple of years ago but came roaring back after major surgery and is more or less back to the regular schedule.]

She plays Bridge once or twice a week, winning often, and has been known to have a cocktail or two on occasion. After her operation she gave up driving much to the relief of my brother who fretted over it for several decades.

She keeps a small two-bedroom apartment in a complex favored by young families and college students from Chico State and, invariably, has a host of fans during any given semester. She’s thought about moving to the “senior apartments” out by the mall, but as she says, “I’m just not sure I could downsize that much and everyone there is so old.”

She was born deep in the heartland at the beginning of the Great War, the youngest of five children. She grew up and into the Roaring 20s, through the Great Depression, taught school at a one room school house at Lake of the Woods Minnesota, roamed west out to California in the Second World War and met the man she married.

They stayed married until he died some 30 years ago. Together they raised three boys, and none of them came to any more grief than most and a lot more happiness than many.

After her husband died at the end of a protracted illness, she was never really interested in another man and filled her life with family, close friends (some stretching back to childhood), and was, for 15 years, a housemother to college girls. She recently retired from her day job where she worked three mornings a week as a teacher and companion to young children at a local day-care and elementary school.

She has always been a small and lovely woman — some would say beautiful. I know I would. An Episcopalian, she’s been known to go to church, but isn’t devoted to the practice, missing more Sundays than she attends. She’s given to finding the best in people and letting the rest pass, but has been known to let fools pass at high speed.

Born towards the beginning of the 20th century, she now lives fully in the 21st. Nearly 23 years ago we gave her a 90th birthday party. It was attended by over 200 people from 2 to 97, many of whom told tales about her, some taller than others.

We didn’t believe the man who told about the time in her early seventies that she danced on his bar. He brought the pictures of the bar with her high-heel marks in it to prove the point.

Other stories are told, some serious, some funny, all loving. But they all can only go back so far since she has only been living in Chico, California for 30 years. I can go back further, and so, without planning to, I took my turn and told my story about her. It went something like this.

“Because I’m the oldest son, I can go back further in time. I can go back before Clinton, before Reagan, before Nixon, before Kennedy, before Eisenhower. We’ll go back to the time of Truman.

“It must be the summer of 1949 and she’s taking my brother and I back home to her family in Fargo for the first time. I would be almost four and he’d be two and a half. The war’s been over for some time and everyone is now back home and settled in. My father’s family lost a son, but — except for some wounds — everyone else came out all right.

“We’re living in Los Angeles and her home is Fargo, North Dakota, half a continent away. So we do what you did then. We took the train. Starting in Los Angeles we went north to San Francisco where we boarded the newest form of luxury land transportation available that year, the California Zephyr.

“Out from the bay and up over the Sierras and down across the wastes until we wove our way up the spine of the Rockies and down again to the vast land sea that stretched out east in a swath of corn and wheat that I remember more than the pitched curves and plunging cliffs of the mountains. On the Zephyr you sat in a plush chair among others in a long transparent dome at the top of the car and it seemed all Earth from horizon to the zenith flowed past you.

“There was the smell of bread and cooking in the Pullman cars that I can still capture in my mind, and the lulling rhythm of the wheels over the rails that I can still hear singing me down into sleep.

“At some point we changed trains to go north into the Fargo Station and, as we pulled into Fargo in mid-morning, my mother’s family met us with their usual humble dignity — they brought a full brass band that worked its way down through the John Philip Sousa set list with severe dedication. They also brought me more family members than there were people living on our entire block in Los Angeles. There may also have been a couple of Barbershop Quartets to serenade us during the band breaks, but I’m not sure about that.

“My mother and brother and I were swept away in the maelstrom of aunts, uncles, cousins by the dozens, and assorted folks from the neighborhood on 8th Avenue South.

“The day rolled into a huge lunch at a vast dining room table where my grandmother ruled with an iron ladle. Then, after a suitable post-prandial stupor, my entire family rose as one and headed out to the nearby park for their favorite activity — trying to crush each other in tennis. When this family hit the courts, it was like a tournament had come to town. Other would-be players just took one look and headed for another set of courts elsewhere.

“I was still too young to play, although my mother would have a racquet custom-made for me within the year, so instead I would have been exhausting myself at some playground or in one of the sandboxes under the eyes of my older cousins. Then, at dusk, I made my way back to the courts.

“In the Fargo summers the twilights linger long and fade slowly. And as they fade the lights on the courts come up illuminating them in the gathering dark. And I sat, not quite four, as the night grew dark around me and my mother and her family played on below.

“Now it is all more than sixty years gone but still, in my earliest memories, they all play on in that endless twilight. I see them sweeping back and forth in the fading light. Taunting and laughing together. Calling balls out that are clearly in. Arguing and laughing and playing on forever long after the last light of day has fled across the horizon and the stars spread out high above the lights.

“Service. Return. Lob. Forehand. Volley. Backhand. Volley. Love All.”

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After the first death, there is no other. — Dylan Thomas, A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London

Within a month of 9/11 as I commuted underground a bit uptown and to the side of the burning pyre of 3,000 Americans and walked through that wounded city, I wrote about the missing whose photos and pleas for closure covered endless walls windows and doors in Manhatten. Now we have fire and the missing of Paradise. On a much smaller scale, of course, but missing and many of the missing destined to be missing forever…

Their silence keeps me sleepless for I know
Within that smoke, their ash still falls as snow,
To settle on our flesh like fading stars
Dissolve into sharp sparks at break of day.

At dawn a distant shudder in the earth
Disclosed the flight of fire into steel,
The shaking not of subways underground,
But screams from inside flowers made of flame… —  The Missing – Vanderleun

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Aftermath

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The Grind

Things are happening to you, and you feel them happening, but except for this one fact, you have no connection with them and no key to the cause or meaning of them… A passage outside the range of imagination, but within the range of experience.” ― Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa

I’m on short rations for writing time today. I need to see lawyers and assemble furniture. It’s how I live now.

I see a lot of other Paradise Burnouts at the tent revival meetings staged by lawyers and then down the street at Harbor Freight buying the toolkits to reassemble the IKEA shipments coming in from all points. We listen to the lawyers’ spiel and then go to any shelter we are lucky enough to have and build furniture with cheap screwdrivers. Then we go back to Harbor Freight to buy screws.

It’s how we live now.

My situation is more blessed than most. I have a (very small) but very well put together apartment.  It looked like this before the generosity of my readers struck with a mini-tsunami of Amazon boxes coming constantly to my door.

This is my space when I opened the door for the first time. It’s not a three-bedroom house in Paradise, but these days what is?:

This is a look at the space when I began to unpack and assemble my new life in Chico as my mother’s neighbor.

And miles to go before I sleep,

Miles to go…

As I say to all who ask about the mountains and rivers of Amazon boxes, “They’re from my readers. They made my new home possible. They returned me to life.”

Garage, 5533 Scottwood Road, Paradise, California

 

 

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At the end of a storm There’s a golden sky… (Yeah, Right)

The tumult and the shouting dies;
The Captains and the Kings depart…

— Recessional by Rudyard Kipling

Those of us who return to the foldout FEMA tables under the stucco pillars and inside the clay-colored walls of the once-deserted Sears store are old hands at being evacuees. The adrenaline rush of the rides through the flame tunnels is over and the adrenaline jag is fading.

The town we lived in is gone; reduced to pale drifts of an off-white filth that pervades every “official” photo of every incinerated house. The incidence of finding human remains has diminished from a dozen a day to one or two here and there. The list of the “missing” has shrunk from over one thousand to a few hundred. Everyone talks about this as if it is “a good thing” and I suppose it is… for all but those few hundred. Every day they become more distant and more dead.

Those of us from Paradise who are still standing have survived the fire this time. The rains have put paid to the flames that devoured our town and our lives and then rambled on southeast like some overstuffed ogre. After the burning, we’ve had a couple of weeks of organization and logistics and then the grace of Thanksgiving to salve our souls.

“Nothing like a good disaster to sort things out.”

And now, as it must, the attention of the world has moved elsewhere; moved towards our brushfire wars and our poisoned politics and our boring blather about the “you-better believe-they’re-beautiful” genderjumpers and their ludicrous lives; all the buffo bonfires and pooh-pooh cushions of life in this inverted epoch. The groove, as they say, must move.

The groove has moved but Chico is where it was. This week, on the faces of those who have passed through the fire, you are starting to see a wan resignation. You see people becoming aware that they will be living life in the Yellow Zone from now until further notice. You see that the waiting lines at the FEMA tables have grown used to the volunteer with his bullhorn shouting out the numbers from theTake-A-Number Machine. Down mall from FEMA, you walk into the Xfinity store and you see people packed into the lounging couches in front of the big screen not even following the game. Here too they’ve been assigned their places in one of a hundred waiting rooms they know they’ll visit in the next month, year, years, decade.

The whole epic scenario of this catastrophe has now reached the phase where the people whose lives have been destroyed come to know a new thing: The beginning has ended, the fire has been killed, and now comes the hard part.

Welcome to “The Grind.”

Everyone displaced from Paradise has come to know in the first two days of this week that the rebuilding of their lives, no matter where it will be done, is going to be a long, hard, and debilitating march through the institutions.

The institutions along our line of march involve the federal government, the state government, the county government, the city government, and the Paradise Town Council In Exile. Dealing with each of these, in turn, will involve multiple visits, multiple repetitions of work already complete, piles of paperwork, and then more visits to places with a Take-A-Number Machine. Then there are the insurance companies, the various services and utilities one has to work with. On and on and we haven’t even gotten to the point where you actually secure housing and have to set it up.

Securing housing is the Holy Grail in and around Chico now; the Holy Grail and the Pearl of Great Price all in one. It’s the one thing you have to have. Last night I saw what happens when you cannot be “housed.”

When tenting began on the first night of the fire spontaneous tent towns began to grow up at WalMart and the East Avenue Church. There were others as well. In the main, these camps of folks from the Camp Fire have faded and dwindled naturally as the onset of the cold and the rain makes the tents untenable. But some of the hardcore homeless, the desperately poor and unsocial, the tweakers, and the junkies gaming the system have persisted in their tents. Removing the remnants of the tent towns by any sort of edict or force is, of course, politically impossible. And those in the tent towns know this and work it.

One particularly medieval tent town has sprung up around large dumpsters in front of the closed out Toys R Us store. Here there are scatted tents of different sizes adding up to a reasonable Bedouin camp in the Sahara… except this is in a parking lot.

Across from the tents is a bank of porta-potties brought in by the city to control the shitification of the Toys R Us Parking lot.

I drove by that set up in the parking lot after dark and the tent people were out. You could see them in the dark shadows pawing over the piles of old clothing people keep dropping in the dumpsters to no purpose. As I drove past the tents a large one’s flap was thrown back and a big and portly man in a lumberjack flannel shirt and what appeared to be Leiderhosen emerged into the yellow tinted and dim “Earth Friendly” streetlights. He was heading towards the line of Porta-potties across the road. I looked at him and then looked again. Hard.

As God is my witness this man was heading towards the porta potties with a live raccoon riding on his shoulder, waving one of his or her paws like royalty passing in review on the way to the can.

As noted above, after a fire takes your town in its paws and plays with it, housing becomes the most critical long-term need. Not everyone gets housing. Those that show up with a live raccoon on their shoulder probably have a long long long long long grind ahead.

Then again, we all do.

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The Ashes: Now I Know

This was my home. There’s being told, over and over, that your home has been reduced to ashes, and then there’s knowing, really knowing, that it’s gone. See the black metal frame with bulbous ends at the bottom left?  That was my headboard in my bedroom. I bought it from Ikea when I moved into Brooklyn Heights in 1993. It made it all the way to Paradise. It’s still standing and so am I. I think I’ll salvage it and restore it.

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19 Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal:     — Matthew 6:19-21

Having procured an apartment in Chico  — where there are no apartments to be had — has eliminated the first substantial step towards putting my life back on track after losing everything in the destruction of Paradise. But forging a new life from scratch is not a turnkey operation, It is hard and unremitting. My to-do lists have to-do lists and every move made is but a very small step towards a habitable home.

Presently, thanks to the overwhelming generosity of my readers, I am making visible progress towards a habitable home. The small bathroom is finished but the bathroom is always the first room to be finished. The bed has been delivered as has been a large nine-drawer dresser that is, not counting me, the oldest thing in my new apartment. [click to continue…]

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“I Had a Boyhood Once in Paradise”: The Ghost Town

[Written in 2014 on my return to Paradise after an absence of over 60 years.]

I drive the Skyway to the town named Paradise,
park his car at the canyon’s rim, and sit awhile
in the hot silence of the afternoon looking out
at the Sierra mountains where, in June, the winter lingers.

On the seat beside me a well-taped cardboard cube
contains what remains of my father. I climb out
and, taking the cube under my arm, begin to climb
down the canyon’s lava wall to the stream below.

The going is slow, but we get to the bottom by and by
and sitting on some moss, we rest awhile, the cube and I,
beside the snow-chilled stream.
– – My Father

There are two ways into Paradise, the back way and the Skyway. When you can you take the Skyway but the back way will get you there just the same. When I moved back to Paradise after being gone for more than 60 years everything had changed but nothing had changed. Superimposed over Paradise as it is was Paradise as it was. Not everywhere but in the rise and roll of the land and roads; in the place names and the clearings, in the canyons and the crests. Paradise past was there in the overlay, in that “certain slant of light” where you see what is not there layered over what is. Because it what Paradise was  in those past, gone years is still there; in moments that appear unbidden and “fade upon the blowing of the horn.”

And in those translucent moments, I often see all Paradise’s past as ghostly, drifting like a soft wall of mist across the scrim screen of Paradise present. I can always hold this phantasm at bay, filter it out to get the errands of the day done. And then in an unguarded moment, it returns.

One afternoon soon after I arrived in Paradise I saw my father standing next to the Skyway. I saw my father, alive as you or me, and dead these forty years.

By the time I saw him it didn’t really shock me. I’d lived in Paradise for over a month and I knew these things could happen here. Paradise was not just Paradise. It was a ghost town. And it was filled with my ghosts.

I first saw my father in the middle of the day next to Big O Tires on the Skyway. I’d gone there to have some minor repair done to my car and, while they took the car into the bay behind me, I wandered into the empty front showroom and gazed through the Big O display windows looking out over the Skyway and down the steep decline and quick rise of Pearson Road. Then I glanced down to the left of the showroom at a small vacant building next door. It was caked with many years of paint. The latest coats were pale gray with a light blue trim. The windows were sheets of painted plywood nailed tight to the frames and the door was shut solid with a large padlock. It was shut tight and, like many buildings on the Skyway in Paradise and beyond, had a large red and white “For Lease” sign attached to the front.

Then as I looked at it my father walked through the closed and padlocked door and, like me, stood looking down hill as the traffic paused at the light and then turned left or right at the T-junction.

It was December for me, but it must have been summer for him because he stood there in his starched, short-sleeved, crisp and immaculate white shirt with a stainless steel Parker ballpoint pen in his pocket, a sharp crease in his slacks, his perfectly shined shoes, and a ruler-level flat-top — his choice of a “sharp” haircut for men and boys. He stood there for about a minute as I watched him without moving, the smell of new tires in my nostrils. Then he turned and walked back through the walls and into his office.

Behind me a burst of compressed air from a lug wrench brought me out of my brown study and I was looking again at a ramshackle gray and blue building with a small courtyard that was now “For Lease.” It was then I recognized the old building as the place where my father had had his car dealership when we all lived in Paradise in the mid-1950s.

I told myself that what I had just experienced was some sort of vivid memory from my childhood as a kind of faint film from my mind projected onto the mundane present. Yes, that was all it was. I’m sure of that. I’m an educated man of no little experience in the real, wide world of now. It only felt like seeing a ghost. In broad daylight in deep December, dressed for summer in his crisp white shirt.

The last time I’d seen my father before this was in a dream decades after he died on the operating table. He came to me out of the streets in the Red City that persists off and on over the years in my dreams. He was wearing a hospital smock stained with large patches of his blood. He said to me, “I don’t belong with the dead,” and then he faded. I hadn’t seen him since.

This time, on the Skyway of Paradise, he was looking much better; looking at home with the dead. This time he didn’t even seem dead, only translucent. I had a brief moment of disappointment that he was gone before we could continue the conversation from where he left off in my dream, but having been briefly dead I knew that the dead have little to say to the living. In any case, he was my father and I was, this time, glad to see him.

The poet says “Old men should be explorers.” When I was younger I admired that sentiment but now, as the hand of age closes around me, I find I don’t wish to explore new lands, but to explore again those I have already passed through trying to see what I missed in the first hectic rush towards my “goals.”

These days I pass my father’s place on the Skyway several times a week while turning onto the Skyway on an errand in Paradise or down from the ridge and into the valley to see my mother or to get the kind of meal unavailable in Paradise.

My father’s vacant office is right at the turn and, because of that (or so I tell myself), I don’t stop. Someday I might pull over down the road a bit and walk back to his office hoping to see him again. But I don’t think he’ll oblige if I do. He doesn’t have to. He’s not inside our time now. He’s just one of many ghosts that I’ve seen of late, up here on the ridge, up here in Paradise.


If this essay pleased or informed you DONATE HERE to help me recover after being burned out in the Paradise fire with my thanks.

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Over the River and Through the Woods

Giving Thanks, 2018

And then the rains came to Paradise and in the valley below the ridge, my mother and I went to Thanksgiving at my brother’s home.

It was a soaking rain; one that washed the heavy and grimed coats of the fire crews closing the line on the Camp Fire. It was a softly pelting rain that soaked the gray flecks of ash off the leaves that remained in the trees and then washed the leaves out of the trees. It was a cold rain and it made for a miserable Thanksgiving. We all loved it. You stood outside in this drenching rain and raised your face towards heaven and felt it fall on you. It was a rain that smelled of smoke.

My mother and I left early to drive to my brother’s home in Grass Valley. At 90 minutes it is at the outward edge of my mother’s travel radius, but this one is worth it and we are in no position, jammed into her apartment, to attempt to have it in Chico.

Our route goes down Highway 99 and then east towards where the Camp Fire grinds forests in its bright fangs, but picks up Highway 70 outside of Oroville. Then it is down that dangerous two-lane freeway to “The Shortcut” and then the climb up to Grass Valley; another town built in the mountains inside a pine forest.

Thanksgiving marks the second time my mother has been out into the smoke from Paradise. The first was the day or so before when she insisted on going shopping for “something red, some red top to go with my red boots.” She’s had her almost magical pair of red boots for decades and they’ve become a kind of signal that wherever she wears them is an official feast or festival. And so we went downtown with masks on to shop. For my mother at 104, a little smoke is not going to keep her from making a fashion statement… or Thanksgiving with her family.

South of Chico about nine miles we entered the Burned Zone. This was where the fire threatened Highway 99 on the first night and even managed to jump it but was then turned back. As we flow along at highway speeds the land on the west side has dry brindle grass covering the earth, on the east side the burned char from the fire and the backfires stretch over the long flatlands where cattle would graze, and then over the low hills and far away. Patches of brindle crop up here and there but it is mostly a scene of a black dank earth. It goes on over the low hills and higher ridges and then out of sight. It seems limitless. It smells of the pit.

Then suddenly we’re out and everything is “California, the Golden State!” We drive south under an overcast sky where slabs of clear blue are showing higher up. We drive down 70 towards Yuba City past trailer parks, and ranches, and endless orchards with my mother trying to figure out what the trees bear. “It would be thoughtful to put up a sign telling us.”

A bit north of Yuba City we get to the Woodruff Lane shortcut. For years this has been a beaten-up shocks-destroying section of road that took fifteen miles off the journey to Grass Valley. Everyone used it and everyone hated it for its potholed surface and loved it for its clouds of migratory birds settling into the rice paddies. This year the shortcut has been, magically, paved and lined and made new. We run it at highway speeds and the birds swirl over us as the sun comes out around us and we cruise back up into the mountains.

Of late my mother has become a fan of the diva, Sarah Brightman, and one of her CDs is playing as we make the final turn towards my brother’s place and, of course, Brightman’s version of “Dust in the Wind” plays its four minutes when we are five minutes away. My mother listens thoughtfully and says nothing. I’m finding it difficult to see clearly. And then we are there.

My brother and his wife are there as are her daughter and her father and assorted friends. As usual, the meal is cooked perfectly and is straight down traditional lines. Two additions to the lineup this year one of my nearby readers along with homemade apple pies dressed in a crust that is cooked to a flakiness of great promise and a bottle of local Placerville wine.

After two sets of Grace for this family’s deliverances this year, the turkey and side dishes are heaped and reheaped on the plates. Then it is desert and some football during digestion. I walk outside with a glass full of the local Placerville wine to a little patch of needles and leaves under the pines, now soaked with rain and hence, for now, less lethal.

I raise my glass to the four points of the compass and say a prayer for all those whose ashes are being washed clean and downstream by the rains in Paradise. Then I pour out my small libation to the dead. Then I drive down out of the mountains with my mother beside me through the most beautiful Sierra autumn sunset I can remember. By the time we get back to the burned zone, it’s dusk and we can’t see the darkness.


If this essay pleased or informed you DONATE HERE with my thanks.

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It’s late in the evening on the 20th of November 2018; otherwise known as “the month that will not end.” Since the initial shock of the Camp Fire incinerating my home and my hometown, I’ve been struggling with details small, large, and life-altering. My house is burned out and for now so am I.

But all is not gloom and doom. I have, against all odds, actually secured a small apartment in Chico, a town where there are no apartments or houses to be had for love or money — unless it is a LOT of love or a LOT of money. In my case, it was the love of many here in Chico for my mother. Through what I have taken to calling “The Power of Lois” an apartment appeared on my path and I took it. What is even better is that it is located close to my mother’s apartment. This enables us to go from being “roommates” to “neighbors.”

The apartment is a tiny place (about a sixth of what my house was) but it is quite secure and recently refurbished and it will suit me down to the ground.

This forms one of the three pillars of my own personal salvation and deliverance from the fires of Paradise. The second pillar is formed of a living chain of my friends and readers whose help and support have carried me through and, in all senses of the term, returned me to life. To say I am deeply moved and grateful for all your unremitting and instantaneous aid is to barely touch my gratitude. I am a man of words and I have always been suspicious when I read “there are no words.” But all of you have made me a believer.

The third pillar has to be the continuing and mysterious grace of God.

Now it is late and I am, I confess, very, very tired. I’ve been running on empty for many days and I think I am going to have to take a break for tomorrow and for Thanksgiving and perhaps the day after. I have many notes and will have many things to say about this unmitigated catastrophe, but they will have to wait.

Farewell for a bit and God bless you all. Have a deep and profound Thanksgiving. This year I know that my family will when we gather at my brother’s home. At my brother’s, we don’t normally drink a great deal of wine but this year we will toast all of you. Each and every one.

And then I will go outside into the woods near his home in Grass Valley and for all those who did not survive the fire this time I will turn down an empty glass.


If this essay pleased or informed you DONATE HERE with my thanks.

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Praying for Rain in the Ashes of Paradise

In those lines where we all line up, this time  for the free and needful things at the Salvation Army’s Airport Supermarket (No charge.) we all talked about the rains; the rains that were forecast, the rains we hoped to have; the rains that when they come, even if they come in this very instant, come far too late this year; far too late for all of us.

The grandmother with the thousand yard stare who stood next to me wanted rain, wanted it badly. “It’ll put the fires out. Finally. Forecast to be a real soaking rain, a real soaker I heard,” she said as she snagged the escaping toddler among her seven grandchildren. She’d been working in the post office in Paradise, left it almost too late, got home and scooped up her grandchildren and, “My six Yorkies. Rounded them up and put them the van with the kids. Off we went. The fire was starting to surround us. All the kids were quiet but the Yorkies just yapped and yipped all the way out. We have to have that rain. We just have to have it. It’s going to be a soaker.”

She and her older children lost five houses between them. All were burned out. All were saved. Her son, a solid man with an even and determined look, came over and agreed about the rain. “I’m buying an RV and I’m going to park it right next to the foundation of my house. Get a generator and some chain link fencing. You should too, mom.” She was off scooping up her escaping toddler while the son’s wife secured a daughter who was trying to escape from her stroller. “Better rain. Better rain soon.”

As we waited in the line and silently prayed for rain, a strange thing began to happen to Chico. The smoke began to lift. The air began to clear. Some blue. S0me clear blue began to appear. And then, for the first time since the immolation of Paradise (How many days was it? Was it yesterday, or last week, or before.) it was a beautiful autumn day in Chico. Somewhere off to the south, and off to the east,  the Camp Fire continued to burn but all that was previous, previous.

The air was still bad, of course. The air was still full of soot and toxins and all the hundreds of things given off from the burning of the corpse of Paradise, but here and now down in the valley it seemed clear and we heard the rains were coming. It was a beautiful day with the rains on the way. That was the forecast for Chico and a lot of the masks, the white smoke masks, came off.

I left the Salvation Army Everything Free Supermarket after getting some needful things and called my mother’s doctor. My mother had been housebound by the smoke for days and she hadn’t had a flu shot. And this year, of all the years of her life, she needed a flu shot. She’d survived The 1918 influenza pandemic and didn’t need to press her luck again 100 years later. I called her doctor and got an immediate appointment. We went to the office and they took her in immediately. In the reception area, the nurses were all talking about the rain. Hoping for the rain. Praying for the rain.

When we left we took some extra time to drive down the central boulevard of Chico, the Esplanade. We drove slowly on this most extraordinary clear and deep-dyed autumn day. Along the center of the Esplanade, the gingkos were in their final gold and the clear afternoon sunlight made the red leaves of the oaks glow. Then we went back to my mother’s apartment where the lady that comes to help her was waiting for, praying for, and talking about nothing but the rain.

In Brooklyn on 9/11, I’d watched the Towers burn and fall in the middle of the same kind of clear and beautiful autumn day. To the north and to the south of the Towers as seen from the Brooklyn Heights promenade it was all serene. Serene but made obscene with the burning funeral pyre of three thousand people sending up thick and deadly smoke in the exact center of a crisp blue sky.

In the days after the Towers fell, all in the city prayed for rain. We prayed for rain so that those waters from heaven, cold and deep and drenching, might put out the fires and cool the embers and we would all be restored and returned to life as it was.

And the rains came. And the dust on the leaves ran gold into the gutters. And the fires still burned on deep in “The Pile.” Burned for months and months as the smoke rose and drifted and swirled, a constant despised companion. And now it was seventeen years later and we were all praying for rain in Paradise.

And we were not restored by the rains then and these rains will not restore us now. Like a root fire, it will burn on inside all of us. Who will stop the rain? God knows. [click to continue…]

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In the Kingdom of FEMA

Now that my ladder’s gone
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

— Yeats

Last Friday in Chico, as the Camp Fire still raged over by Cherokee and the corpses began to cool in Paradise, FEMA came to town. Many cringe when FEMA comes to town since tales of its ability to launch a Full-Court Federal Fornication Festival are legion. At the same time, FEMA is the gateway drug agency to what all of us who have been burned out of Paradise need most, a check. A big check. A really big check. A check as big as all outdoors since the vast majority of us are flat busted broke and anything that might have seemed in October an asset is now ashes. So if you tell us where we can find FEMA we’re there. All of us. With a handful of gimme and a mouth full of much obliged.

That’s what it seemed like last Friday down at the dead Sears store in the Chico Mall. The Mall   is an easy walk from the vast tent city just behind the blue Wall of the Porta Potty. It seemed like les tout Paradise” was in Sears and dialing for dollars as fast as they could.

To meet with all of Paradise at this point is to be shocked and spun into sadness all over again. As mentioned here before a lot of people in Paradise are there because of housing costs and the ability to live off the grid in an old house trailer that’s been up on blocks for decades. This means a large number of Paradise folk are not just poor but also old, lame, halt, and blind. I was left with nothing but I have family near as well as generous friends around the world. A glance at many that show up for FEMA reveals just how much miserable mean nothing these people have.

The first afternoon inside the FEMA center in ye olde Sears store was an unmitigated disaster. Crowds swirling about in half the ground floor. The other half walled off. More evacuees are coming in by the minute and, after over a week in the shelters and camps, they are not looking too crisp and not feeling too patient. Where to go and what to do is not at all clear and gets murkier by the minute. Some chagrined volunteers are weaving about handing out hastily xeroxed forms asking for “Contact Information.” More people on the outside are admitted to the inside where they merely swell the clotted islands of humanity. In the midst of this a volunteer is given an official FEMA bullhorn but no information.

(Note to FEMA: Do NOT give a volunteer a bullhorn and no information. He WILL use the bull horn to supply the crowd with the no information you gave him.)

The Bull Horner promptly advised people to move over to the bank of 100 chairs —“BEHIND ME PEOPLE! BEHIND ME!” — which were already filled with 100 people and their friends and family. At this point I left. I could see that there would not be a crisp momentfor the rest of the day . I left but vowed to return the next morning a half hour before FEMA opened so that I could move quickly through whatever process awaited.

And I did and was pleased to be around the 100th evacuee to be in line before the doors opened. Five minutes later the security guard at the doors opened one of them a crack and out popped The Volunteer with THE BULLHORN!

“Everybody WITH a FEMA NUMBER join the line to my left. If you DON’T HAVE A FEMA NUMBER join the line to my RIGHT!” He says this while revolving as he moves up and down the line and it results in some folks failing to join the line on his left/right/left.

Then somebody decides to give the line of evacuees a sense of false hope by emerging from behind security with the hastilyt xeroxed forms to fill out seen the day before. They have LOTS of these forms but seem to have only two clipboards on which to fill out said form and then pass them back to the people in line behind them. Yes, two clipboards for over 500 people in the line. I suggest to one of the women doing this that they might want to get more clipboards. She agrees and ducks back in the building emerging with two more clipboards. Sigh. “A Federal Auto-Fornication Festival” I mutter… I mutter quietly since I don’t want to lose my place in line.

But once inside the dead Sears store I see that the strangeness is not the fault of FEMA at all but of those who have been appointed as line managers. They mean well but these volunteers with BULLHORNS simply haven’t done a lot of “impoverished and burned out and fried and beat down and very pissed off” line management.

Once you pass through the partition wall into the hall of FEMA everything improves as you talk with a well-trained, compassionate person who is doing all they can to make you as whole as you can be made. The FEMA process, unlike the line, is as crisp as a reasonable person can hope for. The representatives of FEMA are quick and clear and helpful and competent. For a person trained to expect disaster every time you hear “I’m from the government. I’m here to help,” FEMA in the Sears store in Chico on Saturday is a revelation. In what is almost no time I am interviewed and verified and told clearly what to do and what to expect in the way of relief. Then I am given my FEMA number, which is the key to all benefits, and sent on my way.

Downstream from the FEMA corridor are all the agencies and organizations that are officially affiliated with FEMA; among them one from the Billy Graham Ministries that will, with your permission and with you present, come to the site of where your house once stood, where your once life was, and sift the ashes of your home.

Sift. The. Ashes. Of. Your. Home.

Somewhere near the west wall of what was my bedroom is a small metal box. Inside that box is the wedding ring I wore with both my wives. It was my father’s wedding ring.

Someday soon I hope to be back at what was my home with the kind souls from the Billy Graham Ministries to watch as they sift those ashes.

And then I’ll be gone.


If this essay pleased or informed you DONATE HERE with my thanks.

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NOTE: This wish has been filled. Many thanks to all who offered. That alone was very moving.  In response I’ve actually set up an Amazon wishlist since it has begun to dawn on my small brain that starting from zero is going to be VERY expensive.  

The Amazon Wish List, called “After the Paradise Fire” and its location is RIGHT HERE

In clear my Amazon Wishlist is

https://www.amazon.com/hz/wishlist/ls/35YSTJGW55TDO?&sort=default [click to continue…]

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Bring Out Your Dead

Every night at 6 PM the Sherriff of Butte County reveals the grim count of the dead discovered, so far, in the ashes of Paradise. He also reveals the latest number of known missing persons who cannot be located by family or friends.  Finally, there is the list of homes and businesses destroyed. The raging fires that destroyed Paradise utterly have passed (for now) but the search for the dead is only beginning.

Last night’s official tally was:
DEAD: 71 (all but one found inside a home.)
MISSING: 1,100
HOMES DESTROYED: 9,740 (only about 5% have been search so far)
BUSINESSES DESTROYED: 336

In short, they have only begun the search for the dead. It will be some time before there is an OFFICIAL tally of the dead, but whatever that is it will always be on the low side. This is the kind of town and the kind of disaster that means five years from today hikers in the ruined but reviving forests will be stepping on skulls.

Paradise is not a town on some flat land out on the prairies or deep in the desert. Paradise is a series of cleared areas and roads superimposed on an extremely rugged terrain composed of deep, narrow ravines and high and densely wood ridges. The Skyway is fed by hundreds of paved and unpaved roads that twist and turn and rise and dip and then, at their OFFICIAL ends, run deeper still and far off the grid. If you live in Paradise you know there are hundreds of people living back up in those ravines and ridges that would be hard to find before the fire. In those places, the poor are lodged tighter than ticks.

I’ve seen, before the fire this time, people in the outback of Paradise so abidingly poor they were living in trailers from the 70s resting on cinder blocks and at most only two winters away from a pile of rust. These people would have had no warning of a fire, no warning at all. Instead of “sheltering in place” they would have been “incinerated in place.”

In the ravines and forests of Paradise, cell reception was so spotty that AT&T gave me my own personal internet driven cell-phone tower. If those off the grid in Paradise actually owned cell phones they would have been lucky to get an alert. But most of those did not own cell phones, and landlines didn’t run that deep in the woods. When the fire closed over them they would have had no warning. No warning until the trailer melted around them. And then there was, out behind but still close to their trailer, their large propane tank.

How many bodies will be found in the pyre of Paradise? Right now nobody knows for sure.  Nobody will ever know for sure. In five years from today, somewhere in the reviving forest of Paradise, some hiker is going to step on a skull. He won’t be the only one.


If this essay pleased or informed you DONATE HERE with my thanks.

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3,000 Books Burned: My New UPS Postal Address is ….

TO DONATE VIA MAIL SEND TO
Gerard Van der Leun
1380 East Avenue Suite 124-257
Chico, CA 95926

Many have asked about my address in order to send donations. And, since my new theme song is “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” money is appreciated at this point. Restoring/rebuilding one’s life from scratch is expensive at all points. This has been made clear to me over the past week. Everything needs to be restored.

“Need a stainless steel steamer to slip into your steaming pot? Tough. Go buy one. And while you’re at it buy the steaming pot. And the rest of the pans. And some knives. Oh and the stove you will steam them on….”

One element I have decided to restore to some extent is my library. I lost, counting those stored in the garage, some 3,000 volumes. To be honest the very thought of moving them… AGAIN… was exhausting to contemplate. Well, problem solved. But as to the NEXT library, I’ve determined one rule alone; only classics will be allowed and those I will cap at 300, and each of those will be a well-made book.

Hence, although I still need money donations, the address above will serve is you have a well made classic you’ve read and don’t mind parting with.


If this essay pleased or informed you DONATE HERE to help me recover after being burned out in the Paradise fire with my thanks.

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In My Old Pew / American Digest November 16, 2016

My corner of Paradise. Buschman and Scottwood, in 2016, now ash.

For over five years since my heart stopped and was, as they say, “rebooted,” I have always been grateful to the Lord for every extra week I have been granted. This Sunday, however, I woke up to discover that at the end of THIS week I felt especially grateful to the Lord. To make this feeling more formal I decided to attend services at the church nearest my house. In Paradise, this happens to be the Craig Memorial Congregational Church. And Craig Memorial Congregational Church happens to be the last church I attended in Paradise. Sixty years ago.

The last time I was in Craig Memorial Congregational Church was to sing “Oh Mine Papa” while my grandmother accompanied me on the piano. Although I have no actual memory of singing the song I am assured that I did and, as a boy soprano, was a great success; so much so that my grandmother’s tea-drinking coterie complimented her for the rest of her life. What I do remember about that long-lost Sunday afternoon some six decades drowned is that I proudly wore my Boy Scout uniform. I’d recently emerged from the Cub Scouts and the ascension from Cub to Scout was as close to the “Today I am a man” Bar Mitzvah moment that a rural WASP was likely to get. I don’t know how I felt about the song, but I do know I loved showing up in the Boy Scout uniform with all the flare I could find.

This morning I walked up to the entrance to Craig Memorial and was greeted warmly and shown inside. I walked down the aisle towards the altar and noted that it had not been altered. I sat on the outside edge of the second pew back from the front.

Looking in front of me and to the left, I saw the piano my grandmother had played, the pew that I’d sat in waiting, and the place where I had stood in my uniform and sang my song.

As I sat there thinking about that 60-year deep memory, a family came in and sat in the pew in front of me to the left. When they settled in there he was. He was sitting in the same place I sat waiting to get up and sing, waiting in my new Scout uniform. I quietly took his picture but I already knew who he was.

The boy I was came back again today in 2016.

“I knew a lad who went to sea and left the shore behind him.
I knew him well the lad was me and now I cannot find him.”


If this essay pleased or informed you DONATE HERE to help me recover after being burned out in the Paradise fire with my thanks.

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The Orchard at the End of Paradise

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools…

I had a boyhood once in Paradise.

On the cooling November mornings of the mid-1950s when all the 40 apple orchards of Paradise were clothed in deep green leaves and, with the red to gold globed fruit making the boughs of the trees bow under their weight, it was a great time to be a boy with a bicycle in Paradise. On those mornings, if freed from classes at the Paradise Elementary school, my brother and I would ride up Sawmill road past the feed store to Pentz and buy the newest comic books they sold, and then we’d ride on from there.

Soon we’d come to the southern edge of the last orchard in on the northern border of Paradise, Noble Orchards. There, in the fashion of schoolboys, we’d sneak into the orchard and climb up a tree. There in the nooks and branches, we’d pass the afternoon reading comic books from the feed store and hooking apple after apple from the orchards. The sun, even in early November, was warm as I remember it.

Then again a lot of memories from my boyhood in Paradise have warmth associated with them. Maybe it was the heater that my father turned on every morning and that I sat in front of, cross-legged and reading a book. Maybe it is just in the nature of memory to add warmth to the better moments. But for whatever reason, those long lost memories of a ten-year-old boy hold firm and at their center was the last orchard in Paradise, Noble Orchards.

When I returned to Paradise as an old man there was only one commercial apple orchard still in business in Paradise, Noble Orchards. By then it not only had many varieties of apples but peaches and plums and other stone fruit as well. It was in its 99th year owned by the same family, the Noble Family. It boasted a rustic barn in which the bins and boxes of fruit were stacked high as well as crates of apples and peaches and fruit for sale amid the old barn beams and slake shingled roof.  It offered cider too during the cidering season as well as an ambrosial apple butter until increasing regulations from the state of California made it impossible to make the apple butter in small batches.

At that time the Nobles of Noble Orchards had a Willys Jeep that they’d bought in a crate from WWII surplus and put together like kids today assemble Lego models of the space station. It would bang about in the orchards but without a muffler, so we’d hear it coming and skedaddle down the road to home on our Schwinns. Sometimes we’d hear the Noble fellow shout after us but in truth, he never tried to catch us very hard.

Mr. & Mrs. Noble

The first time I visited as a man, after 60 years, I confessed my school boy apple stealing sins to Mrs. Noble. “Those apples,” she scoffed. “We have them still. We call them ‘schoolboys’.”

The Nobles themselves are a handsome couple whose lives have been devoted to keeping the family orchard alive and bringing their fruits to the people. Mrs. Noble is a booster and a fixture at all the local farmers’ markets offering samples to all and sundry. Mr. Noble stays behind to manage and harvest the fruit from the orchards. He still would bang about the orchard looking for the invasions of bears in the same banged up old Willys Jeep his grandfather put together. They’re the kind of people you want to know when you first meet them. They’re the kind of people you’re proud to know.

And when I returned to Paradise Noble Orchards were, in all senses of the term, the last orchard in Paradise. All the others were gone, taken by relentless changes in the orchard business. But the  Nobles were still there, their green stone house still there, the Willys Jeep still there. Unchanged and unchanging.

Yesterday morning I met the Nobles again in the long line for FEMA signups at the Baptist Church and shelter. There they were. They were, to my joy, there and alive.

And they had nothing… or next to nothing.

With a self-possession I don’t think I could muster, the Nobles told me they’d lost all the buildings at the orchards and barely got out. They drove and ran and drove themselves through the tunnel of fire on the Skyway and emerged into the life-giving blue skies and your deliverance. Their family all lived. Even their two dogs, who they thought lost, were rescued by the Highway Patrol at the last moment.

And now the Nobles stood in line at the FEMA offices trying, at something near my age, to start again.

“So,” I asked, “Is it all gone? Is the green stone house gone?”

“It’s all gone,” Mr. Noble said. “All except the trees. The orchard survived.”

“What? How’s that possible?”

“My trees were still all green and full of leaves and fruit. There was a fire break I put in years ago and have been improving. When the fire got to our place there was no easy food to be had from my apple trees. They were too moist and out of reach. The fire went around them. My trees are still there. The orchard made it.”

We stood in the cold morning wind in the South Baptist Church out on 99. He had on a plaid shirt that he’d picked up at some local pile of clothing and a coat over the top of that. It was what he had. Mrs. Noble stood next to him wrapped in a thick and heavy sweater. It was what she had.

A  man came out of the snug and warm FEMA offices where they were beginning to accept applications for relief. He said, “They’re only taking applications from people in shelters. The rest of you will have to come back tomorrow.” Mr. and Mrs. Noble took that bit of bureaucratic blather in with the shrug and quiet thoughtful look of those who are getting used to the long nightmare their efforts to reclaim and rebuild the work of four generations of Nobles on their land.

“What will you do?” I asked Mr. Noble.

“We don’t know yet. But my trees are still there. When we can back into our orchard I’m going to start working so that, next November, the will be a fresh crop of Paradise apples. Did I tell you the old Jeep probably made it? I had it parked out in the middle of the orchard. Yes,” he said, “next year we just might be able to get a new crop in. God willing.”


If this essay pleased or informed you DONATE HERE to help me recover after being burned out in the Paradise fire with my thanks.

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Chico is Leaving It All On the Field

Near closing time in the men’s Clothing Clearance Corner on the first floor of Penney’s at the Chico Mall, a young girl is replacing the piles of tossed clothing left by the numbed shoppers from Paradise frantic for cheap basic clothing. Some of them are camped in tents somewhere close by the mall; for how long nobody knows. But this young, quietly lovely girl is putting the Clothing Clearance Corner back in apple pie order as the store’s dismal day closes. I take my few finds from the Clothing Clearance Corner and, leaving, say, “That seems like a thankless task.”

“Not at all,” she replies. “Not at all.”

“Really? Why the hell not?”

“Hey, I do this job every day in this store. It’s my assigned task and usually its okay but I only do it for the money because it gets really monotonous, meaningless.”

She’s a student, I perceive.

“But today those people really needed these clothes in this corner because of the price. And tomorrow more people like that will really need them too. And so I want to make this the best I can for them. So I’m going to put it all back on hangers and arrange them by size. It will be right by the morning. You better go. We’re closing. Thank you for coming in.”

Just a young girl working late in the Clothing Clearance Corner. Doing one of those little jobs; one of those jobs that actually make the world turn. She was leaving it all on the field.

At the ends of the neighborhood streets, I see people setting up tables and I see the people of the neighborhoods coming out onto the main streets and putting out whatever they have to give there for the taking if needed. They are literally leaving it all on the field.

At the Elks Lodge after I picked up some bedding and a few new pillows and looked out over acres of goods being laid out for the taking, from flats of pet food to cribs and playpens (someplace safe to rest your baby that is not on your hip). As I was leaving to see the East Avenue Church scene an Elk (My late father was a member of this lodge up until his death in 1972); a brother, I say, of my father waves me over and opens the back seat of my car and puts in two cases of one liter bottles of San Pellegrino . The Elks are leaving it all on the field.

In the 24-Hour Walgreens Pharmacy on East Avenue, the pharmacists have been working overlapping shifts since the fire swept over Paradise last Thursday. These people and their back up staff work seemingly rock solid for hours on end. They fill and file and dispense medications which people from Paradise do not have with them. This is a demanding and thankless and exhausting task. And yet — I am the witness — they have been doing this without letup. Many have come in from surrounding towns, from Redding, to help and to keep the medications needed by a town of 30,000 displaced into a city of 80,000. Yes, the Walgreens pharmacists are leaving it all on the field.

Today, after the banking holiday of Monday, there was what can only be described as a run on the banks. Not a hostile or panicked run on the banks but just an overwhelming number of people needing to get their money straight in one way or another… such as “My ATM Card and My ID were melted in my wallet when my pants burst into flame.”  Please understand that today in Chico that is a  reasonable statement. And the bankers all showed up looking cool and formal and professional and competent and moved the vast lines of people through with all hands on deck and cleared up a myriad of money crises. One banker I spoke with came up from Santa Rosa on his day off to help the team. He was a sharp dressed man. He and the other bankers were leaving it all on the field.

They all were leaving it all on the field everywhere in Chico. From Penny’s in the Mall to the Birkenstocks Store downtown on Broadway. In big jobs, and in small jobs, there was a long train of people working at the top of their game no matter what their game was. It has been days of this now in Chico; days of there being no big jobs or small jobs but only the unremitting effort the people to help their fellow citizens no matter what.

And since none of the Acronym Agencies have really shown up yet, this has all been done without any real government organization. Instead, it has been like watching a spontaneous Humanitarian Olympics rise up out of the town itself; and once started it has become as self-organizing and self-sustaining as the fire itself. Today as I moved around Chico I saw a town, untouched itself by the flames, rise up to restore and rebuild the lives of their fellow citizens of Paradise; lives that the fire had stolen. And by the end of the day, you could feel, palpably feel, that Chico knew it would win. Chico was leaving it all on the field.

Tomorrow? Chico will do the same.


If this essay pleased or informed you DONATE HERE to help me recover after being burned out in the Paradise fire with my thanks.

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