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 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.
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.”
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.
Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
Since the inception of this page some seventeen years and 30,000 items ago, I have never aggressively pursued donations. Because this page was started in Manhatten within a week of 9/11 as a memorial it never seemed quite right to me even after it diverged far from those dark beginnings. As a result, I have never really pursued the path of, as they say, monetizing the page.
I’d like to say that was because I was noble but in the last few days I have learned, yet again, that pretty little lies are no way to go through life and to see oneself.
The truth is that I have never been either very smart about or interested in “monetizing” anything.
Some people are brilliant at business and it has been my privilege to know some of these people personally. Because I am such a dollar dullard, I have sometimes gone for many many months without even glancing at my Paypal account since there was, in truth, never all that much in it.
Indeed I have been always been a dollar dullard when it comes to money, even in these years when my income has become “fixed” enough for me to feel a bit of a cold wind on my shoulders.
With that rambling confession out of the way, I declare now that the donations that have been given to me over the last few days have made the difference between the dark thoughts of a mind of winter that overwhelmed me as I fled the fire this time and enough of a boost to make the possibility of rebooting my life seem real and tangible and possible.
So many people have been so generous to me that, in truth, it has caused me to weep with a relief and a gratitude that bursts my heart. It will be many weeks before I can possibly thank them all personally, but I will.
In the meantime let this note stand to tell you all, and you all know who you are, that you have recalled me to life.
God bless you all, each and every one.
Gerard Van der Leun
November 13, 2018
Excerpt from – The New Neo
Here’s a video of a father driving away with his two sons. There are many other videos, but this one made an especially deep impression on me, perhaps because of the family dynamics. The sons, whose ages remain unspecified, demonstrate two different personalities. One seems to manage for the most part to stay relatively calm and optimistic, the other is more doubtful and fearful. Their father is a hero, and somehow remains wonderfully reassuring as he drives through a nightmare landscape in flames (this was taken in the middle of the day). Stick with it till the end for the final question the more fearful boy asks:
The father writes at YouTube:
I was born in Paradise 47 years ago and always told my 4 kids that Paradise is safe from flooding, tornadoes, earthquakes, the only thing we had to worry about was a fire. But that would never happen. Well it happened. Paradise is now hell. We had 15 minutes to get out and lucky enough my entire family is safe including our two dogs Coco and jet and our bearded dragon. We lost everything else. Please keep us and everyone from Paradise in your prayers.
Nurse escaping wildfire: I told my husband I was going to die. There was no oxygen in the air. The fire was consuming all the oxygen. Then I touched the side of a fire truck and the handle was melted but they pulled me in and they called for air support and it wasn’t coming and they said otherwise we weren’t going to make it…”
Take some time at start at around 3:14 and hear one of the most terrifying and amazing and inspiring tale of terror and salvation from this Nurse.
[Note: Burned out of Paradise I have moved in with my mother in Chico. Yes, I have become that “72-year-old man who lives with his mother.” It’s not so bad. Not so bad at all to live with an active and sharp and sardonic and sweet mother as she enters her 104th year. ]
In her 104th year, this happenstance kitchen collage of my mother’s life is growing both richer and deeper. The image above is of what once was a bulletin board. It is kept in my mother’s kitchen in her apartment to the rear of an unassuming but decent collection of apartments in the small city of Chico, California.
It’s too bad the image of it is so small here on the page. But no matter how much I might enlarge the image of it, it could never be as big as what it represents. Although small in scale it is larger than the lives it chronicles. It is the sum of all love.
You’d miss that. If I could show it to you in real time and at its actual size, you’d still miss it. It would remain much as you see it here — just a jumble of clips, slogans, photos, handicrafts and images. Aside from its complexity, it wouldn’t mean all that much to you. These icons of other people’s private lives never do.
And yet, if you have anything that even resembles a functioning family, there’s a bulletin board like this somewhere in the various dwellings of your family. If you’re lucky, there’s more than one. You don’t know what this one means, but you know what yours means. You know it all — for better and for worse.
Still, to know the worst of the stories that lie behind these images you not only need to know the lives these commonplace icons chronicle, you have to be looking hard for the worse and, in the end, dragging it out of your own memory. If you work at finding the worst in people, you can always locate it.
But if those who keep these family altars are like my own mother in their dedication to them, you won’t see them displayed. There will be no shadows there that you do not supply yourself.
My mother only adds the things of love to this board, never the things of disappointment, failure, heartbreak or betrayal. To do so would be a betrayal of the trust that keeping this board brings with it, and, to my mother at least, a waste of life.
My mother does not waste life.
In my mother’s home not a scrap of love — however faint or distant now — is ever discarded. Everything that does not meet her measure is tossed away without pause or regret. If something comes her way that she deems special — be it an out-of-focus photograph, a clipping from a far-away newspaper, a small note of thanks, or a pipe-cleaner figure made by one of the second graders she acts as a teacher’s aide for — it gets promoted to the bulletin board. Once there, as you can see, it stays. If something comes to her that’s a downer, out it goes.
That’s why my mother has two piles of scrap in the kitchen: one for recycling and one for the shredder. She gets a warm feeling by recycling, but she gets a real kick out of running things through the shredder.
At age 104 she’s tiny but sharp. Strong in will but delicate as a bird. Quick to empathize and quicker still to laugh. Playing tennis several times a week kept her on her game — until 95.5 when her knees quit — in more ways than one. So does bridge and working as a teacher’s aide with small children. She’s wise that way but without pretense. If you ever told her she was wise, she’d shrug and ask you if you’d like another German pancake, this time with lemon juice and powdered sugar. She hasn’t missed breakfast for nearly a century, which shows you, if you had any doubt, just how wise she is.
Years ago, after she sold her rooming house for college girls and moved into her apartment, she decided that the kitchen wall was perfect for a bulletin board that she could use to keep track of her busy schedule. Somewhere under everything else on the board we think there are things that pertain to schedules in the late 1980s, but it would take an archeological team to excavate them. Instead, one photo got put up, and then another, and then a clip of this and a note of that and, over time, it became the raucous riot of bits and pieces you can see here.
Babies and friends, present and past wives, can all be found. Girlfriends long let slide still peek out. Birthday parties and christenings, weddings, vacations, and graduations…. all the private triumphs and moments of personal happiness glisten and shine, one fit atop, against, behind, or aside the other as life rushed on and curved away, ebbed and then surged back again, brighter and larger than before.
If you knew all the pieces here as I do, you could review them and see the tokens of a life that begins before the end of the First World War and rolls along right up until today. It’s a very big life to be contained on such a small board in such a small apartment, but my mother’s genius when it comes to this collage is that, no matter how full it gets, she always finds room to add one more moment.
We don’t know how she does it. It’s a gift.
[Republished from 2007/2010 because…. well… because I like it.]
[Written February, 2017] When the fog forms in Paradise all my ghosts come out, moving like wraiths behind the mist, believing no one can see them. But I do. Everywhere in this small town in northern California in which I was a young boy and to which I have returned as an old man, I often sense that boy and those long ago moments.
This morning the fog was thick here on the ridge as I returned from an errand down on Lucky John Road; a road I had not been on for over 60 years. Even before I came over the crest of the hill and started down the far side my back brain told me there was a brook at the bottom. And sure enough, in a moment, my car passed over the brook as it flowed in a culvert from one side of the road to the other.
Today there were a number of tidy cookie-cutter contractor-built homes on either side complete with their gardens, garages, and water-features. The once forest-thick pines were thinned out to garden specs.
The little old lady’s ramshackle homemade house was long gone to landfill… as was the little old lady herself. Still, as I pulled the car over in the fog and looked around, they appeared. Ghosts moving behind today’s new morning; a kind of Balinese shadow puppet epic projected on the far side of the atmosphere by the lantern of memory.
The last time I had been to the brook I was 11 and I walked. I walked from my house on the canyon’s edge half a mile to where the brook meandered out of the pines and under Lucky John Road. I did it because my father told me to do it. I did it because my father had decided that at 11 it was time I had “A Job.” My father believed in boys having A Job and having one as soon as possible.
One evening shortly after my 11th December birthday he called me aside. “There’s an old lady named Miss Helen over the hill who needs help,” he told me. “She’s getting on and she has no family. She needs help chopping wood for her heat and other chores.” (“Dad, please.”) “No backtalk. I’ve already told her you’d be there tomorrow afternoon.” (“Oh come on, dad.”) “Did I mention she was going to pay you.” (“Please, dad…. Oh? How much?”) “Four or five bucks a week….” (“When can I start?”)
This would have been 1956 and my allowance at the time was a royal fifty cents a week which kept me in bubble gum and comic books. Barely. The sum to be paid was an expansion of my cash on hand to levels beyond the dreams of boyhood avarice. The next afternoon my Keds crunched through the thin sheets of ice formed in the puddles next to the stream as I reported to Miss Helen driven more by greed than duty.
Thinking back Miss Helen’s place was more of a hut than a house. It had a tin roof and was very small, consisting of a small sitting area just inside the door, a kitchen behind that, and a sleeping alcove behind that with a curtain that was always closed.
The hut sat on what were probably cinder blocks on a sort of islet around which branches of the brook actually made a babbling sound over the mossed rocks. There must have been some electricity since I remember a refrigerator and a radio, but there weren’t any electric lights, only kerosene lanterns that required me to trim their wicks. Her water was drawn from the stream and stored in a large tank just on the other side of the kitchen wall with a pipe that came through the wall to a small metal tub she used as a sink. One of my primary tasks was to carry buckets of water to the tank and fill it.
This job began in the winter and the only source of heat Miss Helen had was a standard issue wood stove that she also used for cooking. The stove took a lot of wood and the old lady’s wood came from a large pile of logs on another islet behind her hut. They were far too big to fit in the stove and my main job was to take a maul, then an axe, then a hatchet, and transform the each log into a pile of kindling that the old lady could use. It wasn’t that bad a job except when it snowed or rained, which, since this was winter in Paradise was pretty much every other day when it was not a continuation of the snow and rain from the day before.
At the start it made me ache but by the end of two weeks I didn’t mind it much. I went to school. I took the bus home and at the bus stop instead of going down the dirt road to home I walked over the hill to chop wood and carry water. When I was done I would walk home. Tired.
Miss Helen was both little and very, very old. Or as old as a person in their late 60s appeared to a boy of 11 in 1956. She was small, stooped, with almost translucent hands, and as roly-poly as my paternal grandmother. She wore thick stockings and heavy shoes. It seemed to me that she wore only hand-sewn dresses that could have been fashioned from large print tablecloths. Over these she always had an apron on. These aprons always had a pocket and from that magic pocket, every Friday, she’d take a clasp-closed leather change purse and count out four silver dollars with their satisfying clack and clink.
Once I got home my father had me hand over two of the silver dollars so he could demonstrate the miracle of compound interest in a savings account he made me open.
“So,” he’d ask every week as he relieved me of half my cash flow,”how do you like going to the job?”
I’d make some kind of half-hearted response to which his response was always, “You don’t have to like the job, but a real man always goes to the job.”
I’d nod and dream of all the extra Fleers bubble gum and comic books my residual two bucks were going to get me down at the Feed Store. Sometimes I’d splurge and get a nickel Coke and read my comics lying on bags of feed with their dusty burlap smell.
And so I went to the job with the little old lady who lived by the brook. For months I chopped wood and carried water for Miss Helen, and saw how even the very old and the very poor still carried on their lives with dignity even when all they had was miserable, mean nothing.
Then, one day, I came home on the school bus and found my father waiting for me at the stop. “You don’t have to go to work today. Miss Helen’s left.”
“Left? Where’d she go?”
“When’s she coming back?”
“She won’t be. But she left this for you.” He reached into his wallet and handed me a ten dollar bill. At the time it was the largest bill I’d ever possessed. “It’s like a two week notice. She wanted you to have it.”
I took it feeling good about having it but disappointed that Miss Helen would leave without so much as a goodbye.
But of course she didn’t leave. She just became a ghost; a ghost my father wanted to spare me. Hence, she just went away. Until this morning when, sitting in my car near the brook on Lucky John Road, she came back.
She came back out of the fog; small, translucent, in her hand-made dress with her apron and her worn change purse fat with its silver dollars.
Which is when, after 60 years, it hit me.
Miss Helen was a very, very poor woman. In 1956 four silver dollars a week would have been a serious sum of money to her. Very serious. Unless she had some sort of secret stash of silver dollars. Which I was pretty sure she did not. In fact I’m pretty sure a secret stash of pennies would have been beyond her means.
On the other hand, my father really liked silver dollars and always kept a jar full on his dresser.
“You don’t have to like the job, but a real man always goes to the job.”
When the fog forms in Paradise, all my ghosts come out.
On Living with the Loss of a Son in Wartime. Written and first published on Memorial Day, 2003
My name, “Gerard Van der Leun,” is an unusual one. So unusual, I’ve never met anyone else with the same name. I know about one other man with my name, but we’ve never met. I’ve seen his name in an unusual place. This is the story of how that happened.
It was an August Sunday in New York City in 1975. I’d decided to bicycle from my apartment on East 86th and York to Battery Park at the southern tip of the island. I’d nothing else to do and, since I hadn’t been to the park since moving to the city in 1974, it seemed like a destination that would be interesting. Just how interesting, I had no way of knowing when I left.
August Sundays in New York can be the best times for the city. The psychotherapists are all on vacation — as are their clients and most of the other professional classes. The city seems almost deserted, the traffic light and, as you move down into Wall Street and the surrounding areas, it becomes virtually non-existent. On a bicycle you own the streets that form the bottom of the narrow canyons of buildings where, even at mid-day, it is still cool with shade. Then you emerge from the streets into the bright open space at Battery Park.
Tourists are lining up for Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. A few people are coming and going from the Staten Island Ferry terminal. There are some scattered clots of people on the lawns of Battery Park. Everything is lazy and unhurried.
I’d coasted most of the way down to the Battery that day since, even though it appears to be flat, there is a very slight north to south slope in Manhattan. I arrived only a bit hungry and thirsty and got one of the dubious Sabaretts hot dogs and a chilled coke from the only vendor working the park.
We were in the midst of what now can be seen as “The Long Peace.”
The twin towers loomed over everything, thought of, if they were thought of at all, as an irritation in that they blocked off so much of the sky. It was 1975 and, Vietnam not withstanding, America was just about at the midway point between two world wars. Of course, we didn’t know that at the time. The only war we knew of was the Second World War and the background humm of the Cold War. It was a summer Sunday and we were in the midst of what now can be seen as “The Long Peace.”
In front of the lawns at Battery Park was a monument that caught my attention. It was formed of an immense stone eagle and two parallel rows of granite monoliths about 20 feet wide, 20 feet tall and 3 feet thick. From a distance you could see that they had words carved into them from top to bottom. There was also a lot of shade between them so I took my hot dog and my coke and wheeled my bike over, sitting down at random among the monoliths.
I remember that the stone was cool against my back as I sat there looking at the stone across from me on that warm afternoon. As I looked up it dawned on me that the words cut into the stones were all names. Just names. The names of soldiers, sailors and airmen who had met their death in the north Atlantic in WWII. I was to learn later that there were 4,601 names. All lost in the frigid waters, all without any marker for their graves — except those in the hearts of those they left behind, and their names carved into these stones that rose up around me.
I read across several rows, moving right to left, then down a row, and then right to left. I got to the end of the sixth row and went back to the beginning of the seventh row.
At the beginning of the seventh row, I read the name: “Gerard Van der Leun.” My name. Cut into the stone amongst a tally of the dead. [click to continue…]
but it is half past midnight, I’ve been dashing about trying to repair my life and find a new place to live since 5AM Saturday morning, and I need, I really need, to make it to church with my mother in the morning. And I need, I really need, to get to sleep soon.
Still, I am awestruck, gobsmacked, and struck dumb by your many messages, prayers, good wishes, fine offers, and donations. I will, I swear, thank each and everyone I can personally. And I will say more about this soon.
Right now I just have to get some sleep.
Saturday 5 AM: I am back online now it would seem and need to make this brief since I find I have no briefs other than the pair I wear.
Things. Things are gone. Serious things of memory never to be replaced. Things no longer needed and things never needed. And trivial things one needs to get through the day. I no longer have these things. All have gone into the smoke of the world as, in the end, do we all.
Today I have to start to replace the basics. The inventory of needful things and obscure objects is long and spotty. As I said above, no briefs have I. Nor spare socks. Nor toothbrush. Nor corkscrew. Nor any one of a thousand trivial things that form the tools of life and the shell of the self. Nor things like the photograph of my one daughter when she was small enough to rest there along my forearm. Losses one shrugs at and losses that make me weep here in the dawn.
What I do have is the love and the generosity of my cherished friends and readers. It is more wonderful and more widespread than I ever could have imagined. I will be weeks thanking all but my gratitude is deep and abiding.
What I do have is this small unknowing black cat sleeping curled at my side after our ride out of the fire.
What I do have is my mother sleeping quietly in the next room, her breathing soft and low as her life is fine and bright.
What I do have is my mother’s warm and settled apartment she has lived in for nearly 40 years. Others are sleeping in shelters, churches, RVs, and tents.
At the end of things we can, I think, come yet again to know — as we know and forget and know and again forget so many times — that Paradise is not a place that lasts forever here on Earth, but something that exists in the hearts of good people that hold their holy light within and, when that light is called forth, let it shine through.
I see this light shining forth from all here on this small page and all in this small city of Chico here at the top of the great central valley under the dense pall of smoke that falls from the burning ridge above, the smoke that comes, quite literally, from the pyre of Paradise.
Full Screen. Speakers up. At 00:50 you see the backside of the Welcome to Paradise sign seen below [HT: daily timewaster: The fires in Paradise]
UPDATE 1 — 23 NOW FOUND DEAD IN CAMP FIRE: Just released at this evening’s press conference by the Butte County Sheriff that the body count in the Camp Fire now stands at 23.
Given what I know about how this community is structured there will be more. Perhaps many more, Lots of folks live off the grid down dirt roads and are either retired, housebound, or very poor with little avenues of communication.
The fire is still a very large and very deadly thing. If it starts to come towards where you are in a SERIOUS manner get out.
UPDATE 2 — BUTTE COUNTY SHERIFF states in a press conference at this hour that the number of people reported missing is over 500. This DOES NOT MEAN that 500 are dead only that people cannot as yet locate the 500.