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The Fire This Time

God gave Noah the rainbow sign
No more water, but the fire next time.

November 8, 2018 to November 8, 2019

The first day they let us back in I drove through fog as dense as the smoke that had driven me out. The burned hulks of cars and the opened guts of houses lined the roads along with the cleanup crews in their yellow vests. They gestured for me to stop and show my identification proving I could see the ash pits of my life.  They gave me special coveralls and masks and shoe covers in case I felt the need, like some demented Scrooge McDuck, to start plunging into my personal ash bin, my no-money bin, to pull out whatever did not melt, which was — it turned out — hardly anything.

Driving to where my house had been was like driving through…

like driving through some updated and hellish medieval landscape…

like moving through some small town after it had been destroyed from the air in some sort of Satan’s pyre.

Everywhere was ash. Here and there whisps of smoke rose and twined with the fog that covered the corpse of the town.

And then I came to what had been my home and I saw what I knew I would see but until I saw it could not comprehend it… a small wall of bricks in a long rectangle and inside that rectangle, everything I had owned was just a pool of ash. Everything. Here and there ceramic and iron items had survived and poked their shreds above the surface of the ash-like skeletal fingers of a drowning man…

but it was gone. It was all gone. Seventy years just reduced to ash soup.

When I got out of the car I noticed that the woman and man who had been my neighbors across the back fence were standing looking at their yard and their ash pit. The woman was just standing transfixed looking down where her three small children had played and laughed in the afternoons.

I walked over to her and she pointed down at the ground to the remains of three tricycles in three different sizes; small, smaller, and smallest. The fire had burned so hot that all the rubber and plastic had evaporated and the metal parts of the tricycles had been welded like steel into the earth.

She looked up at me and said the most chilling thing I’ve heard in the last year, “What if the fire had come at night?”

At night? At midnight? At four in the morning? There was no air raid siren that the town could hear. There was a “phone tree” but hardly anyone knew about it. In the high ridges and deep canyons with their hundreds of thousands of dry pines the cell phone coverage was always hit and miss.

At night? The fires would have taken not 86 lives but thousands. I would be a name on a list in an archived copy of the Chico Enterprise-Record.

It’s one year later and my life has changed, changed utterly. My house and my mother are both gone and other struggles in my family that began in this horrible year are still unfolding. I live in a small apartment in Chico, California not very far from the apartment my mother lived in for the last few decades of her 104 years. I left Chico and my first home in Paradise over 70 years ago. Five years ago I moved back to Paradise. One year ago Paradise was lost and became, as Milton wrote,

A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great Furnace flam’d, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible

I wrote many things as my town burned and the people there began their long struggle to return, to recover what had been lost to them. But what cannot be recovered is that part of their lives that went into the ash; went into the smoke.

In the weeks of the burning stories began to appear about how the smoke from the fires had made its way to the Bay Area where it was causing people’s eyes to sting a bit and to wonder if they should maybe get a face mask as they made their way between the piles of human feces on their sidewalks. The people of Paradise were sorry about that. It was just our photos, our memories, our pets and our clothes that were in the smoke. We were sorry for the inconvenience.

Yes, yes, yes… all that… yes.

But this morning here I am in this place and I ask myself what I really remember from those days that is of worth and of value?

I’ve written about the burning and what came after in detail but now, as the first glow of daybreak comes over the eastern ridge where Paradise is being rebuilt, what I do think about is the response of all my readers here and all those who never were readers but heard and helped.

To be reduced in one day to less than zero and to wander in the smoke of that loss is come in direct contact with what becomes a void of feeling; a blunt numbness,  a deep feeling of nothing at all, despair deeper than the dark.

And then, to understand — to be shown with the force of revelation — to know within a few days, that there are people in the world that you do not know and will never meet that will reach out and with money, and things, and cards and wishes and even, from one young girl, a package of toys and treats for my small cat, all to help me begin the work of rebuilding my life… that… THAT AND THAT ALONE… is what I felt and feel and hold as the pearl beyond price as I wake up in this day one year later.

These gestures came in a torrent. They came from friends, from friends long forgotten, from stranger upon stranger… from gifts in numbers so great…. hundreds upon hundreds… that I could not answer them all even though I struggled with the list for months as my mother began her slow fade from this life.

I don’t know why I have to learn again and again that there is nothing in the things of this world beyond the people in one’s life that matters at all, but that is my failing. Be that as it may, I will never forget what all of you and all the unmet others did for me to help me rise out of that dark place where darkness itself was visible back into the light of life.

As they say in the rooms, “The attitude is gratitude.”

That will be mine on this day.

 

{ 26 comments… add one }
  • Kevin in PA November 8, 2019, 7:05 AM

    Gerard,
    I have read your blog on and off for some years, I was unaware of your losses at the time of the Paradise fire. It was only after the fire and that your request for donations had been met and then taken down, when I learned of the full impact. I am sorry for your loss and that I missed an opportunity to help you.

    What you continue to bring to the world is intelligent discussion, brilliant reviews of art, common sense life experience and many other good things.
    What really hooked me was your article titled, The Star, posted again last Christmas.
    You are a gem, a stellar intellect – bright and passionate.
    I thank you for all that you do in the name of truth and beauty.
    Hope to see you posting for many more years to come.

  • David November 8, 2019, 7:36 AM

    Your writing and posts ignite the spark of my soul which has been hiding for some many years. Thank you.

  • Terry November 8, 2019, 7:42 AM

    Gerard,

    My wife Susie and I think of you as a close friend even though we have never met. Some day maybe we will meet you.

    You have enriched my life and from the comments of others, many, many more as well.

    As my dearest Grandmother used to say, “life is tough”. My life has had ups and downs, but your life seems to have met rougher seas. Much rougher.

    Thank you for providing us with a view of your soul through American Digest.

  • Bill Henry November 8, 2019, 7:43 AM

    You are more than welcome. We are lucky to still have you.

    We are well met.

    Bill Henry

  • Phil in Englewood November 8, 2019, 8:00 AM

    The help and wishes sent to you are small tokens of gratitude for your wonderful writing and sharing of your thoughts. American Digest is worth more than you can know to us. Thank you, Gerard.

  • captflee November 8, 2019, 8:10 AM

    Gerard,

    That you are upright and rhetorically counter-punching after your annus horribilis is a mighty inspiration for us all and a wonder for the ages.

    Over here in the swamps and sandbars total destruction is generally is of the wet and windy variety, usually with some warning; not for the faint of heart, but pretty tame stuff in comparison to sudden wind driven flames, fireballs from the heavens, and ye olde Biblical Pillars of Fire. My hat is off to you for limning the dimensions of the tragedies which overran you and your community in your inimitable mysto-poetic way so that those of us afar could damned near smell the ashes, and the fear. It’s been a hell of a year, indeed.

    I was unaware of Paradise’s lofted cremains inconveniencing the Bay Area, to which I must call upon the gone too soon ghost of Ashley Morris (late blog sage of the drowned city) for a spectral reply of “Fuck You You Fucking Fucks!”

    Smashing post, by the bye, clean out of the park.

    Lee

  • rabbit tobacco November 8, 2019, 8:34 AM

    One old farmer to another when ask, ”How are things?”
    Well, things aren’t so good that they couldn’t be better,
    and yet things aren’t so bad that they couldn’t be worse.”

  • Andy Havens November 8, 2019, 8:37 AM

    Between 9/11, your short-lived death, and the fire, you’ve made a habit of emerging with dignity from catastrophe. Well done. We’re all better for it.

  • tim November 8, 2019, 9:33 AM

    May the next year bring you deserved happiness.

  • ghostsniper November 8, 2019, 10:43 AM

    Who phoenix dis iz?

    In all things learn what you can, for that may be all that there is.

  • Patvann November 8, 2019, 11:16 AM

    We love you too, Gerard.

  • Julie November 8, 2019, 12:49 PM

    Yes, I can only echo what everyone else has said. We are so blessed to have you still here; may the coming year be more ups than downs.

  • Eskyman November 8, 2019, 1:43 PM

    Gerard, I thank God that although your trials have been severe you are still with us.

    You are the pearl beyond price, and your wisdom sustains me against the much more trivial sea of troubles that I have, that we all have. May God grant you a very long and happy life!

  • Sid V November 8, 2019, 3:20 PM

    This Old House had a short segment last night on Paradise and the effort to rebuild. I thought of you instantaneously. Stay strong Gerard. I do enjoy this blog of yours. Don’t ever stop.

  • John the River November 8, 2019, 3:49 PM

    Ashes to ashes and dust to dust; and still there’s a property tax bill…

    Wishing you a gentle Solar Minimum Winter and a prosperous next year.
    Among the many that have sent their good wishes since last year, I am but one. But I felt a special twinge in reaction to your total losses by fire; as I also stood in that spot fifteen years ago. One year after my fire, the new house was not yet built and I resided on an air mattress in the basement of my mothers house. The hollow time, the period of being adrift was just shy of eighteen months. So know that I wish you my best. Thank you for your writing. And always remember, never… never, let your Brother-In-Law talk you into letting him be the General Contractor, the guy re-building your house.

  • La November 8, 2019, 6:19 PM

    re fire foto .
    early on, during your FEMA experience . you mentioned chatting with an organization that would come and ‘spot sift’ homeowners ashes, regarding heirloom recovery . you seemed to be leaning towards using said service . did you and how did it work out?

  • Ga Gator November 8, 2019, 6:28 PM

    Paradise anniversary gathering…
    https://apnews.com/dfabeece3bc04698b5f8010b37730507

  • Tom Hyland November 8, 2019, 6:47 PM

    Still wondering Gerard…. you mentioned a year ago you would attempt to locate a metal box that contained your dad’s wedding ring. I think you said it might be sitting under the bed. Did you find it?

  • NickSMpls November 8, 2019, 7:50 PM

    I am one of those who in those dark days, contributed through Amazon (a set of kitchen bowls, if I recall). It was small compensation for the gift of your essays. It must be a bit odd to pick up some random, ordinary item in your everyday life and know that somewhere, somebody, chose to send it along in response.

    May you and your dear feline friend be with us for a long time to come; to a time when 11/8 becomes like 9/11 – never forgotten — now a part of a larger view of life.

  • Alexandria Dumas November 8, 2019, 10:02 PM

    If gratitude is riches, right now you are the richest man in the world.

  • H November 9, 2019, 3:44 AM

    The sense of community at A-D is palpable, a reflection of the proprietor’s personality and stewardship. I’ve thrown money at various causes and disasters from time to time, but seldom did it feel more gratifying than when responding to the call here. Wish I could have done more but at the time, unpossible. Sorry about that, Chief, but may God give you the strength to keep on going.

  • Jeff Brokaw November 9, 2019, 5:41 AM

    I’ve been thinking of you often these last couple of weeks, knowing that this horrible anniversary was coming up and with it a flood of emotions and nightmarish flashbacks… thank God you got out in time! What a miracle.

    We’ve never met and probably never will, in person, but your persistence in creating this wonderful online persona for so many years, consistently, every day, pouring your heart and soul into expressing who you are and what you believe in, and providing joy, beauty, humor and grace, this has all been an immeasurably positive element of my life for, what, at least 16 years now? Maybe more.

    And I’m quite sure this same experience has been replicated for your many thousands of readers. It’s an amazing thing you’ve done for us, Gerard, and you saw the real and eternal value of your gift when we without hesitation sent along our prayers, cash, and “the stuff of life” in our appreciation for all that joy and grace.

  • Brad November 9, 2019, 7:47 AM

    Thank you for the words. I do wish that I had the skill that you have to put my thoughts on paper. The month we spent waiting after the fire to get back to our home was/is so surreal. Mentally you know what happened, you are plugging away day to day trying for a sense of normalcy yet normal isn’t our new lives. We had had pics of our lot, sent from friends who had access to Paradise, and videos posted online but until you can actually see the devastation for yourself it doesn’t really sink in. Driving through town that first day I imagined what it must have looked like for the residents of Dresden or London after the bombings, I probably spent too much time watching WWII documentaries. Knowing that our family was intact while others had lost family members didn’t ease the sense of loss but I focused more on what price others had paid rather than my own circumstances. I have not done anything on line for this anniversary but I will repost your writing. Thanks.

  • Nori November 9, 2019, 12:00 PM

    Bless you,Mr V. You ARE the Phoenix.
    Never stop writing. Yours is a great,great gift.

  • Pat November 9, 2019, 1:47 PM

    I’d send you something again if you needed it in a heart beat. Hope you have started reading all the books we sent. It will do your heart good.

  • RosalindJ November 9, 2019, 5:01 PM

    What you fling out on the interweb is a gift. It’s a blessing to be able to return – even in a small way – the favor. Thank you for letting us all help out with the things that are just stuff, but stuff nonetheless, that make up the small charms of everyday life.

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