When I was a small boy, about six, we moved to San Diego and, after a couple more years, to Escondido, then a small town in North San Diego County. Now, it’s all pretty much one city, from Spring Valley, where I started grade school, to ‘Dido where I finished it, and, if current Santa Ana conditions continue as predicted, much of it’s about to burn.
I lived there during the high Sixties, in a Navy town where soldiers shipped out to Vietnam and the Miramar Marines flew their shark-throated Corsair jets over the freeway. Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” was big on the radio, and I remember it booming out of my cousin’s convertible as we cruised the warm Southern California night, with the bowl of San Diego lights glittering below. The other popular song at the time was “Light My Fire.” Tonight, those roads are likely closed except for emergency vehicles.
I was never a big Beach Boys fan, but I knew whereof they sang. A true SoCal kid, I developed an impressive talent for falling off of surfboards, skateboards, roller skates, and bicycles with sissy bars and banana seats. When I wasn't falling off of moving objects, I was riding in them. I watched, fascinated, as Hell’s Angels lined up at the drive-through of the local A&W Root Beer Stand. I lay sleepily in the backseat after swim class and peered out the rear window as the Buick made long, lazy turns, for a glimpse of the white cross atop Mt. Helix. I clung to the seatbelt, stuck in the middle of a giant traffic jam, while baton-swinging cops chased Vietnam War protestors between the car bumpers.
And, on a dark, terrible night, I watched my father weep at the TV as Bobby Kennedy bled to death on the floor of the Ambassador Hotel, four hours north in L.A.
Those idyllic Sixties, man.
Then there were fires. The weather would turn strange and unsettling, like something had gone seriously wrong with reality, and the wind would begin blowing. Hot. Dead dry. Spinning empty cups across parking lots. And that night, the TV news would take a break from Mekong Delta firefights and be simply about fires. Real ones. Right then, in Southern California.
One year, I think it was ’68 when everything seemed to be aflame, the Santa Anas blew on and on, and in the middle of the night we stood on our sleepy Escondido street with all our neighbors and watched an orange bracelet shimmer atop a hill. I can remember the adults saying, if it comes over that ridge. If it makes it over that ridge. Our ridge.
To an eight-year-old kid, this was impossibly exciting, and a part of me was rooting for the fire: you can do it. Come on, baby. But another part understood that breaching that ridge would be the worst thing imaginable, the end of everything, and that fear reached down and prayed to whatever indefinable, non-denominational God I had. That ridge was our Mekong Delta, our Ambassador Hotel.
The firefighters stopped the fire on that hill, were heroes--real heroes, not props for a photo op, and, when the wind died down, we went back to barbecuing hamburgers in the back yard and planning fishing trips to alpine ponds.
Tonight, some eight-year-old will stand in his or her front yard and watch another orange bracelet on a hilltop. It will seem like a movie, like television. It won’t be. It will be equally thrilling and terrifying.
Choose wisely, kid. And good luck.
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