Thursday, October 9, 2008

Mrs. Ditchman and I were up before dawn this morning, chatting around the coffee maker. There was no good reason for it. We were done sleeping.

And what's this? Early autumnal rain in the distance? No. Fire season whipping up...

Got a phone call from my wife yesterday at work. (I carry the phone with me at all times now. We're at that stage.) Exhausted and at the top of a ladder, I climbed down to answer it. She wanted to tell me there was a fire happening in Oceanside. "Well, is it close to our house?" I asked. She said no, it didn't look like it. Okay. What else is going on?

So I'm standing there on the job site wondering what else I can get accomplished at the end of the day, and by the time she finished chatting and hung up, I had called it quits. There was no fire danger, no good excuse to stop, I just decided to clean up and cut out. Yesterday was a hot one.

Driving home, I saw the smoke from the freeway and if Mrs. Ditchman hadn't called me I would have thought it was our neighborhood on fire, as the smoke was right in the line of sight of my house. The fire was over at Camp Pendleton, only a few miles away, so the smoke was close enough to make an erie twilight at the end of yesterday. It burned through the night and is still burning as I sit here.

My two-year-old is obsessed with it, and we watched the smoke from our backyard. "The smoke! Fire! Look at the fire!" but it doesn't take much for her to obsess about things. I have to watch myself because I tend to run off at the mouth from time to time (who? me?) and if I say something like, "I hope it doesn't burn any houses down" the kid will have nightmares for a week. So we downplayed it, and still this morning it was the first thing out of her mouth when she got up. "There's a fire in our backyard." Seriously, now. A few weeks ago she woke up from a nap because a loud motorcycle went down the street and it upset her. Mommy asked, "Did the motorcycle wake you up?" and it's been bad dreams about motorcycles ever since.

Santa Ana winds are supposed to blow through here again later this week, as they do this time of year. I grew up with these winds and have always loved them. I believe they were originally called "Santana Winds" which, loosely translated, is "Satan's Wind" named by the original Spanish settlers for their blowing heat and the fires they stoke. There were many nights in my youth that I would be out in those winds, looking for trouble. I remember one midnight, walking down the main street of my home town and feeling that warm air blow through my clothes. I would watch gust after thoughtful gust pick up a pile of sycamore leaves and blow them around a street lamp, where they would fly up above the light and disappear into the darkness. And I remember my mom driving me to school on those clear mornings after a real wind, tree branches blocking the streets and lost trash cans blowing out into the boulevard.

This is when Southern California is truly beautiful. The smog is blown out to sea and the sky is clear to the satellites. One year we had an earthquake during the Santa Anas and from then on, when the sky was bright blue and a warm breeze blew in the morning, people would say, "It's earthquake weather." There's no such thing of course, but man tries to tie the unknown things together to make sense of them. The wind is like an earthquake, though -there are only so many things in nature you can feel and yet never see.

I was sweeping up yesterday and the homeowners came around to see how it was coming along. We stood there at the top of the canyon in their beautiful new backyard -new patio, new house, new landscape- and they showed me how the fire came through last year, how it skipped that house and burned that one, took out the shake-shingle roofs first and then burned the ones next door. They pointed out a gully of beautiful green palm trees and mentioned that the entire area had been unkempt and unmaintained by the city for years. The palms were dead and dry, with limp grey fronds all the way to the ground before the fire, but the flames had shaven them clean, and they now had bright green tufted tops. "There's a stream down in that little valley year-round. Goes all the way out to Lake Hodges," they said. And you could see it down there, looking like an oasis.

They mentioned the fire out in Oceanside and I told them that my wife had called to mention it. "That's near my house," I said, and we went quiet, standing there in that warm wind at twilight, "but she said it wasn't anywhere near us," I quickly added. The day ended. "We'll be so glad to get our house back," they said. They like the patio cover. It's just like the last one, only better.

Those hot dry winds that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen.

-Raymond Chandler, "Red Wind"