Friday, May 18, 2007

Brush Fires and Salsa

I had lunch with my friend Cork and his tennis pals on last Thursday. We had set it up a week in advance, which is pretty spontaneous amongst his crowd. The older, gentrified Hollywood Hills set, they tend to rely on a routine as a means of stability in the frantic world that can be Los Angeles. Cork lives in a stately Tudor style home on the southern edge of Griffith park and hosts the most elegant of Christmas Eve celebrations. He reminded me on the telephone that he and Lars would be hosting again this year.

All was well until Tuesday, when an enormous brush fire broke out in Griffith Park. The accumulation of approximately four decades worth of chaparral ignited and the hillside was suddenly aflame. Afternoon winds fanned the fire and soon there was a very serious fire indeed on the backside of the hills of Los Feliz. By evening, fingers of flame were beginning to creep into the residential side of the hills. A command post was set up at the Greek Theatre, streets most in peril were evacuated, and helicopters flew all night dropping water on the flames. Their refueling site was the Hollywood sign, to help add visual perspective. This was nothing short of extraordinary, as it is highly dangerous to fly these missions after dark, but the loss of the entire neighborhood was in all likelihood avoided because of this heroic mission. It was very much like a Hollywood disaster picture, with all the famous locations on camera, except that this time it was a reality show.

By Wednesday morning, the evacuees were beginning to return. The water drops had made serious inroads overnight and the flames were on the retreat. By Wednesday afternoon, all that remained was smoke and a charred hillside that had been a rather large section of Griffith Park.
Cork telephoned that evening to say that all was well, most of the exposure had been the on the next hill over, and that both tennis and lunch were still on.

I arrived at Casita del Campo, a classically camp Mexican restaurant in the heart of Silverlake, on Thursday at the appointed hour. Cork, his tennis cronies Rob and Michael, his neighbor Dale and myself. We sat on the outdoor patio and ordered Margaritas. The lunchtime conversation, as we munched on chips and salsa, had more to do with the eccentricities of Howard Hughes and the attempts of Bank of America to collect IOU's that he had written on scraps of paper than the brush fire we had just been through. There was concern expressed for the animals who were affected, and who would be wandering aimlessly through the residential neighborhoods. And of course, appreciation for the fire fighters and the nighttime water drops.

While no one took the favorable outcome for granted, they certainly took it in stride. Natural disasters are part of life here in sunny Southern California. We drank a toast to the Fire Department and moved on with the day. There were theater plans that evening. This is no place to be frail.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Muggy Summer Night

Last week I read in the news about the small Kansas town of Greensburg which was practically demolished by a category 5 tornado. The entire town was all but levelled. I was immediately transported back to my childhood.

My hometown of Flint, Michigan was hit by a category 5 tornado in June of 1953. It descended on a muggy Midwestern summer night with almost no warning and mowed through hundreds of homes while it meandered eastward at a rate of approximately 30 mph. The storm left an entire neighborhood in ruins and cost 116 persons their lives. Sadly, almost half of the victims were children. The tragedy is recalled as the Beecher Tornado.

Both of my parents were young adults at that time, and the disaster had a lasting effect on them. My brother was born five years later in 1958 and myself in 1960. While the Beecher Tornado had long since passed, we were keenly aware of what had happened. My mother told stories of the rescue efforts and recounted stories of those who survived and those who did not. I vividly recall her telling the story of the woman who outran the tornado in her 1949 Buick, with the speedometer reading 100mph as the wind repeatedly lifted the back wheels off the ground. Her six children cowered in the back seat in fear but the car made it to safety.

When my brother and I were older, she showed us home movies my uncle Bill had taken the day following the storm. It was virtually impossible for my five year old consciousness to discern what the piles of rubble in the movies had once been. We were raised with a very healthy respect for the destructive potential of nature, a respect that I believe we shared with every schoolchild in the city of Flint.

Mother was particularly nervous on humid summer nights, the kind that hung in the air and produced the thunderstorms which hatch tornadoes. While she never tried to cause needless alarm, she kept a keen eye on the skies as she watched us playing in the lush Michigan grass. It was universally understood in our neighborhood that a weather siren meant the immediate cessation of playtime and a dash for shelter. Many a summer evening was spent listening to the rain in the basement, waiting for the all clear signal to be broadcast over the little blue transistor radio.

It was not until adulthood that I actually looked at a map of the destruction and discovered what Mother had always known- the Tornado touched to earth almost exactly two miles north of the bedroom I shared with my brother. Mother was keenly aware of that fact every time a humid summer night occurred, it was a line on her brow. However, she somehow never imparted that knowledge unto us.

Of course, storm warnings matured rapidly after the tragic events of 1953, and the truth is that we were dramatically safer at all times than only a few short years before. And although many tornadoes have struck in the ensuing 50 plus years, none have caused the loss of life that was so ingrained on my young parents. The passage of time has not diminished the memories of the citizens of Flint, nor has it lessened the tragedy of the loss of a hundred and sixteen lives when the winds dashed the houses against the Michigan clay. The news can take me back there in an instant.