Strange summer days. Wilting humanity meandering dream-like along Ventura Boulevard. Afternoon smoke turning day into twilight and the sun into an eerie orange ball. Heat in the Valley, fire in the canyons. Welcome back to Southern California.
Vacationing is an unreal way of escape even if one turns off the radio, doesn't watch television and doesn't read the newspapers. Calamity goes on without you. Ducking your head under the covers won't stop the bogey man.
My head was ducked in quiet mountain glades far up on the northern edge of California and in isolated ocean beaches that could still the soul of the wildest among us. I drifted in peace like a child on an inner tube, but time passed and the drift ended. Everything ends.
Driving home over the Grapevine, I could see that billowing smoke of the Lake Sherwood Fire had filtered the sunlight to liquid amber. I hurried to my canyon home, days in the mountains and evenings by the ocean abruptly forgotten. Danger was in the air. Adrenalin was pumping.
This was another time and another place. Enter reality, burning and screaming.
The fire was not at my doorstep and I could breathe a sigh of relief, but even in relief there is no equanimity, because somewhere someone was in pain, and one cannot rest easily with that.
Time to readjust. The vacation's over.
I turned on the news: hostages in the Middle East. Hostages? I listened as the story unfolded, the one you've all been watching and reading about steadily, the tragic, outrageous intrusion of violence into a peaceful arena.
An airplane going nowhere important carrying people doing nothing special swept up with thunderbolt speed as pawns in a cause most knew very little about. They're home now and safe. All but those other seven. And all but one who, by violent caprice, died in agony on an airfield he hadn't even intended to visit.
That news alone was enough to bring the residual peace of easy walks along shaded trails (was I ever there?) shattering like crystal. I felt as though I had just emerged from surgery. The patient lived, but he'll never be the same.
And the fires. Not just the one so frighteningly close that set nerves jangling throughout the Santa Monica Mountains. That one was scary enough. The mountain-dwellers watched the fine white ash settle like dry snow on their rooftops, in their yards and on their cars. They sniffed the acrid wind. They listened for sirens to wail like lunatics up the narrow winding roads. And they lay awake at night wondering what they'd save if . . .
I was one of them. That second night home, standing in my driveway, feeling the hot wind in my face, I watched the flames dance and pirouette on a distant horizon, burning at the starry night around it. I wondered at the inadequacy of man to stop such an awesome force of nature, and tried to remember where everything was I wanted to save, if . . .
Then more: San Diego's Normal Heights, L. A.'s Baldwin Hills.
If ever I could have reacquired even for brief moments the solace of spirit I found lazing through weeks of wandering, there was no chance now.
We all watched in silence and sorrow as television brought us the awful close-ups of whole neighborhoods dying in fire, of homes crashing to charred kindling and, in the case of Baldwin Hills, of two bodies lying sprawled on a residential street in the final posture of their dying.
Faces, stricken and stunned, looked into the cameras. Faces that were soot-smudged. Faces that were fired-burned. Faces that were tear-streaked. Faces which, in wordless eloquence, expressed the fear and anguish of decent people trapped in circumstances wildly beyond their control, suffering pain they didn't deserve.
I came home to victims. The victims of what we have come to call terrorism as a tidy way of describing a holy war we don't understand. The victims of fires set by God and arsonists that kill and destroy with equal ferocity. The victims of heat so oppressive it is all we can do to struggle from one air-conditioned enclave to another, wilting under a relentless sun.
But, still, somehow you continue to survive. I see you in the parks on Winnetka and Canoga. I see you having a beer at Guggie's. I see you stripped to your bikinis and standing in hoses on Dumetz. I see you eating a cold salad at Solley's.
And I continue to marvel that, through it all, you remain in tolerably good spirits, the babies laughing and the old men smiling, and I take that to mean we'll make it, you and I, through another summer. They haven't invented the calamity yet that can crush the human spirit.
It's good to be back, I guess, though I still think of one special glade in one special forest where, for a blink in time, I ducked my head in tranquility and at least kept the bogey man at bay for awhile.