Intrusion Shatters the Peace

It happened late last week, but none of my feelings have changed since I wrote this. . . .

I got up this morning and looked at the damage. Slowly. Lying in bed much later than usual, it was possible to allow the suggestion that it never really happened. Surely I dreamed it.

So I circled warily into the living room, taking the long way around through the kitchen. The first clue I had was a view through a front window that told me we had overnight become a tourist attraction. The school bus stops a half-block down the street, and there was a semicircle of small people standing in our front yard, staring in awe at our house.

So before I got to the living room, I knew it was no dream.

There--just as I remembered it from last night--was the gap in our front wall, a huge, ugly wound that had bled plaster in copious quantities on the floor. I cleaned it up before I went to bed. It was all I could do, and it felt a little foolish, rather like putting a Band-Aid on an amputation. But I did it anyway.

Looking at the violation of our house in the light of a new day, it all played back to me in slow motion.

I had been in the bedroom getting dressed. We were going to Rizzoli International Bookstore in South Coast Plaza to hear Don Heiney, a friend and former associate of mine at UC Irvine, read from his newly published novel. My wife was standing in the kitchen at the telephone. From that place she had a full view through our living room windows of the front yard and the street.

We live at the top of a T formed by the confluence of two streets; one of the streets dead-ends virtually in our front yard. My wife, preparing to make a phone call, saw the van coming down the street. But instead of turning, it kept coming. It jumped our curbing and headed straight for our house.

I heard her shout my name in a stark, urgent tone a microsecond before I heard the crash. It sounded like all the thunder claps I'd ever heard rolled into one ominous explosion.

By the time I got to the front of the house, my wife was halfway out the door. The van was embedded in our front wall. The three posts that held up the roof over our front porch were splintered and had also pierced the house. We ran around the van to the driver's set, not knowing what we would find.

The driver was a middle-aged woman, and she was alone. She said "I'm all right," as we approached the door, and apparently she was. There is little doubt that her seat belt saved her life. Had she not been wearing it, she would probably have ended up in our living room after passing through two panes of glass.

Once we knew she wasn't hurt, we could look at the chaos that had been wrought. And give thanks, once again, for the support system that operates in this neighborhood. One neighbor called the police instantly; others flocked over to offer solace and comfort and help push the car away from the house. Most of them stayed to the end.

Because Santa Ana Heights is a geographic stepchild, we have no local police. When an officer didn't respond to the original summons, I called again and discovered that the California Highway Patrol, rather than the sheriff, is supposed to handle such matters in our neighborhood. It took 65 minutes and several more phone calls before an officer finally arrived.

It was not a comfortable time. In such a situation, people tend to divide into two camps. Once we determined that the driver wasn't injured, she phoned her husband and he appeared with two children in tow. We exchanged insurance companies and other crucial information without rancor. Then they hung out around their van while we retired to the other side of the yard where our neighbors were clustered. If the air wasn't rancorous, there was no sense of camaraderie, either. Our home had been violated, and by now we were feeling it deeply.

We stayed in this uneasy alignment for what seemed like several millenniums before a young CHP officer finally appeared on the scene. He had never seen anything quite like this, and he struggled with the report. By the time he finished, the van had departed under its own power and night had fallen. The neighbors drifted off to their homes, and we were left to contemplate our bruised and battered house. That's when I swept up the plaster. It seemed the least I could do for our old girl.

We talked about our feelings--my wife, stepson and I--well into the night. The easiest place to come down at such a time is, "Why us? What did we do to deserve this?" The timing of such an accident is always improvident but was especially so for us because some friends will be staying in our house in a few weeks while we take a trip.

But I can't and don't accept the possibility that this was anything more than a random accident. We were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. I can't believe that some cosmic force would visit this misfortune either on us or the driver of the van and her family.

What it did demonstrate to me, however, was the uncertainty of life. And the remarkable speed with which events can change it--both for better and worse. We were headed for a reading in a bookstore, and within a few seconds, we were contemplating a long period of hassle and expense.

The good news, of course, is that no one was hurt. The bad news is the dreary sequence of insurance adjusters, construction estimates, and upset and confusion we face in the weeks ahead.

I tried to think of some bit of poetic philosophy to guide me past this place. Robert Browning's "Life is real and life is earnest. . . ." crossed my mind, but I think Satchel Paige caught it better. This venerable baseball player, who pitched far beyond the age when less hardy souls had retired, when asked for advice always admonished: "Don't ever look back. They may be gaining on you."

I suspect that may be the only lesson to be learned here. I won't be looking over my shoulder. Meanwhile, I hope that insurance people don't give me any trouble. We've had enough character building for this year.

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