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Waiting for the Rainbow

<i> T. Jefferson Parker is a novelist and writer who lives in Orange County. His column appears in OC Live! the first three Thursdays of every month. </i>

Last week’s prodigious rainstorm began early Wednesday morning the same way all rainstorms begin--with a single raindrop. It fell onto my hand as I stood on the deck about 5:30. I felt privileged to carry that drop back inside my house and examine it. It sat coolly on the bulb of flesh between forefinger and thumb, magnifying the skin beneath it. Seconds later, billions more were falling through the labored sunrise over Orange County.

It was a good morning to stay inside, which most of us did. I stood at the window facing west toward Laguna Canyon Road and watched the storm unfold. I believed that this rain was somehow different from other rains but couldn’t be more specific with such a vague premise. I wondered if TV weathermen ever sense that the facts they are giving us are only shreds of a greater truth.

Even the dogs, usually so happy to cavort in rain and wind, huddled in the shelter of an overhang, casting me looks of great foreboding. Occasionally, they would glance toward the door of my study. They come into this sanctuary only when the outside conditions are really bad, and they know this, so I was having trouble parsing the legitimacy of their troubled expressions. They’re terrific actors, and are not above trying to cash in on a little bad weather.

Hours later, at 1 o’clock, the world looked no different than it had after that begrudged, storm-cloaked sunrise. The rainstorm was producing what could only be called dark light. Although the earth seemed almost black, all you could see in the sky was white light that was surprisingly strong. But this light threw no illumination outward from itself. It did not share. Inside the house it was dark as a tomb, while outside the emphatic paleness stretched across the sky.

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The rain gauge I have near my driveway showed 1 1/4 inches at noon. This is a little better than one-tenth the average annual rainfall for Orange County, symbolically contained in a small glass tube. I imagined dumping out 10 tubes’ worth and understood why the hillsides are so dry. I raised the rain gauge like a champagne flute and drank the water.

About 2 o’clock I started calling the Laguna Beach Police Department for road closures. I was hoping to make a provision run into town but didn’t want to get stuck there as I did last winter, when a power pole fell across Laguna Canyon Road and the police shut it down. That night I finally had to check in to the Hotel Laguna, where I was given an upgraded room because of my local status and the slow season, but still hardly slept.

But this afternoon, the cops told me the roads were all open.

With something of a heavy heart, I marched the dogs down the driveway and through the gate that leads to a plot of ground under my house. The ground is dusty, steep and ugly, but there is a doghouse on it and it is always dry there, with the house looming over it. The dogs disappeared into their condo without so much as a look back.

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I started the truck and let it warm up. I got to thinking that this storm was going to get bad. Naturally, I also started thinking about all the disasters, natural and man-made, that have befallen Orange County lately. It seemed obvious that someone out there is trying to send us a message. It might be God, the devil, mother nature, extra-terrestrials, secret government agencies or some unthinkable combined task force thereof, but the message is obvious: abandon ship.

Go somewhere that doesn’t burn, doesn’t flood, where a government guy called Bob doesn’t gamble and lose the money he taxed out of you, where kids aren’t speared through the head with sharpened paint rollers, secretaries aren’t shot through the heart with crossbows on their own front porches while groggy supervisors snore through it all like senile bears, waking only to sign off on the next development deal (Bolsa Chica) that is, according to Harriett Wieder, “what this county needs” to help bail it out of the mess she helped get it into.

You don’t have to be a religious fundamentalist to feel apocalyptic in Orange County these days.

Downtown Laguna was almost deserted. Shops along Forest and Ocean were closed. Plenty of parking. I made my usual rounds. The Pacific was a heaving caldron, big whitecaps blasting ahead of the storm-pushed waves. Looking up to the strange light/dark sky there was no sun, no horizon, no graduation between east, west, north or south, nothing at all but the eerie, drenching pale rain.

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Cutting across Beach Street toward Broadway, I noted the water in the storm drain lunging over the sidewalk and breaking onto the street like 8-foot surf at Newport. The wind had come up, swaying the eucalyptus one way, thrashing them for a second, then swaying them back the other.

Mine was one of the last vehicles the cops let pass out Laguna Canyon Road before they closed it. They were setting up the barricades when I drove by. The asphalt shimmered with the wind-driven sheets of water. Some of it was only an inch or two deep, and some of it was a foot or more. The thing about flooding water is you can’t see the bottom. It was actually kind of a pleasant drive out the canyon--no incoming traffic at all, and just a few of us outbound.

A long, steep road leads to my house, and this road was frothing with fast water. Hillside rocks had slipped onto the asphalt, but they were fairly small and easy to drive around. Impromptu waterfalls jetted from the stone walls that follow the road, instant streams shot down the hillsides through cactus and brush, rushing into midair before cascading down to the next solid ground.

Inside, I called some neighbors to see if everything was OK, and so far, it was. Then I went down to check the dogs. Their protected zone under the house was a flood plain; the top of their condo had blown off, and both of them looked at me with expressions designed to get them straight into my study. So I let them in. There, they shook off, rolled around in a pile of bills and correspondence I’d set on the floor, slid seal-like along the bookshelves, the wall, the carpet--anywhere that would hold mud.

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A minor leak had formed along one dining room ceiling beam, so I put a pot on the table to catch the drip. The wind howled through the canyon outside and the raindrops blasted against the window glass and the house shook as if being disciplined by huge invisible hands.

I sat at the table and listened. I wondered about the fires and the floods and the stupidity levied upon us here, and whether it’s all worth it. As the bathroom windows simultaneously blew outward on their hinges, I got the feeling again that a message was being delivered. This time, the message was not abandon ship . It had changed since morning to repair the damage.

I went upstairs and pulled the bathroom windows shut again, jamming a couple of rocks into the hinges to keep them from swinging loose. It was no lasting solution, but it would do for the night. Sometime around 11 the last drop of the storm plopped into the pot.


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