It’s their nature to persevere

Times Staff Writer

The 88-year-old man sits on a bench and lights a cracked briar pipe. He looks out at the black void and sighs.

The firestorm three months ago killed most of the sound here. No birds warble, no leaves flutter, no coyotes yelp in the night. The giant, tilted slabs of granite on the ridge peer like statues down on a moldering pyre.

Jerome “Joe” Wier comes up here most days in his little Chevy pickup and secondhand clothes. He sits for hours under a scraggly tree, staring up at the boulders -- and at the place where his house once stood.

A neighbor across the gully has seen him crying. He denies it.

He built the house with his own hands. When the fire took it, Wier and his wife, Marion, lost every possession they had collected over 58 years of marriage. They lost every photo of their family, the bundle of letters that Joe sent her while he was in the Navy, the leather-bound journal Marion scribbled her thoughts in for the last quarter century. They lost all their clothes, keepsakes, records, medications -- even Joe’s hearing aid and dentures.


And they lost this bit of wilderness that fed the life in themselves.

“Remember the hummingbirds we had here, Joe?” Marion asks, looking out at the canyon. “Oh, sure, nature will rejuvenate itself in a few years. But we don’t have a few years, Joe. That’s the sad part.”

Joe Wier is wiry, quick on his feet and sharp with the wisecracks. He stays fit by driving golf balls into the mountain and hiking up to collect them. Marion, 80, still dotes on him, while noting that he is a tightwad and stubborn as a mule.

“He lost his hearing aid,” Marion points out. “That’s why he talks so loud.”

Joe’s eyes crinkle into a smile. He pulls back his upper lip to show a gum as bare as the hills. “My upper bridge is gone, my eyeglasses, my hearing aid,” he says. “I’m in bad shape.”

The couple fall into bouts of despair and then whip out of them, knowing they don’t have the time to dwell on loss the way others might.

They couldn’t take all that junk to their graves anyway. Now is about the future. With characteristic humor, tenacity and self-reliance -- imbued in them as children of the Great Depression -- they are moving forward.

Joe’s mind churns as he stares at the empty lot. He built the ranch-style house when he was 68. He designed it, framed it, built the roof, put in the windows. It was giant: two stories and 5,500 square feet, perched up on the mountainside.

Marion says he built it to leave for his heirs.

“He would be happy in a camper or a mobile home,” she says. “But he wanted to leave something for the future.”

Just before the fire, Marion ordered a sign, “Joe’s Magnum Opus,” to be placed on the driveway post. Now she’s canceled the order.

But Joe is planning his new house. He wants to improve on the last one. There will be less wasted space and just one story, because the stairs were killing his replacement knees.

“I’m visualizing things,” he says. “I take this as a challenge.”

With no photos or letters, what they need from the past they pull from their memories.

Jerome Joseph Francis Wierzbicki first strolled up to Marion Womble at the Penguin Club in Washington, D.C., shortly after the end of World War II.

He was a chief petty officer in the Navy, the son of a Polish immigrant from Buffalo, where his father worked as a car repairman for the New York Central Railroad. She was a beauty queen from tiny Nashville, N.C., working as a fingerprint analyst for the FBI.

Joe wore his crisp navy blue formals and had the white hat under his arm. Marion swooned. She says he looked like Tyrone Power.

“Excuse me, are you Louise?” he asked.

“No, but I wish I was,” she said. Her sister kicked her under the table.

He excused himself, went to the restroom and came back. “Even though you aren’t Louise, do you want to dance?” he asked.

“Oh, yes,” she said.

And that was that. In retrospect, there was as much craftiness to the approach as romance. “He didn’t even know a Louise,” Marion says.

“A hayseed like that, you know, and me a city slicker,” Joe says, “I figured I could wine and dine her and woo her and whatnot. I’ve been paying for my mistake for 60 years.”

They married in 1949 and moved to San Diego, which Joe fell in love with on a brief stay during the war.

He earned a business degree from San Diego State University, left the Navy in 1959 and went to work managing missile guidance system development for TRW. They had a son, Michael, and a daughter, Nanette.

On the side, he and his brother started a real estate business. To their father’s eternal wrath, they shortened their last name to “Wier” because they thought “Wierzbicki” might scare off white-bread buyers.

The business did well. When he retired, Joe and Marion had enough money to build their grand house. He bought 8 1/2 acres off a dirt road in a remote canyon of Poway, northeast of San Diego. He hammered the nails, sawed the wood and directed the electricians, plumbers and concrete subcontractors.

When it was done, they strung lights through the chaparral and threw a raucous party with music, plenty of liquor and a roasted pig.

The canyon enchanted them. When they drove home from somewhere, they marveled at the oaks Old Coach Road threaded through, just a few minutes from Interstate 15.

“You had to stop for deer and bobcats,” Marion says. “By the time you got home, you were singing.”

They sat on the patio with glasses of wine and watched hawks circle in the thermals and giant moons rise at the end of the canyon. When the chaparral came alive at dusk, bugs and birds whirred and sputtered and pinged like a thousand little engines.

“We had music all night,” Marion says.

Joe liked their home so much that he left only to play golf down at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar -- the cheapest course. And he could buy his pipe tobacco in bulk at the commissary.

Last year, when their daughter Nanette got divorced, she and her son Tyler and their two turtles moved in on the top floor. Now they had even fewer reasons to leave the canyon.

The night of Oct. 21, the family watched on television as fire raged in the mountains east of them. At 4 a.m., they received a reverse-911 call, telling them to evacuate.

Marion panicked. The wind funneled through the canyon with such strength, she worried the house would buckle and collapse. She threw a jacket over her pajamas and shoved their dog Teddy into the car. She didn’t think she had time to pack anything else.

Joe said the house was going to be fine. He wasn’t going anywhere. She told him he was being an ass. He wouldn’t budge.

Marion and the dog followed Nanette and Tyler and the turtles out of the canyon. She saw a police officer and flagged him down.

“There’s an old man down there in that house, and he won’t leave,” she told him.

The officer drove up and told Joe he had to leave. Joe listened to him.

Now the Wiers live in a rental house in Poway with their daughter and grandson. The yard is taken care of by gardeners; the pool has a pool man. There is nothing to do. Joe gets restless so he comes out here, where he can smoke his pipe and be with his land.

He drives balls into the mountain, or sits under the scraggly tree on a stone bench he salvaged and plots the new house.

On clear days, from the road across the canyon, you can see him standing alone, a reed of a figure sending a ribbon of pipe smoke into the air.

Marion joins him on occasion, and usually cries when she views the devastation. It’s like looking at a corpse. From their perch on a recent morning, they sit and spar and troll through the memories. Both of them still wear faded secondhand clothes they got from the Salvation Army. The day is cool and clear after the rains, with scud clouds in a pale sky.

They can hear a chain saw in the distance. They notice a crow on the ridge. They point out the house of a neighbor. “Remember that baseball player that lived up there?” Marion asks.

“I don’t remember that,” Joe says.

“The baseball player,” Marion says, more emphatically.

“So you’re telling me, but I don’t remember.”

“Joe, your memory is scaring me. Randy Jones was his name.”

“I wouldn’t put that down on paper,” he says.

Teddy the dog roams the mountains looking for gophers. Joe and Marion will meet the following day with a contractor to discuss the new house. They’ve met with nearly a dozen, but this one seems up to the task and not overpriced.

Their insurance will pay up to $930,000, and they want to get the most out of it.

Joe is eager to get his magnum opus up again.

He says he isn’t disappointed that he’s too old to build it himself this time, but Marion says it bothers him. She can tell.

They figure it will take a year. The canyon will take longer. But there are signs of renewal. The black sticks of laurel sumac that cover their property are sprouting lithe sprigs of red-green leaves.

They hope they’ll live to see the wildlife come back.

They have longevity in their blood. Joe’s father lived so long that railroad officials started swinging by his house every year to make sure he was truly alive and able to cash those pension checks. He was perfectly self-sufficient until the day, at age 95, he keeled over from a cerebral hemorrhage. He was gone, Joe says, as quick as the thump he made on the bathroom floor.

This is how the Wiers want to go, living day-to-day, golfing, jibing, loving each other right to the end.

Marion notices some cigarette butts in the dirt.

“Who smoked all these cigarettes?” she asks.

“I don’t smoke cigarettes,” he answers too loudly.

“I know that,” she says, mildly irritated. “Did you have some company up here?”

“Oh, sure,” he says, smiling. “I had my girlfriends.”

She laughs.

“Well, it would be a good place to bring them.”