This afternoon after work, I drove over to Rancho Bernardo early (we have vespers at church at 6pm) so that I could get a look at the aftermath of the fires. As I drove up West Bernardo Drive, I expected the familiar green surroundings to disappear and be replaced by a wasteland of charred tree stumps and debris, but that wasn't the case at all. The fire came in and burned through so fast, it had no time to linger and lay wast the entire landscape. Instead, you would see several houses all in a row, completely untouched by the fires, then one lone house completely gone, such that you wondered if it were just a vacant lot sitting there. In a completely random fashion, the fires would destroy two adjacent homes and would leave the homes flanking the edges untouched.
I turn onto Aguamiel Rd and go up the street, seeing people on both sides of the street sift through the rubble and ash of what used to be their homes. I want to somehow connect myself to them, but I am at at a loss as to how to do it. I want to take pictures to cement this experience as a memory, but I hesitate to intrusively photograph someone else's deep experience.
Walking down the street with my camera, I pass a group of people in sooty work clothes and flimsy filter masks, standing in the front yard of one of the pristine, untouched homes. One women is holding a tray of small sandwiches, while the rest eat and talk, and occasionally erupt in short bursts of laughter together. I am painfully aware that I am an outsider here, and don't belong. I sally forth anyhow. As I approach the group of people, the woman with the tray looks at me, "Would you like a sandwich?" she asks with a smile. "No thank you, I'm good," I tell her with a warm smile, and continue walking toward the row of three houses that are completely gone. The third house is the one I want the picture of, because of the sign out front that laughs in the face of the tragedy: "Finally! No termites!"
I approach a woman who is dusty with ash and sipping a beer, "Um, is this your place?" I ask, indication the empty space where there used to be a house.
"Yes, who are you? You're not a reporter are you?"
"Oh, no, I go to church at St John of Damascus across the 15. I just wanted to see how you guys were doing and... well, see if you need any spare hands tomorrow. Who clears all this away?"
She warms up and we chat briefly about the cleanup. The city of San Diego wants all the metal to be gathered separately and large appliances to be picked up by the city, so that they don't go into a landfill. I survey the scene around me, and see people with the same attitude I saw before: "It is what it is. Let's get to work."
Deciding I should move along, I head back up the street. As I pass a few of San Diego's bravest, I hesitate, then go with my instinct. I ask the firefighter, "Are you with San Diego, or are you from out of town?"
"San Diego," he answers me.
I smile a tight-lipped smile, and reach out to give him a hug, which he returns as I tell him, "Thank you."
"Oh, sure," he replies, as if I had just thanked him for picking up my dry cleaning or something. I turn to his buddy next to him, reach out to hug him as well and tell him thank you. By now, tears are welling in my eyes. By the time I hug the thrid firefighter there, I'm visibly choked up.
"Are you alright?" one asks me.
"Oh, I'm fine," I laugh. "I am doing so well. Thank you."
"Well, how's your house? Where do you live? Were you guys OK?" another asks me.
"We are all fine. We live on the northwest side of Bonita. It was tense, but we never had to leave..." I pause, "thanks to you guys," I say as my voice trails off.
"You're sure you're OK?" he asks me, as he puts a gentle hand on my shoulder.
I laugh. "I'm just really hyper-sensitive, and probably in sensory overload right now. Haha. I just wanted to say thanks, that's all," and I smile again, then turn to go.
I would think they would be used to emotional females randomly giving them hugs by now.
I continue up the street and decide to drive past Judi and Bernie's house, just to look at how lovely it is, and make the report that they received no damage real to me. I don't have time to eat anything before church, and know Judy wouldn't let me off easy if I stop, so I just drive by. They house is of course as lovely and inviting as it ever was.
At the top of the hill, I see a large motorhome with news letters (I forget all the initials) on the side and a dish on the top. Two vacant lots with piles of rubble and ash top the hill. I'm intrigued by the palm trees, and want to photograph it, so I park my car and walk up the hill towards the burned-out homes.
As I approach, I see a man sitting on a metal cover of some kind, taking a break after a long difficult day. He's covered in dust and ash, and has his filter mask hanging loosely around his neck. He looks strong, but weary. I have no idea what to say. It seems impolite just to ask if I can photograph his missing home. When our eyes meet, I ask, "So, is this your place?"
"Yes, it is," he says with a sigh.
Suddenly, I abandon my plan. The photo really means very little to me. I look at his slumped shoulders and dusty face, and reach towards him to give him a hug, and tell him, "God bless you. You're going to make it through this." I don't know why I say this, it just comes out.
He swallows hard. "Thank you. Yes, we will make it through this."
He begins to telling me about receiving the reverse 911 call with 5 minutes to evacuate, how they had no time to collect anything but themselves...
I sit down next to him, as he continues telling me about the hasty evacuation with several pets, how they lost everything, but how they all got out.
I recount to him part of the pep talk to myself, that I might lose the trophies, but I would always have the achievements, and that while I might lose the photos, I would always have the memories, that nothing can take that away from you...
He cocks his head, then nods. "That's right," he agrees.
It turns out he was a Navy chaplain, and we probably have acquaintances in common. As I stand up to leave, he asks my name, and we introduce ourselves. He thanks me for walking up the hill. I tell him that I have friends just down the hill, and that I look forward to seeing his new house in all it's splendor very soon.
I get back in my car and glance at my watch. I'm going to be late for church if I delay much longer. I head down the hill, and out onto West Bernardo Drive. Just before the turn to go under the 15, I see five National Guard humvees parked in an alley, as if awaiting orders to move out. It flashes across my mind to stop and run hug them too, and tell them how much I appreciate them being there. I would perhaps not go to such an extreme as leaving my running car on the side of a busy road as I run to hug strangers, but I've been acting impulsively for the past hour, and impulsive momentum is driving me.
I pull to the side of the road, jump out of the car, run towards the humvees, scanning the people I approach. Most of the National Guardsmen are sitting in the vehicles, and I only see two people standing idly by. I head for them, a man and a woman in Army fatigues. I figure I'll hug the woman first, and as she looks up to see me run towards her, I smile and tell her thank you, then embrace her and tell her again. She laughs, and hugs me like an old friend.
I turn to the man now, and the words, "Thank you for being here" are out of my mouth before I look into his face and see that it's my mountain bike riding friend Armando. "No way! What are you doing here?! I didn't know you were in the National Guard!"
Armando laughs, "Yeah! What are you doing here?"
"I go to church in RB," I tell him.
He nods, "So how do you know each other?" he indicates me and the other girl.
She and I laugh, "We don't! I saw your vehicles, and just wanted to say thank for being here, and so I left my car running - hope it's still there - Oh wow. This is so funny to see you here!"
"So you didn't even know it was me?"
"I had no idea..."
Armando shakes his head, "Now that's funny..."
Having no more time to chat, I hug him again and dash back to my car. San Diego is a small town once again, or maybe I just never stop talking to strangers...
PS. Thanks Mom, for always encouraging us as kids to hug the Vietnam veterans coming home, and thank the people who fight for us.