Saturday, January 22, 1983
In this endless El Niño winter there's
a savage storm today, raining buckets, trees bending and roaring. A
roadside ditch is blocked. Water is gushing across the roadway, down a
hill and into my neighbor Mark's kitchen. He's out in the rain with a
pick and shovel, desperately trying to clear the culvert where the water
is supposed to stream under somebody's driveway. Mark looks like a
madman plastered with rain.
I bring out my six foot steel bar, which is pointed at one end like a
sixty-pound spear. Mark brings the rod over his head and then smashes
it down again and again, poking holes through the driveway under which
the culvert passes. I shovel debris. The blockage is cleared - and a
third of the driveway is destroyed, stabbed to shreds by Mark and his
From helping Mark, I'm late leaving for work. My son Jesse, age six,
wants to come along, just for the ride. He sits beside me in the cab of
the truck listening to the radio as we drive an hour and a half through
lashing gusty squalls across the Bay Bridge to Oakland and then north
to Albany, where I replace my brother's water heater. To Jesse, my
brother is Uncle Ed, a strange and wild man who looks a lot like me.
Driving home, before crossing the Bay we stop at an Arco station that
makes me feel like a criminal — cash in advance, attendant behind
bulletproof glass — reminding me why I live in the country. By the time
we're coming down our mountain close to home, the storm is nearly
over. A mist hangs in the air and clings to the windshield. Coming
around a blind curve on La Honda Road, I have to swerve to avoid a
landslide. I stop, pull out flares so the next driver will be warned. I
show Jesse how to light them: Cool! Like roman candles.
Falling boulders, trees down, wires down — a winter norm. In these
hills, everybody carries flares. You put them out not to help yourself
but to warn the next guy. We're all in this together. Jesse absorbs
this lesson as you absorb a way of life, without my speaking a word.
Back home in front of Mark's house, water rushes down the gutter and
through the chopped-up culvert, heading where it belongs. To protect
Mark's house from the next flood, the La Honda Volunteer Fire Brigade —
men and women in bright yellow slickers — are stacking sandbags along
the road. Volunteers. Jesse says we should go out to help. So we do.
(Last year I posted another story about that same El Niño winter. You can find it here.)