When I pulled my phone out from my bag, I had three messages from my daughter, calls just a few minutes apart. That's when I knew something was up. The thick arm of grey and brown smoke twisting over my neighborhood didn't seem as ominous as those three calls.
We'd been though a major wildfire only two years ago, and we were unscathed, unscorched and distant from the story. Smoke hung over everything then, too. I rolled through the neighborhood, the light ocherous and pleasantly Satanic. A TV crew had set up in a parking lot of the local Montessori school. That also caught my attention, finally.
Through my daughter, I found out our neighborhood was on pre-evacuation status. This means you're supposed to be packed and ready to go on short notice. Perhaps very short notice. My mother also left a message, and my father called shortly afterwards. You forget the power of the TV news.
I like a crisis as much as the next man. Coincidentally, I'd just had a conversation with my daughter a few days ago about exactly this: what would you take with you from a burning house?
Easy: things you can't replace. Documents. And stuff you'd take on a short trip. But I didn't quite swing into action like a Roman general or a samurai or even a Scout Master. I looked west, in the direction of the fire. That told me nothing, but it didn't stop me or my neighbors from periodically peering through the smoke to see signs of danger or deliverance. A sudden hunger to go over to one of the people I'd never spoken with and start a conversation came over me. I regretted ignoring them, but then, I don't know how you break the ice these days in a place as self-conscious as mine.
Still, as irrational as it was, I wanted some sort of social proof, a cue, even though I knew I could figure things out as well as they could.
I went back into the house. The first wave was easy: negatives. Hard drives. Cameras and computers. My daughter asked that I grab her journals. My wife asked that I take her jewelry box and Hermès scarves. Passports, credit cards, bank and insurance information. Instruments.
Truly irreplaceable items are few, when you get down to it. I'd like to have packed a few more things, but after all, you can buy nearly anything except your son's cartoons or your daughter's fifth-grade science project, or an early love poem to the woman who's now your wife. (Did I write that? I guess I did.)
The house stank like the inside of a camp fire, but I found myself starting to dawdle. Looking at the small pile of boxes and bags, I began to feel free. A large, silent part of me wanted to be shut of all the crap -- crap, I need to point out, that I bought, crap that I like pretty well and isn't too stupid, crap that isn't exactly crap -- CDs, books (too damn many books), DVDs.
But the utter simplicity of my pile. My kids' treasures. My wife's. My gun, my MacBook, my cameras. Two paris of pants, some shirts and socks. What else do you need?
Outside, I heard excited voices. People really dig a disaster. It happens during the winter, mostly, when we get a blizzard that wallops the town and suddenly -- everyone's cheerful, chatty, ready to go out of their way to help. We tasted a bit of drama, and it was sweet.
Now, of course, we need to keep the context here. Watching a fire shoot down the street and devour your house with its collectibles and mementos is not fun, and not an occasion for a smart ass like me to note how perversely we crave relief from our boring daily life. Exactly that is happening an hour and a half south of here. We're lucky, so far. We are only pre-evacuation, which sounds suspiciously anti-climatic and close to premature ejaculation. It's odd to hope for a detour from a narrative closure. Weird how deeply those tropes are dug into the brain and imagination.
I have to resist some weird Romantic wish to see the whole place in flames and heroically build from that. I know that, instead, it would be months of calls to insurers, to contractors, to regulators, of depending on the kindness of family and friends -- a giant pain in the ass.
We still are on alert. We may be told to leave, but I've squirreled away most of my precious things. It rained a bit, a mixed blessing because with the water came lightening, and still more fires.
And I'm going to drink that fancy bottle of French wine. To the dregs.