Christmas Blessings


















Dear Yolanda,


Thanks for the candle. You said you made it yourself?

I lit it last night after turning off the television, watching the flickering flame spark and dance so beautifully in the darkened room as I lay on the couch, slipping into that place between wakefulness and sleep where the angels whisper. As I listened, saying my prayers, mesmerized by the candlelight, I dropped off to sleep.

The next thing I heard was the plaintive wail of fire engine sirens as I startled awake to the smell of burning curtains. I'd left your beautiful candle too close to the window and the entire south wall of my house was engulfed in flames.

I shook my wife awake. We hastily grabbed a few things and rushed from the house. The firemen worked hard, knocking down the flaming wall to reduce the spread of the fire, but unfortunately the attic was also on fire. We had so many boxes of flammable stuff packed away up there the flames erupted like a thousand angry torches.

There was very little the firemen could do at this point, other than try and protect our neighbors' homes. The house closest to us (the east side) which belongs to the wonderful blind couple, did suffer some roof damage, but fortunately the firemen put it out quickly. After talking to our neighbors this morning, we learned they unfortunately suffered considerable damage to their carpet and furniture from the fire hose water and rain. Though we've known and loved this elderly couple for nearly 20 years, they said they can no longer talk to us, on advice from their attorney who we will be hearing from shortly.

Cheryl and I are now living at the Howard Johnson's in Pomona. It's not like home, and the people in the next room seem to be continually fighting and shouting, but it's the cheapest motel in the area. We found a few empty syringes in the bathroom, the carpet has quite a few nasty-looking stains and the wallpaper in this room is peeling, but we are just grateful to have a roof over our heads at this point.

I managed to get my laptop computer out of the house and I have internet access here, but it's hard to concentrate on this e-mail, what with the terror of last night continually replaying in my mind. This room smells like smoke, although it's probably coming from our own skin. My wife inhaled so much smoke she has to wear a breathing mask with a portable oxygen tank because of her chronic respiratory problems. We haven't had any sleep since the fire and we don't have any clean clothing.

I called the insurance company this morning and for some reason I had not received my renewal notice, so unfortunately I find that my homeowner's insurance has lapsed. I'm afraid this means our house and possessions are a total loss. We lost our cars in the fire as well. Because the electric garage door motor was wearing out and would not open in cold weather, we did not have time to get our cars out of the garage. The Mercedes was a few years old, so at least I got some fun out of that car, but it is unfortunate that Cheryl had recently purchased her beautiful new Lexus -- full payment in cash. We're hoping the discount insurance coverage for the car will cover part of the loss, but I do worry about doing business with a company based in Bolivia.

I'll have to take out a loan to have the debris of our once beautiful home removed so I can try and sell the vacant lot to a developer, but in these hard times for real estate, it will be practically impossible to get any money out of this property to make much of a dent in the amount I still owe on the home. I'm not sure if I can even get a loan at this point. Bankruptcy may be the best option for us. Unfortunately, we are still locked into a flexible-rate mortgage and our interest rate has risen to slightly more than 12 percent. We were barely able to keep up with the payments as things were.

I wish I'd made a backup copy of my book! I was really counting on this book to move my career forward. The only copies were on computer discs and paper -- all reduced to ashes. The main copy was stored on my desktop computer which was also destroyed. It's not the sheer length of the work that bothers me (about 280,000 words) as much as the length of time it took to do the research, what with all that travel to foreign countries that I'm still paying off on my Visa card. I'd never put this much work into a book before, and I'm afraid I'm too old to repeat what has been a 12-year labor of love.

We were hoping to sell some of the antique furniture and paintings we recently inherited from my family's estate that we'd stored in the house, but nothing is salvageable. And so many things accumulated from 35 years of marriage and from both of our families can, of course, never be replaced. I hate to think about all the wonderful photographs we'll never see again. At least we have our memories!

Unfortunately, our two cats died in the fire, and of course, my wife is devastated. One of them was the cat my son Christopher (who is coming to stay with us for Christmas) grew up with. He was so looking forward to seeing his precious little kitty, Mr. Toodles, again. We'll have to call Chris today and break the news.

After reviewing my current financial situation, I've decided the best thing to do is to try and rent a decent trailer home for the holidays, as there are a few mobile home parks in the area that are not as dangerous as some. We're going to try and find a mobile home with an extra bedroom for Christopher who is due to arrive in a few days. I'm afraid all his presents also burned in the fire, but we know he will understand. I suppose I should not have put all that cash in his stocking! It was a surprise down payment for a condominium. I foolishly thought it would be fun for him to see what $80,000 in cash looked like! I was surprised that I qualified for that home equity loan, although I suppose it was because of the high interest rate I'm being charged.

It certainly will be an unusual Christmas for us, what with all of our carefully picked, expensive presents destroyed by the fire. We will just have to focus on the blessings of life itself and be grateful that we did not die in the fire -- only a few second-degree burns and smoke inhalation, although I'm afraid I may have broken my ankle while rushing to get out of the house. It is quite sore! The paramedics bandaged it last night but I refused to be taken to the hospital. I just could not face an emergency room after all I'd been through. Cheryl and I will take the bus to the clinic today. I'm using an old umbrella for a crutch.

We will simply have to learn to be grateful for what we have left, even though it probably means total financial disaster. Cheryl and I now realize we will have to give up the idea of retirement and return to the workforce to try and rebuild our lives. I've already contacted Wal-Mart and they say they are hiring! A light in the storm!

So, once again, dear Yolanda, thanks so much for the candle! It was so beautiful and sweet-smelling, and, in fact, it was one of the few things I managed to salvage from the fire. I have it lit now, near the window of our motel room that overlooks the laundry area. It casts such beautiful shadows against the curtains.

Merry Christmas,

Russ




~ by Russ Allison Loar
~ Photo courtesy of the Bend Weekly
© All Rights Reserved

Renegade

 

It was not hard to be renegade in the sleepy Los Angeles suburb of West Covina during the 1960s.

Emerging from the conservative ‘50s, all you had to be was a disagreeable teenager, especially in this Anglo-Saxonite community where most of the local power brokers attended Rotary Club pancake breakfasts with an alarming regularity. Come to think of it, regularity was also a big deal during this era.

My home town was very much like the place portrayed in the movie, “American Graffiti.” It was a teenage car culture, and after I turned 16, I had a driver’s license. Not long after, I had a car. My parents were upper middle class, so I did not have to actually earn the money to buy a car. And my mother was eager to be free of having to take me places, and then, pick me up and bring me home. Her life was busy enough, what with Women's Club luncheons to plan, bridge parties, country club appearances and the ongoing burden of supervising housekeepers and gardeners – all this along with a husband who actually expected her to make dinner on a regular basis. Yes, regularity was a pretty big deal during this era.

Nowadays there are lots of restrictions on young drivers, but when I got my license, I was free, turned loose on the streets without any restrictions or guidelines. Just a few hours of driver’s ed. But I was a pretty good driver. I’d had experience, what with all those times I took my parents’ cars out on the road when they were away for a weekend trip. Yes, I remember learning how every intersection was not necessarily a four-way stop as I propelled my mother’s lumbering, razor-finned Cadillac straight toward a passing car who, much to my surprise, had no stop sign. I hit the brake pedal just in time.

Then there was that lesson about road rage, what we used to call, “mad” or “angry.” I thought driving was a competition, and that the object was to beat the other drivers. After all, I wasn’t actually going anywhere. So I jammed down the gas pedal and managed to pull the great white whale in front of this other guy in an old, compact car who had tried his best not to let me into his lane. While I was waiting behind another car at a stop sign, he got out and walked up to my car, signaled for me to roll down my window, which I did, then punched me in the face. 

By the time I had my own car, a dark green 1965 Ford Mustang – the fastback model – I was seasoned. I’d make my car too fast to catch, and I certainly would never roll down my window again for anybody.

In those days it seemed like most of my friends and rivals were working on their cars, customizing old Chevys, putting in big carburetors, high performance shifters, custom exhaust systems, giant racing slicks – even whole new engines. This was long before the state-mandated smog check. Nobody checked the condition of our cars when we renewed their registrations, so all modifications went undetected. I was not one of the more talented kid mechanics around, although I could gap a spark plug. I was a musician, a guitar player, and I did not like getting my fingers stained with grease. So I took the money I saved from teaching guitar lessons and working in a  local pizza parlor and went to a speed shop in a neighboring city to let the experts juice up my horsepower. The first thing they did was rip out all the smog prevention equipment.

“You don’t need all this stuff,” I remember the mechanic saying. Years later, when I tried to trade the car in on a new model, the local Ford dealer would disagree. “You’ve got no smog equipment! We’re going to have to replace it all just to put the car on the lot.”

Oops!

Except for a little cash for dating and guitar strings, I’d put all my money into my car – a nice racket for the speed shop – and after a while I began racing my car on Saturdays at the nearby Irwindale Speedway along with all the other high school amateurs. But as a renegade teenager, the real thrill was street racing. It was like being a gunslinger in the Old West, just prowling around town, looking to challenge somebody to a shootout.

Yes, I had my share of speeding tickets, but I was never caught racing. Most of us weren’t. There were not that many police officers cruising around town in those days.

There was always the occasional race during the day, when I’d just happen to pull up next to another kid in a hot car after school. Who was faster? We just had to find out! But weekend nights were the real prime racing time. It was like jousting, trying to prove our nascent manhood to our girlfriends, or to somebody else’s girlfriend.

Sometimes the races were organized.

Some guy with greasy hair had a new Camaro 280z and swore he could take me. Bets were made and the next Saturday night my friends blocked off both ends of a sleepy suburban street about a half-mile long while we lined up our cars. About twenty high school kids gathered at the finish line. Camaro boy couldn’t catch me, even though his car may have been faster. I was always incredibly quick off the starting line.

That’s what won me the race set up by the speed shop at Irwindale Raceway. There was another kid, a rich kid whose father owned a shopping center, who was already out of high school, who came to the speed shop with a Mustang pretty much like mine. The speed shop mechanics figured this guy would be good competition for me. After they’d done their best to expand his horsepower, we set a date.

The early part of the afternoons at Irwindale were spent doing practice runs, called “qualifying.” You had to turn a good enough time in your particular class to compete in the early evening, before the actual professionals did their stuff for the audience who sat in bleachers on either side of the quarter-mile track.

Rick – my well-financed opponent – and I both qualified at the top of our class and were set to compete. I had the advantage of nearly a year of experience, while this was Rick’s first time at a professional raceway. He was a little nervous, especially since we had an audience of friends, girlfriends and the speed shop mechanics. It had just turned dark as we pulled up to the starting line, facing the “Christmas Tree,” a series of lights mounted on each side of a central bracket that indicate when the cars are in the right starting position. Then, once the cars are positioned, the yellow lights count down to green. If a driver started too early, a red light would signal disqualification.

We both edged our cars into starting position, our engines almost window-shatteringly loud because we’d opened up our “headers” (high performance exhaust systems) to bypass the mufflers. From experience, I knew the slight lag time of my car – from the time I hit the gas pedal to the car’s forward surge – allowed me to start a half second before the green light flashed.

We waited, then the first yellow light flashed on, moving down toward the green light. The moment Rick’s brain told him the light was green, I’d already jumped out from the starting line. He was momentarily stunned, and even though he turned a faster time, he never caught me. It wasn’t really about how fast you went, it was about who got there first. Mind over horsepower. I made it to the finish line first, won the trophy and renewed admiration from my girlfriend.

Yes, it was a moment.

Of course now as a responsible adult I am appalled at my behavior, risking accident and injury on the streets of my sleepy suburban town. Perhaps that’s why it made so much sense for all of us to go just outside of town to the Chicken Ranch.

There was a long, straight road inside the Chicken Ranch property, made for trucks to pick up eggs and chickens, I suppose. Nobody stayed with the chickens at night, especially not on Saturday nights. This particular night had not been the first time high school hot rods had raced there, but it was my first time.

There were dozens of competitors from area high schools and junior colleges, and dozens more who just came to watch. It is a solemn testament to the short-range saturation of the teenage brain that none of us had entertained a single thought about potential consequences. Rubber burned and smoked and engines spit and roared as pair after pair of racers hurtled down the improvised racetrack. After I made my run, the growing chaos of beer-swilling youth amazingly enough triggered some fledgling sense of adult apprehension, and so I left. As I exited the entrance to the Chicken Ranch, I was passed by a long line of police cars.

That was the last race ever held at the Chicken Ranch. It was my senior year, and before long, I’d own a more practical car, have a more practical girlfriend, and grow a little less renegade as the wild anarchy of my teenage years passed. After all, I had to prepare for the wild anarchy of my twenties.



~ by Russ Allison Loar
© All Rights Reserved