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          Miracle at Soda Canyon part 1

Mary Jane Stevens joins Building a Better Story with Miracle at Soda Canyon, A Tale About One of the Worst Fires In California History. Mary Jane, a Napa resident for over 30 years, lives part time in Truckee. A retired business owner, she has begun to write about her life, her two adult children, one grandchild and husband Bob. She feels blessed in her marriage, which recently has survived more than the usual troubles of modern life. Please enjoy Mary Jane’s harrowing tale of fire and miracles.

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cnbc.com

Late Sunday evening, October 8, my husband Bob, called me at our home in Truckee to say that there were helicopters with bright lights hovering low outside our house in Napa; over loud speakers they were saying, “Fire! Evacuate! Evacuate Immediately!” 

Bob asked what he should take and I suggested a few necessities, cash, the insurance policy file, our laptop computers and my good jewelry, all which were in easy to reach places. I said, “Get out of there fast and call me when you get down the hill.”  He wanted to take all the paperwork out of the office but I told him to leave it, his life was the most important thing. I told him we’d made it through a fire in 2011 when the house was gutted, and we could do it again.

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About twenty minutes later I saw Bob’s name on my cell phone screen. I was relieved—a little prematurely it turned out. He was calling to say he couldn’t get down the hill—the road was blocked.  He and about twenty-five people, including neighbors and some vineyard workers who’d been picking in the dead of night, were trapped by the fire.  They were at the top of Soda Canyon Road near Atlas Peak Road seven miles from Silverado Trail, close to where the fire may have started.  No way out!

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And no one knew they were stranded.

The helicopters had moved on to warn others.  The group decided to move to a clear area at Stagecoach Vineyards which happened to be near vineyard manager Esteban’s home where they still had cell service.  

 

I sent my kids a text then called them to let  them know what was going on.  Casey and Kelly deserved to know their dad was in serious danger. They would never have forgiven me if something happened to him, and I hadn’t warned them.

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Kelly, as it turned out, had her phone turned off for the night, so she did not get my messages until the following morning. 

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Casey, who is a Los Angeles City Firefighter, immediately hung up and called Bob to get the GPS coordinates from his cell phone. With those coordinates he called someone he works with at the department’s command center. Casey told his contact about the people stranded near a fast moving fire in Napa, gave him the coordinates and asked him to contact the Cal Fire Commander in Napa with the information to rescue his dad and the others. 

 Whenever Casey was not out on calls we talked on the phone during the night.  Both of us feared the worst, but neither said what we were really thinking.  Friends from Napa had told us the fire was huge, and the winds the strongest anyone had seen in recent memory.  Bob told us, in our last conversation, the fire was raging right toward him. It was excruciating not having more information.

 

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Atlas Fire    Napa Valley Register

Earlier my friend, Carolyn, called me from the deck of her home in west Napa as soon as she saw the fire across the valley.  She was supposed to join me, along with several of our friends, at my home in Truckee the following day and knew Bob was home alone. A childhood friend, she’s has known Bob all his life. She was watching the fire scream across the mountain at an unbelievable pace and worried about him.  She stayed on the phone with me, off and on, most of the night giving me much needed emotional support.  Many of my Napa friends texted me throughout the night with words of encouragement and prayers for Bob’s safety.

When we talked, I told Casey how quickly Carolyn could see fire spreading and it wasn’t looking good for Bob’s evacuation. Unknown-4

To be continued…

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Filed under Autobiographical Writing, Fire Season, Students

Thicker Than Smoke

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westernfarmpress.com

Thicker than Smoke

by Nathaniel Robert Winters

This morning as Rue and I walked the mile-long trail through vineyards from the library to the bone dry Napa River, I realized just how lucky we were. Smokey haze had been replaced with clean air for the first time since the Sunday night our fiery ordeal started. Overnight, light, moist ocean breezes blew the evil air out of the valley.  Puffy cumulus clouds dotted the blue, sunshiny sky. Up north over Mount St. Helena, darker stratus clouds promised rain. Our little town of St. Helena appears to have been spared.

 

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visitcalifornia.com

In the midst of all the devastation, I want to share two happy stories. Last Tuesday my wife Colleen, our friend Mary, Rue and I evacuated to San Francisco. We stopped for lunch on Clement Street, still weighing our options as to which family or friends to impose ourselves upon. After eating, while Colleen and Mary still conversed, I took Rue outside and came upon a couple smooching.

images-7I asked, “Excuse me, do you two know each other?”

The lady laughingly said, “Yeah… I think so.”

That started a conversation where I explained that we had come down from the fire. They left wishing me luck. A few minutes later the woman came back and gave me her number and invited us to stay at their unoccupied apartment in Berkeley. While I told her we had other options, I was taken aback by their generosity. “Thank you so much,” was all I could say.

Last night we went out for dinner at Market in downtown St. Helena. In the back a large group of tables was filled with a group of firefighters from San Diego the restaurant had been feeding all week. This was their last night after ten days of twelve-hour shifts. As they stood to leave, after taking pictures, the patrons and staff gave the first responders a standing ovation. They and the other firefighters had saved our town.

On our way out, I noticed a sign on the window that said,  “The love is thicker than the smoke.”

Indeed.

 

10/22/17     Nathaniel Robert Winters

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Filed under Fire Season, Memoir, Students

Blessings in Ashes

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“Fire Season” takes on new meaning in Sonoma and Napa Counties, California. Now a month after the night fires raged through our mountains and valleys, cities and vinyards, homesteads and housing complexes, people are telling their stories. 

Memoirist Lynn Hakes’ Napa neighborhood wasn’t evacuated or burned. They were some of the lucky ones, but the disaster didn’t leave anyone untouched. Here is her story. 

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Photograph Cathy Carsell October 9, 2017 Napa Valley

Blessings in Ashes

Lynne Hakes

Waking up to a red glow in the bedroom, I wondered what was happening. Was it the end of the world? Then I smelled it – smoke. Out of bed in a flash, I peeked outside and saw nothing. The radio! Maybe there’s something on the radio. The dreaded words shot through me like a bullet: “…fire in the Napa Valley.”

“Quick, grab your bathrobe.” I muttered to myself out loud. Flying down the stairs, tripping on the last step, turning on the TV, there it was. Crackling fire; embers flying everywhere. Announcer in a blue jacket standing in front of blazing pine trees. This was a big deal.

My husband followed, and we settled down to watch, he in his recliner and I on the couch. We were rapt, struggling to understand what we were seeing and hearing. No thoughts of coffee; no thoughts of breakfast, we sat there wide-eyed for the rest of the morning. Will it come to Napa? Should we be prepared to run?

Well, we should probably get ready. Grab the birth certificates and the passports. A few family pictures off the wall; the albums are too heavy. Address book, purse, phones, medications. Clothes? What do you wear to an evacuation? Is there gas in the vehicles?

Phone calls came from family and friends out of state. “We’re OK. We’ll call you if that changes.”

I don’t remember getting dressed or eating that morning. Longing to help in some way, we tore ourselves away from the TV and made the rounds of the shelters, offering to volunteer or bring food or water. We were too late; there were already enough people with offers of help. They turned us away.

Back at home we sat glued to the TV the rest of the day and into the evening. Again, the next day. And the next. We were safe. A few miles east, a few miles west, people lost everything. Why were we spared?

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As the days went by, gratitude replaced fear and anxiety. Gratitude for our safety; gratitude for the firefighters, the medics, the brave souls who worked together to warn, to help evacuate, to organize the shelters, to feed people. And compassion for those who lost homes, businesses and loved ones. Struggling to imagine their losses and their feelings, I knew I couldn’t come close.

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Hearing more and more stories of loss, my feelings of guilt crept in. Survivors’ guilt, they call it. What do I do with that? Are there lessons to be learned?  Be a little more tuned into people, their stories, their fears, their feelings from now on? Could more caring and compassion replace guilt?

Is it possible to find blessings in the ashes?

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In Memory, With Love

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People do not die for us immediately but remain bathed in a sort of aura of life which bears no relation to true immortality but through which they continue to occupy our thoughts in the same way as when they were alive. It is as though they were traveling abroad.  Marcel Proust

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I’m waiting for Mike, but he’s not coming back. He left us last month as the dreary rains dried up and the Napa Valley rioted into leaf and bloom. I was sure he would emerge from his Beemer in the swirl of white petals billowing from the trees shading the Upper Valley Campus parking lot. The prodigal student returning, his hat jaunty over his crisp pink button-down and white duck trousers a manuscript tucked into his portfolio and a twinkle in his eye.

You might say Michael was this teacher’s pet. But in the four years Michael Weaver Layne and I shared stories and literary criticism, we became more than teacher and pet. We became friends.

Mike trusted me with his words and I saw in his writing the potential for acclaim. His mind was wildly creative and he wrote with abandon and humor. It was a joy to read his stories and a joy to know him. Jonathan Franzen says on death: “The fundamental fact about all of us is that we’re alive for a while but will die before long. This fact is the real root cause of all our anger and pain and despair. And you can either run from this fact or, by way of love, you can embrace it.”  Mike Layne loved life, embraced it, and brought lightness to my world.

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“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there. It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so as long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away.”    Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

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Mike Layne’s legacy remains with us in his beautiful architecture, infinity pools, irreverent short stories and an unpublished novel, Mammoth, written in the style of a Clive Cussler thriller. It was Mike’s dearest wish to co-publish Mammoth with Clive. At his death, Mike was negotiating with Clive’s editor for a leg up. He was going to make it.

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Mike was also compiling a book of short stories to be titled Blah Blat and Blather. The following is one of the stories slated for the collection and one of the last pieces we worked on in class.

In an email to our group:

Dear incredible writers,
  After class, at home perched on my porch with another full glass of Pinot, I ruminated over the class critique. The original ending, something I fashioned from memories of Bambi came out as planned  (I admit to being a Disney fan, Frozen giving me warm toasty moments).images-1
    But Daphne’s observation jarred me into re-crafting the ending, cleansing it of much Walt’s fantasy.  So—–with meekness, I’ll stand it on.
Mike

 

 

Lord is my Shepherd

by

Michael Weaver Layne

No moment’s timing could have been better than when Lord entered my life. Vicky had left me, slamming the door in my face, ending what I thought was a near perfect relationship.

“What could be wrong with wanting sex three times a day?” She screamed as she stomped down the steps to the gravel drive.

“I suppose nothing, except the demand it imposes on durability,” I shouted. I felt durable enough, after all, I run marathons. But even runners need occasional breaks.

I watched as she throttled her Subaru down my long drive to the Silverado Trail.

Okay, it’s over. I sighed.

I poured a Pinot into my glass, filling it to the rim and settled into the teak chair on my porch and began dissecting my thoughts. No more evenings with Vicky on the porch, watching the cars go by. No more evenings in bed with Vicky feeling my manhood sucked away ––– sitting solo on the porch –––– not nearly as bad as I had feared. I missed Vicky the nympho but welcomed the respite from her lusty demands.

I filled my glass once more and gazed across my vineyard and down the vacant drive to the Silverado Trail. A pickup swerved into my drive, sliding to a stop, its driver kicking something out of the truck’s rear bed.

“Oh no! Good lord not again.” I cursed. From my porch, I could see a little gray ball of fur yelping desperately at the truck as it sped away.

“Damn,” I growled, “Another abandoned orphan.”

It occurred all too often. An unwanted pet dropped into the midst of paradise to fend for itself, or if lucky, find adoption.

I set my glass on the table and loped down the drive. “Hey boy, come on it’s okay,” I shouted.

Rather than dart off into traffic to be run over, as these outcasts often did, the little fur bundle, yipping happily, dashed in my direction zigging down the drive. I knelt to my knees and it sailed into my arms, swabbing my face with its tongue.

“Good lord stop that,” I shouted with a laugh, holding the pup at arm’s length and just beyond the reach of its tongue. Lordy Lordy, you’re an affectionate little dog.

We bonded instantly.

“Lord.” I announced, let’s name you Lord.”

From that instant, Lord became his name and we became inseparable, best buddies, constant companions, and like the nights with Vicky, Lord and I shared the bed –– the difference, cuddling and sleep our only goal.

He loved television, particularly the Simpsons. He would lay motionless for episodes, his chin on crossed paws, one ear up and one down, his one blue eye and one brown, following Marge’s blue hairdo as if it were another candidate in need of herding.

Lords intelligence amazed me. I figured out ways for us to entertain each other. I taught his tongue to read braille. I made up plastic cards with raised dots for the words, roll over, sit, or shake. Lord would lick them, then for a treat, perform the command.

Other things too. The fire hydrant I brought home from a flea market and placed in the yard. Lord understood immediately and from that day on, it stood as his private urinal.

Lord grew into a fine sheep dog, eager to chase a Frisbee. He loved my pool and the mallard that would drop in on misty mornings. In fact, Lord loved everything. His insatiable fondness for life, his tragic flaw.

His first affair was with the skunk who lived along the Napa River, his amorous advance meeting with a blast of spray. Repeated baths of tomato soup did little to clean Lord or mask the skunk’s odor.

Next, he sought romance with a porcupine. Our vet spent half a day plucking quills from Lord’s muzzle.

In spite of these miss-adventures, he loved every animal on the ranch. The raccoons that he treed at night with gleeful barks, the squirrels whose walnuts he would dig up and chew like a bone.

Lord become a canine gigolo, lavishing love on all the ranch’s creatures.

Born to herd, he constantly dashed along the river or between the vines, organizing the progress of any creature he could spot. Quail scattered at his approach, gophers ducked back into their burrows, butterflies drifted higher as he bounded into the air to move them this way or that.

Herding was Lords passion and the bigger the thing, the better the challenge.

One morning as the lingering fog lifted, a UPS truck sped down the drive, a challenge that Lord could not ignore. Barking with delight and nipping at the tires he tried to swerve the truck to the side of the driveway.

Lord dashed in too close tripping under the truck’s front bumper. The driver unable to avoid hitting Lord rolled over him with a sickening thump.

Twisted and broken, Lord lay on the drive his tongue still lapping the air, his eyes bewildered, his hind leg twitching, then turning still.

I scooped him up and hugged him to my chest wishing desperately for one more swish of his tongue, one more wag of his butt.

I felt his last shudder. It was over.

He slumped, limp in my arms, his legs dangling in weird directions from his crushed pelvis.

“I’ll miss you, Lord,” I whispered in his ear, tears rolling down my cheeks and dripping from my chin.

I buried Lord under an ancient oak tree and within sight of my perch on the porch. I filled my glass with pinot to the rim, with eyes still pooling tears I stared at the mound of freshly piled soil.

A blue Jay scolded from an over-hanging branch, a haunting requiem bidding Lord farewell.

I looked at the two dog biscuits, Lord’s favorites that I placed next to his Frisbee on top of the mound. Two squirrels scurried down from the tree and scooped the soft dirt, reverently burying the biscuits.

Their heads popped up at a sound from the river. I followed their gaze. From beneath the trunk of a fallen tree, hidden in shadows, I spotted the outline of the skunk. The squirrels twitched their tails, alerted by scraping from the gravel drive. The porcupine shuffled past casting the burial mound a passing glance then disappeared into the mustard growing beneath the vines in the vineyard.

I looked back at the still squawking jay and caught a glimpse of the raccoon peering from behind a branch.

I re-filled my glass and walked over to the grave. I could feel eyes watching me. Lord’s friends mourning from afar, hidden yet present. I stood over the Lord’s grave alone.

A butterfly floated by.

My fingers twitched as I took Lord’s epithet scribbled on the back of a box of his favorite kibble and nailed it to the tree.

Lord my best buddy, I’ll miss you, dear friend

When we first met, I never thought it would end.

Now you are gone, and impossible to replace

Life without you, I’m not sure I can face

Your blunt little butt and eyes mismatched

All that is left, this note I have scratched

Lord you were my Shepherd

A friend so true

Never a day— that I won’t miss you.

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Mike, if I may steal your words— you were a friend and “never a day—that I won’t miss you.”

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He was a man, take him for all in all.
I shall not look upon his like again.

Shakespeare         Hamlet

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Filed under Memoir, Obituaries, Students