It is the first week of November. Hubby and I venture out for an afternoon drive. Only a few hours, to drink in the intoxicating beauty that blankets our Sierra Nevada foothills each year as the seasons rotate. The spectacular reds, purples, oranges, rusts, and golds that shimmer on branches spread wide.The sky overhead an incredible blue, a small flock of fluffy sheep clouds frolicking on the breeze. The air crisp, exhilarating but not yet cold, perfect for turtlenecks and a light jacket. We park and stroll up and down a bit. So beautiful! So perfect! We exchange a nod and a smile, unspoken confirmation of our decision thirty years ago to uproot ourselves from a crowded coastal community and move to this paradise.
A sudden gust shakes a blizzard of leaves from their moorings and scatters them amid fallen acorns at our feet, where they whirl in a kaleidoscope of brilliant color. A stronger gust ripples our windbreakers and lifts our hair.
Last night the weatherman predicted the winds would pick up later this evening, but we don’t care. We love the cold night air, cranking open the window next to our bed, snuggling under a down comforter encased in cozy flannel, listening to the wind in the tall pines, oaks and cedars outside. Such nights spawn the most wonderful dreams, and deep, sound sleep. So peaceful. So perfect.
With the dawn, the devil comes snarling. A temperature inversion, they call it, whipping sweet breezes into a tornado—a hellish, fiendish monster of a wind from the northeast that races across forested ridges, ripping bone-dry limbs from the trees. Power lines high on a ridge arc, then spark. A tiny finger of flame erupts amid swirling leaves. In moments the tiny flame becomes a fire. Billowing, gray smoke filling the air. Then an inferno. Terrifying reds, purples, oranges, rusts, and golds.
Red-hot embers driven by 70-mile-an-hour gusts spread the fire at the speed of light, here, there, everywhere. Pines, oaks, and cedars now torches. Wild-eyed creatures flee this way, that way, up into branches, down into holes, anywhere at all to escape the searing heat—paws blistering, flesh sizzling.
Flames consume the first buildings and race onward, faster and faster—onward toward Paradise. Closer and closer. Propane tanks explode like bombs.
Screaming, wild-eyed people grab their children, jump in their cars and trucks to head downhill, away from the flames. Hundreds of them clog narrow roads. Traffic not moving, not even an inch. Fiery, shrapnel-like embers, whipped by the wind, overtake them, ignite the forest all around. Surrounded by fire. Nowhere to turn. Nowhere to go. No escaping the beast. Hotter and hotter. Blinding, choking black smoke. Visibility zero.
Panicked people abandon their vehicles and flee on foot—feet blistering, flesh sizzling. Chaos. Mayhem. Home after home, school after school, business after business ignites, solid walls of flame and death.
Screams of agony dance on the wind. Prayers, too, but no one is listening.
Paradise is lost.
Tomorrow is Veterans Day. As always, my thoughts turn to my favorite veteran, Colonel Arthur Philip Murphy, my dad, who spent nearly five years in the Philippines during World War II, most of that time listed as “missing in action” (translation: presumed dead). His was a fascinating story. During the last week of this month, November 2018, my book about his experiences will be published and available through First Steps Publishing, Amazon.com, and other sources. I’m excited and happy; writing it and following through to publication has been a long, sometimes arduous, though ultimately rewarding process. But on this Veterans Day I’d like to quote some of my dad’s own words, written in North Luzon, Philippine Islands, in mid-1945 as the war was drawing to a close, finally, and it was becoming more likely each day that he was actually going to survive to return home to his wife and family in California. His words doubtless reflect the sentiments of many veterans of many wars.
June 6, 1945: “War can be a boring thing. The trouble is you don’t have an opportunity for any other interests, so when the fighting isn’t exciting—which it is not most of the time—I’m like a fish out of water. I’m afraid that when I get home, I’m going to have to learn to have fun all over again. Sometimes, when I think of living back home with no war to engross me, it seems an incredibly boring prospect, and that scares me. You see, this war has calloused over many of my tender spots. When one learns to look at destroyed towns and cities without emotion, when one learns to give information to the Air Force for the wholesale destruction of others, when one learns to have little regard for the uniqueness of human life—‘We took Hill X cheaply, only ten men killed’ or ‘In Town Y are 100 Japs and 100 civilians; recommend bombing and strafing’—in the process one becomes hardened. During the [Japanese] occupation, many of our [guerrilla] soldiers surrendered to the enemy because their families had been imprisoned or tortured. We regarded them as traitors and, if we caught them back in our area, we shot them on sight. Cruel and tough, it’s true, but that’s the reason we survived and grew while other [guerrilla] units failed. The worst thing about this war is not the destruction and death that men have accomplished but the indifference with which they’ve had to learn to accomplish it in order to stay alive. Sometimes I think of the damage and destruction these years of war have done to the world and I shudder.
Art Murphy, North Luzon, Philippines, 1945
“But I’m getting morbid. This is not the first war in the world’s history, and it probably won’t be the last. I suppose death and destruction will always be just another aspect of living. I only hope that when I come home, I can learn again to do the everyday, inconsequential things and get a bang out of doing them. Right now, that’s hard to imagine.”
August 16, 1945: “Well, the war is finally over, but the Japs haven’t started to surrender yet. The radio says the [Japanese] Emperor’s order to cease firing and surrender will be given sometime today. But just yesterday we had four men killed and twenty-one wounded up on our front, and last night a lone Jap was killed trying to attack one of our command posts. But there’s a general feeling that the big show is over. Anything after this will be an anticlimax. Not that the news caused any big celebrations here. Our principal reaction is that of a plow horse when his harness is removed at the end of a long, hot afternoon. He just feels like having some chow and resting in his stall, not going out and kicking up his heels. We’ll leave that to the people back home who can muster the necessary excess energy in spite of the privations they’ve endured.”
For our next trip several weekends later, Daddy wanted to visit his Uncle Lock and Aunt Dink on their farm. He hadn’t seen them since Christmas of 1940, just before he left for the Philippines. Uncle Lock had worked for an insurance company in Fresno all his life, but when he got close to retirement, he bought an old-fashioned farm near Woodlake in Tulare County.
It was still dark as we set out on Saturday morning. Leaving the thick Bay Area fog behind, we passed through Oakland, Hayward, and Livermore before seven. As Daddy drove through Modesto and south on Highway 99, the temperature began to climb, so he flung the Plymouth’s wind wings wide to let in the breeze. Then he started the singing. He began with “Old MacDonald had a Farm,” only this time he changed the words: “Uncle Lock he had a farm, E-I-E-I-O, and on that farm he had a cow, E-I-E-I-O. With a moo-moo here and a moo-moo there, here a moo, there a moo, everywhere a moo-moo….” We took turns picking the animals as we went through every verse we could think of: cow, pig, horse, lamb, dog, cat, duck, chickens, and more. My favorite was always the pig verse because the snort noises I made with my nose made everyone laugh. Time flew, and before we knew it, we were in Woodlake and bumping up Uncle Lock and Aunt Dink’s dusty driveway.
Rusty was with us too, but he wasted no time in making trouble. As we pulled up in front of the house, he evidently spotted a flock of chickens pecking at the ground over among a grove of scrubby trees. He pressed his nose against the side window, his body tense and quivering. Without thinking, I opened the door, and in a flash he was gone, barking wildly and scattering the terrified chickens in every direction. This was even more fun than chasing cars or cats!
“Damn that dog,” Daddy muttered as he jumped out the driver’s door, grabbed a rope from the trunk, and sprinted after Rusty. When Daddy finally corralled him, he walloped him a couple of times on his bottom with the coiled rope and tied him up to the front bumper of the car. Rusty crawled underneath as far as he could reach and hid behind a tire.
After all the kissing and hugging was over with and our suitcases hauled inside, Mommy took Rusty a bowl of water. But Uncle Lock, an old softie when it came to dogs, felt sorry for him, so he rounded up the chickens and put them into their pen so he didn’t have to stay tied up anymore.
After lunch, Uncle Lock suggested that Eleanor and I take Rusty and go swimming in a big irrigation ditch that crossed their property a ways from the house. At first Mommy was afraid the current might sweep us into a culvert, but Uncle Lock just winked and said the culverts were screened to keep critters out, so he guessed we wouldn’t drown. The word “critters” got our attention. “What kind of critters?” we wanted to know.
“Well,” Uncle Lock said as he winked at Mommy again, “there are probably alligators and crocodiles and maybe a rhinoceros or a hippo, but they won’t hurt you because I have them trained not to bite little kids or cocker spaniels.” We could tell he was just kidding, so we changed into shorts and off we went, clanging the kitchen pots and spoons Aunt Dink had given us to play with.
Eighteen inches of water filled the ditch, cool but not cold. The mud on the bottom squished between our toes as we played, splashing each other and Rusty too. Mommy called us in after only an hour, but we got sunburned anyway and had to have Aunt Dink rub Crisco on our shoulders to ease the sting and prevent peeling.
Then Uncle Lock asked if we’d like to go for a walk to check out the farm. Eleanor had begun reading a Pearl Buck book she’d brought along, and Rusty was already snoring on the rag rug under the dining room table, but Daddy and I thought a walk was a fine idea. I trotted along beside them until we came to a willow tree with several thick dead branches at its base. Uncle Lock broke one off with a loud crack, took out his pocket knife, cut off a chunk about five inches long, scraped off the bark and sat down and began to whittle. I squatted beside him and watched, fascinated, while he worked. He carved a little wooden doll, with legs and feet and everything. They didn’t move, though. As he handed the doll to me, he said with another wink, “This is a good luck doll. It’ll protect you so that you never get eaten by any alligators or crocodiles.” Daddy laughed. I laughed too and took Uncle Lock’s hand as we walked back toward the house.
While Daddy went ahead to unload more things from our car, Uncle Lock unlatched the gate of the chicken pen and I followed him in. In a flash, he grabbed a chicken by its feet, flicked open his pocket knife and, with one quick move, cut off its head. Then he grabbed another and did the same thing. I looked on in horror as the chicken bodies ran around in circles, blood spurting from the necks, while the two heads lay there in the dirt, the beaks wide open and the bulging eyes going blink, blink.
That evening Aunt Dink made a big fried chicken supper. I ate lots of mashed potatoes and gravy and two whole ears of corn, but I didn’t touch the chicken, and I decided at that moment that I would never marry a farmer.
Our Woodlake trip satisfied Daddy for a couple of months, but then he started to get restless again. “Antsy,” Mommy called it. He bought a book about camping, and in the evenings he pored over it, underlining things and making pencil notes in the margins. He drew pages and pages of diagrams and made a long list on a tablet.
“What on earth are you doing?” Mommy wanted to know.
“You’ll see,” Daddy said, humming happily to himself.
He made several trips to the lumberyard and the hardware store. Then he closed himself in the garage and began sawing and hammering. Nobody was allowed to go in. After working in the garage for three weekends straight, Daddy wheeled his masterpiece out onto the driveway.
“What is it?” Mommy asked.
“It’s a camping trailer,” Daddy announced proudly. “As soon as school’s out, we’re going to Lake Almanor!”
It wasn’t a fancy camping trailer you could sleep in, but rather a plain, brown-painted wooden box with an open top and a wheel on each side, small enough to be towed behind our Plymouth. The tailgate of the trailer dropped down on hinges to form a counter, and behind that Daddy built cubbies to hold kitchen goods: tin plates, cups and cutlery, a cast-iron skillet, a couple of pots, matches for starting a fire. Bisquick, Crisco, pancake syrup, ketchup, mustard, salt and pepper, sugar and coffee. At an Army surplus store he bought a Coleman stove with an attached screw-top metal bottle for kerosene, a couple of Coleman lanterns, four down sleeping bags—mummy bags, he called them—and four air mattresses, the kind you had to inflate with a foot pump that looked like a turtle. Finally, he bought two khaki-colored canvas pup tents.
“Why are they called pup tents?” I wanted to know. “Is that where the doggies sleep?”
“No. They’re called pup tents because they’re much smaller than full-size tents, just like pups are much smaller than full-size dogs. Pup tents are made smaller and lighter so soldiers in the field can carry them on their backs.”
“Don’t soldiers have doggies?”
“You, Trish, ask too many questions.”
A hatchet, a couple of buckets, a card table, two canvas director chairs, a folding shovel, and lots of fishing equipment rounded out our gear.
For a cover, Daddy made one last trip to the surplus store and bought a heavy tarp with grommets around the sides. He tied it down over the load with a long rope that crisscrossed over the top from side to side, held in place by sturdy hooks from the hardware store.
“Day after tomorrow,” Daddy announced, “we leave for Almanor!”
“We’re going camping,” I informed Mike Bradley, puffing out my chest, “but you can’t go. Rusty gets to go this time, and we’re going to sleep in sleeping bags on top of air mattresses inside our new pup tents. They’re real Army tents, not like the ones at Yosemite, and they’re small enough so the soldiers in the field can carry them on their backs.”
“Wow,” said Mike, suitably impressed. “I wish I could go too.”
On the way to Lake Almanor, the rope holding the tarp on the trailer came loose, leaving one corner flapping in the wind. Daddy said “dammit” and pulled off on the shoulder so he could tie it again, more securely this time.
We hadn’t been back on the road five minutes when I had to go to the bathroom.
“Why didn’t you go when we were stopped?” Daddy snapped.
“There wasn’t any bathroom.”
“Haven’t you ever peed on the side of the road?”
“No. I didn’t know we were allowed to do that.”
He pulled off again and told me to get out and go.
“But what if somebody sees me?”
“Nobody’s going to see you. Go ahead and pee. We haven’t got all day, dammit!”
I jumped out on the passenger’s side, yanked down my jeans, peed as fast as I could, pulled my jeans up, and jumped back in the car. “I got some pee on my shoe,” I said.
Our tires squealed as Daddy pulled back onto the pavement.
Not thirty minutes later we heard a loud pop, and the trailer began thump-thump-thumping down the highway. Daddy said “dammit” two more times as he braked and veered onto the shoulder. By now it was over ninety degrees. He had to unhitch the trailer and take a bunch of stuff out of the trunk in order to reach the car jack stored at the bottom. Then he jacked the trailer up and took off the flat tire, pulled out the inner tube, and got out his repair kit to patch the hole. Sweat ran down his face and dripped from his chin right onto the glue he was using to fix the tube. “Dammit,” he said.
Meanwhile, Mommy and Eleanor and I sat on the ground in the shade next to the car. I had hold of Rusty’s leash, but he wasn’t interested in sitting. He sniffed around here and there and then, pulling as far as his leash would reach, he peed right on the trailer tire lying on the ground. “Goddamn that dog,” Daddy muttered.
We pulled into the campground at Lake Almanor late in the afternoon and got our first taste of what camping was all about. Daddy hiked down to the lake to fill two buckets with water, strung up the rope from the trailer as a clothesline, and then showed Eleanor and me how to use the turtle foot pump to blow up the air mattresses. We had to take
turns because it was hard work. Then he put up the pup tents and used the folding shovel to dig a shallow trench around each tent and continuing off into the trees. “In case it rains,” he said, “the water will drain away and not seep into our tents and soak everything.”
Our last chore was to spread our sleeping bags on top of the air mattresses and gather a pile of kindling. “In order for an outfit to run smoothly and efficiently,” Daddy reminded us, “everyone has to do their part.”
While he was telling us this, Rusty went over and peed on the side of one of the tents. Daddy yelled at him and tried to catch him to give him a spanking, but Rusty ran under the car and wouldn’t come out. “Goddammit,” Daddy muttered under his breath. “Goddammit to hell.”
By now we were all starving. Daddy set up the Coleman stove on its stand and worked the little metal pump with his thumb so the kerosene would go to the burners. Mommy opened two cans of pork and beans, and while the beans heated, she spread a piece of bright yellow oilcloth on the redwood table provided at the campsite and got out the bread and butter.
“You girls set the table for your mother while I find some larger logs for our campfire. In order for an outfit to run smoothly and—“
“Yeah, yeah, Daddy, we know.”
After dinner we were all so tired that as soon as the dishes were washed and put away, we crawled into our sleeping bags for the night. Rusty was tied on a rope outside, but it didn’t take him long to wriggle under the mosquito-net door of our tent and snuggle down between Eleanor and me. It was, after all, a pup tent.
The next day we went fishing. Daddy showed us how to stick the hook through the worm’s body several times, starting with the head. Eleanor and I hated that part, but Daddy said it didn’t make any difference because the fish were going to eat them anyway.
I caught my first trout that afternoon, and Eleanor caught two. Daddy caught a whole bunch. The colors running down their sides reminded me of shiny rainbows, all pale, shimmery red and green and blue. Daddy kept them alive in the water on a string threaded through their gills and mouths, kind of like Rusty on his leash.
Late that afternoon, he cut off the fishes’ heads right behind the gills—yuck!—slit open their bellies—yuck, yuck!—cleaned out their guts—yuck, yuck, yuck!—scraped off their scales with a little scraper, and turned them over to Mommy. Her job was to dip them in beaten egg, roll them in Bisquick seasoned with salt and pepper, and fry them in the frying pan. When they were all brown and crispy, she squirted on a little lemon juice and set them on the table. Daddy showed us how to use a knife and fork to carefully lift the fish meat off the string of bones that went down the fish’s middle, but I guess I wasn’t doing such a good job because Mommy came around and finished it for me. “If you swallow fish bones, she said, glaring at Daddy, “they could perforate your stomach.”
The pink trout meat was delicious, and I ate every bite.
Later, as we sat around the campfire, Mommy said she and Daddy had a surprise for us.
“Tell us, tell us, tell us,” I yelled. “Tell us the surprise!”
“Well,” Mommy said, “you girls are going to have a new baby brother or sister in a few months. I have a tiny baby in my tummy, and it’ll be ready to be born this fall, probably before Christmas.”
“Just one?” I wanted to know.
“I think so,” she said. Sometimes people do have twins, but I’m pretty sure I just have only one baby in my tummy.”
“How will it get born? Do you have to squeeze it out like Mittens squeezes out her kittens under the boxes in the garage?”
Mommy laughed. “No, Trish, not quite like that. I’ll go to the hospital to have our baby.”
“Is our baby a boy or a girl?”
“I want a baby brother,” Eleanor said.
“Oh, yes, I want a baby brother too,” I chimed in. “I want a baby brother with blond hair and big blue eyes and fat red cheeks like an apple.”
“I want a boy too,” said Daddy, “and I don’t care what color his hair and eyes and cheeks are just so long as it’s a boy. I wouldn’t even care if it’s two boys! But one of them will have to be named Arthur, after me.”
“We’ll see, we’ll see,” Mommy said, patting her tummy and smiling a nice happy smile.
That night, as I snuggled down in my mummy bag, I dreamed about the new baby, only in my dream there was a whole litter of babies and they had to stay under the boxes in the garage at night because Daddy wouldn’t let them come in the house because they had fleas.”
At the end of July, the Bradleys invited us to spend a weekend at their family cabin up at Russian River. Daddy was thrilled to have another short vacation on the agenda, and the rest of us were excited too. Even Rusty was invited.
I didn’t like the drive up to Russian River so much because toward the end the road started twisting and turning, and my tummy began to feel sick. Mommy handed me a saltine cracker and told me not to look out the side windows. She said if I sat in the middle of the back seat and looked straight ahead out through the front windshield at the painted line down the middle of the pavement, I’d feel better. And guess what? It worked! I kept my eyes glued on that center line every second until we got there.
The Bradleys’ cabin, surrounded by towering trees on the bank above the river, was dark brown, unpainted wood with red trim around the windows. Mommy called the cabin “rustic,” but I thought it was beautiful. It looked like the Alm-Uncle’s house described in my favorite book about Heidi and the goatherd, Peter. Or maybe Snow White’s house in the woods, with dwarfs and squirrels and tweeting bluebirds. The roof was tall and pointy and covered in thick wooden shingles right up to the stone chimney.
“The cabin is made of redwood,” Daddy explained as he began unloading our suitcases and sleeping bags. “It doesn’t have to be painted because bugs don’t like to eat redwood and it lasts for a century without rotting.”
Inside, most of the built-in furniture was made of redwood too, even the built-in bunks in the bedrooms.
In the living room, a massive rock fireplace rose from the floor all the way up to a giant beam that supported the roof. I’d always been fascinated by flames dancing and sparks swirling in a fireplace, but there was something I loved even more about this particular fireplace after Mr. Bradley told us their family tradition: “When company comes up here to the cabin for the first time,” he said, “each visitor makes a wish and then hides a coin in one of the crevices among the rocks.”
“What a charming, delightful idea,” Mommy gushed.
Daddy reached into his pocket and gave Eleanor and me each a dime to add to the collection. After some thought, I wished I could stop chewing my fingernails right down to the quick so that maybe Mommy could paint them pale pink and I could get a gold ring with my birthstone in it. I hid my dime as high up as I could reach, deep in the crack between two rocks right next to the wall. Eleanor hid her dime too, and Daddy and Mommy each tucked a fifty-cent piece into cracks higher up on the fireplace. Of course, I didn’t know what any of them wished for because, if you tell what you wish for, it won’t come true. Everybody knows that.
That afternoon Daddy and Mr. Bradley and all the kid
s put on bathing suits and clambered down the path through the huge boulders that protected the cabin from the Russian River. The sandy river bank was gradual, and the water, except for the deep channel, shallow and slow-moving enough in summer that we weren’t in danger, even if we couldn’t swim yet.
Partway across the river, at the edge of the deepest part, a giant dead tree lay stuck in the sandy bottom. Mr. Bradley claimed the tree had been knocked down in a big flood long before he bought their cabin and had been stuck there for so many years that it was now worn satiny smooth by the current and had its own name: “The Old Man.”
A neighbor brought his rubber raft down to the water’s edge, and Daddy and Mr. Bradley helped him load up driftwood chunks for the fireplace. They used Mr. Bradley’s axe and wedge to split the bigger pieces into smaller ones and some of the smaller ones into kindling.
As the men worked, we kids had a fine time splashing in the water and climbing on The Old Man, stuck forever in the sandy bottom of the river. We pretended he was a pirate ship and we were the pirates. Using driftwood branches as swords, we sailed an imaginary ocean, yelling “Ahoy, ahoy there” as we boarded every ship we could catch in order to steal their cargo. “Ahoy, mates! Arrgggh, look at all me gold!” hollered Mike Bradley, waving his pretend sword menacingly overhead.
The neighbors joined us for hamburgers that evening. Mommy served the fruit salad she’d brought with us from home, and the next-door lady contributed a chocolate sheet cake for dessert because it was her husband’s thirtieth birthday. After he blew out the candles, we all crowded in front of the roaring fire in the fireplace and took turns telling stories. Mike’s story was all about swashbuckling pirates and stolen gold, and Mr. Bradley followed that up with an exciting tale about rescuing mermaids on the high seas.
When it was time for bed, we kids unrolled our sleeping bags on the built-in bunks in the biggest dormitory bedroom. Rusty hopped up next to me and snuggled close. The others dropped off right away, but I couldn’t go to sleep. I didn’t have my thumb anymore, and all I could think about were the nickels and dimes and quarters and fifty-cent pieces—and, who knows, maybe even a silver dollar or two—hidden away in the deep, dusty crevices of the fireplace in the living room, probably enough money to buy all the bicycles and roller skates and princess dresses and birthstone rings in the whole world.