Say It Isn't So

Monday, October 31, 2005



It was two years ago that Southern California was burning. This is a shot of the "Olds Fire". It came roaring across a 20 mile stretch of the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains in one night. This particular fire took out hundreds of homes. It was raining ash for days.

There were other fires burning all across the southland. My cousins in San Diego were evacuated. They were lucky because the "Pines Fire" did not quite make it to their home. In all, thousands of homes were destroyed. I love those mountains, but at the time, I was glad to be a flatlander.

Mother Nature throws everything at us. Earth, Wind, Fire and Water. The resilience of man shows up in the ability to pick up the pieces and rebuild, or in some cases move on.

Monday, October 24, 2005


When I was growing up, I had two favourite uncles, amongst several wonderful uncles. One was my father's brother, and one was my mother's brother. Both were veteran's of the second World War, and both were quite the characters. They had a knack for making me laugh.

Number One Uncle was a victim of what they called "shell shock". It seemed that he went off the deep end, the full details of which I was never privy to. I wasn't born until after this war, so when I first got to know him he was in a sanitorium just outside of Montreal. I remember when we would go out there to visit with him we would pass by the Lachine Rapids. This is how young I was. My mother would say "Look, see the rabbits", and I would see those white rabbits out there in the water, thinking that they must be hanging out on the rocks out there.

They gave my favourite uncle a lobotomy! Cut a nerve in the front of his brain that dissected the right lobe from the left. This was information that I was allowed to have, and even at that time I thought it was horrid. But, it got my uncle his freedom again, and for that I was happy. He went home to live with Grammy and Grandpy. They lived 500 miles away, in the Maritimes. Granpy died shortly thereafter, I don't think there was any relationship between my uncle's return and my Granpy's stroke but you never know. I remember visiting when he was bedridden, and I know he was happy to see me, and I was happy to see him. It was deemed however that I was too young to attend the funeral. He departed this world on Christmas Eve. My uncle looked after Grammy. He worked at the local hardware store and would take her to Church every Sunday. He could play the piano like he had years of training but it was all in his head. You could hum a tune to him and he would start playing it with all 10 fingers called into action creating cords and all. When he finished playing, it would be time for dinner. He would have the same stories to tell. Everyone else would be telling him to be quiet, but I would just sit there listening in total rapture. His stories were always the same with a few subtle variations. He was the bastard son of King George the VI, banished to the M(ouse) family was a recurring theme. Occassionally, he was the bastard son of Franklin D. Roosevelt, but that one was rare. He used to write letters to the Royal Family complaining about what they had done to him. When he wrote to the President with similar complaints, he became a person non grata at the border. This did not last long though, all the border guards knew him. His sister, my aunt, married an American (a large number of the women in my family marry Americans :) so he was a frequent guest. Another favourite theme was how he would sit on satellites. He would talk to aliens while sitting on these satellites looking back at the earth. What was amazing was that this story started long before there were 1000's of them up there! He let me, as a 14 year old, drive his 1965 Chrysler Newport across the world's longest covered wooden bridge. He let me take it up to 105mph on the transcanada highway while he and another of my crazy uncles sat in the backseat. I let off on the gas some, when I felt the wheels leave the earth. My best friend was in the front seat and we all had a hoot! He was insane, and I loved him for it. For a long time I thought that this lobotomy had caused him to be permanently insane, but then came the 70's. Drugs were everywhere, and they had them for schizophrenics too. Voila, my uncle was normal after all. It was kind of depressing, while at the same time wonderful. He is still playing the piano!

My mother's brother was the boyfriend of my mom's best friend. They were expected to get married. My uncle went off to war. Came back when it was all over to find my mom's best friend married to another man. So when the Korean war started he came stateside, and enlisted. It had to be better than being miserable in Canada, eh? When that war was over he stayed in Vermont. He became an antique collector, something he sort of got into over in Korea. I remember he had a really nice old Model T. It was just one step up from riding a horse, and lots of fun. He went back to Canada around retirement time, but he didn't retire. He would travel around all the old farmsteads in the Eastern Townships and offer to clean out their barns and sheds. The antique business carried on. My mom's best friend (they remained close) became a widow, and after a time she started in after my uncle. Pursued him relentlessly. Well, he finally caved in, and married her. He was 65 and finally happy. Life is good!

Sunday, October 16, 2005


The year at school when the first bomb went off turned out to be one of the sickest years on record for me. I still have all my report cards, which is another kind of sickness. Maybe it was psychosomatic, due to the fear now associated with my potentially lethal education. I believe that I had a much bigger fear than that though. As in "Daddy, why don't we have a bomb shelter built in the basement?" kind of fear. The Bay of Pigs hadn't happenned yet, but back then everybody was acutely aware of the impending possibility of instant obliteration. Bombs in mailboxes were small potatoes in comparison. That greater fear was probably one of the greatest lead ins to the "Make Love, Not War" school of thought. Anyway that is for a future blog, maybe.

I got the chicken pox, a most unpleasant condition. This attack of the varicella-zoster virus confers a lifelong immunity (good!) but remains dormant within nerve tissues and may cause herpes zoster, aka shingles, later in life (bad!). Also came the German measles, aka rubella. This was really no big deal physically, except that I was too sick, or should I say contagious, to go and spend the weekend with my cousins in the Eastern Townships. It was more of an emotional blow which was also easy to get over.

The worst of it all was the tonsillitus. The doctor would come, give me some penicillin and some sulfur stuff to ingest. My Mom would have to hide these pills inside of mashed bananas because I could not put a pill in my mouth and swallow it. I had some kind of mental black about that. Even used to chew aspirin which I loved the taste of. Anyway, the tonsillitus would go away and then it would come back a few weeks later. The doctor, still making house calls, would dutifully dole out the same medicine but try other ways to get it inside me. Like needles. Ouch! Everybody was telling me that I needed to have my tonsils removed, but I was having nothing of it. "God gave me these tonsils for a reason and I'm keeping them!" was my response.

All in all, I was absent 20 days from school that year. But I do remember it as a good year. I was in a new school, with new friends. My Mother let me have a hallowe'en party that year. I invited all my new friends and other neighbourhood pals. I got dressed up in a rather strange costume for it, sort of a 'princess meets chipmunk' outfit (see photo). I went out the back door when people started to show up and I walked around the block, rang the doorbell, and arrived at the party. We were all sitting around the living room and every one kept saying "Where's Mary". I had to keep quiet because my voice would be a dead giveaway. My voice has something to do with the nickname "Mouse". My Mom kept saying " Oh, she's around here somewhere." But I had to give up the ghost soon enough. Even a mouse can only keep quiet for so long.

Monday, October 10, 2005


The first bomb went off outside my elementary school. The terrorists phoned someone and told them about a bomb being placed in a mail box one block away from the school that I attended. We only knew that they would not let us go home for lunch which was the normal place for lunch way back then. We sat in our classroom, wondering, anxious, starving and waiting to go to lunch. Then KABOOM!!! About an hour after that, we were allowed to head home.

The FLQ (Federation pour la Liberation du Quebec) were upset because they were living in a province that was 80% french speaking but the economic power was held by the 20% that were english speaking. I was one of the "Mon Dieu Anglaise".
These bombs and some bogus bomb threats continued to follow me throughout my high school years. Always placed in mail boxes and across the street from the school. You see I was lucky enough to go to Westmount High School in the city of Westmount. It served an area where the upper crust lived. I did not come from the upper crust, but this school was the closest to where I lived at a mere 3 miles away. I did not go home for lunch while attending this school, and for 5 years straight I ate a lot of Peanut Butter sandwiches. Our most famous student would have to have been William Shatner, aka, Captain Kirk. He was long gone on to Hollywood by the time I got to high school. We got so used to the bomb scares that it became routine. Every Wednesday afternoon we would just go home at lunch time because there was going to be a bomb scare event. It happened every Wednesday like clockwork so I am certain it was a student taking advantage of the situation.

Back then it could be said that these were "gentlemen terrorists". They always phoned in a warning first. There was only one death due to these bomb threats that I can remember. That very first one detonated while a man was trying to disarm the thing. After that the bomb squad got much better at their trade.

This part of my life comes to mind only because of the recent devastating earthquake in Pakistan. It is so easy for us all to readily blame an entire people's for the actions of a few. We hold such great grudges, like the Hatfield's and the McCoys. We believe Usama is hiding out somewhere over there and that people over there have been harboring him and holding dear his intentions. But we cannot and we should not blame them all, and I am happy to see that we are over there to lend a helping hand.

I pray to God that Usama and his cohorts have been dealt with and are finally laid to rest.

Monday, October 03, 2005

This is one of the Fire Lookout Towers called Black Mountain. We are preparing it for a new season of action packed staring at the beautiful San Bernardino National Forest. Just to the west of it lies the flat lands of hustle and bustle where most of us live. Just to the east of it rests the nearly 11,000' peak called San Jacinto, with the Pacific Crest Trail (which stretches from Mexico to Alaska) nestled in between. To the north lies San Gorgonio, the snow covered peak in the photo on the right. To the south lies the pleasant little town of Idyllwild. A place to reward yourself with a slice of pie after a tough day of admiring the sun moving across the nooks and crannies of mother nature's finest.

The thrill of actually spotting a smoke is something else. We discovered one that was started by a hiker on the Pacific Crest Trail. Somehow a pack of matches that he was carrying in his knapsack caught fire. So of course he threw the sack off his back and it landed on the ground (I would have done the same thing) but it started a fire. The forest service took the entire day to put out that fire. It was amazing to watch from our eagles' nest. Fortunately the hiker was okay. When the fire was finally extinguished a small plane headed straight for the tower we were manning. It was actually below the cab that we sit in. As the plane got closer it started dipping it's wings first to the left, then to the right, over and over again. We were being waved at by an airplane. What a great feeling!
This is the first year since 1999 that I have not done this service. It is not a hard thing to do. It is really a piece of cake. But you have to be able to climb 20' of stairs that are situated at an elevation of 8,000'. So you must be fit.


When I first came to Southern California I was in awe. Then I was in shock! Culture shock! It was arrid where we lived. And oh so hot. The husband (I have to get that in there because I have heard "the wife" so many times) would take me up into the mountains to ease my homesickness. There were trees and visible running waters up there. Going up in altitude was akin to going up in latitude. It would relax me. The pace in the flatlands was full throttle, all the time, 24 hours a day.

One time when we were exploring in the San Jacinto Mountains our hike took us to a structure on the top of a peak. It was a Fire Lookout Tower. It was shut down so we could not even get a look inside. Years later we read about a program in the local newspaper that was looking for volunteers to staff Fire Lookout Towers in the San Bernardino Forest. We decided that it sounded like our cup of tea and enlisted. We went through some serious training to learn the rules and the operation of the equipment. The Forest Service operates with a military like regimen.

The lookout towers used to be plentiful in California and in fact all across the USA. They were mostly shut down in the 80's because satellites could do the job. By the time the mid 90's came around the Forest Service was proposing to raze these structures to the ground. Most of them were quite delapidated and dangerous by this time. A group of people in the Inland Empire (western San Bernardino and Riverside counties) got together and proposed to save these structures. They got them declared as Historical Buildings. They were refurbished one by one in the manner required to have the status historical. After we got our training we were allowed to man the towers. At the point that we joined up there were 8 towers.

We were called Fire Lookout Hosts, because these buildings were allowed to be open to the public. They belonged in fact to the people. We would watch for smoke. It was a room with a view. 360 degrees of windows that we had to keep clean. We had ancient devices called Osbournes (may be related to Ozzie, I don't know) big wheels with sights and markings which were used to give the forest service a line on the smoke report. Most often another tower could give a reading on the smoke and a triangulation thing would pinpoint the fire. We were allowed to spend the night in the tower as long as we registered and had been duty that day or would be on duty the following day. It was glorious. More later.