Don Rogers: Memories that define us
As I flew over Lake Tahoe early Sunday morning, the smoke had settled into a slightly rumpled blanket, smooth gray except where still-active fire below bubbled the surface and dark ridges jutted through.
The Caldor Fire. It looked like a big mess down there from one side of the Sierra to the other. But no great columns were brewing. There would be no pyrocumulous this day. Looked like maybe the great run had finally stopped.
Somehow, South Lake had dodged disaster. All these people would be going home soon, happily stunned theirs still stood.
I was doing the same in a sense, winging to Denver, then driving over the Continental Divide to Vail for a company meeting this week, a trip laced tight with memory. There nostalgia blindsided me. I am not a rearview mirror person. That’s what I told myself, anyway.
Maybe it began in the plane over the glinting lake. I flashed on sunrise helicopter flights during a different life stuttering in toward the day’s assignment and reading the smoke for how the shift might go. An inversion signaling a long day of cold line? Or smoke beginning to organize, suggesting more activity, senses already lighting up for escape routes and safety zones. Pure burning assignments were my favorite, ideally with drip torches we could refill instead of red fusees jetting rank with sulfur.
Maybe it was the incident commander down there, somewhere in South Lake, Rocky Opliger. Rocky is one of my big brothers in fire, maybe the last of them still doing this work. We were crewmates my rookie season on an engine stationed next to Ronnie Reagan’s Santa Barbara ranch. Rocky taught me, gave me the nickname that would stick, had a hand in getting me on the LP Hotshots, a life-defining experience.
I spent most of my 20s fighting fire, believing it the career I would retire from someday, or maybe like Rocky, finding a way to keep contributing.
Memories began their ambushes just up I-70 into the mountains — on innocent curves, passing towns I’d forgotten, Eisenhower Tunnel, fully blooming when I pulled into the community where we mostly raised the kids.
I ran my favorite trail that I’d always had to myself, like I’d never left, knowing each section, feeling the familiar burn. And on it went, everywhere. Buried memories springing out unbidden, down streets, through downtowns, the sunset light on ridges. Muscle memory kicked in just ahead of the mental map rebooting.
Nothing came back in order, of course. Drinking beer with my son, driving him on his first date, to his teen-age chagrin. My daughter home from college. My daughter in elementary school giggling shyly with her friends and giving a little wave as PE class was replaced by Dad’s noon ball bunch. Our hikes, our runs. On and on, every turn. This kaleidoscope.
Most dizzying: A colleague about my age finding me at a local pub with his two children, born after I had left. And how old are you, I asked the daughter. Five … and a half, she said. I’m two and a half her little brother crowed. Whoa. Better behaved than their dad ever was.
And at the office, a young woman I’d just met suggested I might know her father. Suddenly I realized I’d met her before, and her twin sister, when they were younger than my colleague’s eldest. The same ol’ office and a whole new generation.
So many memories with work, with friends, life generally, all tied to this place, crowding in all at once. A meta-message, maybe. See? See? OK, yes, I get it.
I can’t actually shake off this valley as just another stop. Turns out it won’t let me forget how much it shaped us.
No one forgets 9/11. I remember the chill in the air, driving blind into the sun, my kids chattering, another school day. I remember the first reports, something about maybe a Cessna or something crashing into a tower. The growing confusion on the radio on my way to work.
We put out a special afternoon edition. Then the regular paper. I’m sure it helped having something pressing to do. Even so, I remember us paralyzed for long stretches watching the images, over and over again. I came home long after midnight to my wife huddled in the dark, the television the only light, telling me she’d sat there since morning. Somehow, the kids had found their way home. I don’t remember how.
With the 20th anniversary looming, more memories: the eternal anxiety, everything uncertain, awaiting the next attack. Would it be even worse? It took forever for daily life to settle in again. In memory, though, it feels like we forgot so fast even as the aftermath has shadowed all our lives ever since.
9/11 also bears lessons in coping with this pandemic that won’t let go. We’ve lived through this kind of dread before. We will again. This is how memory can serve. I find some comfort, or confidence, in that.
Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at email@example.com or 530-477-4299
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