Don Rogers: The home fires

Don Rogers

Mom had in mind a clean, cheaper place called Canoe House, a step or two up from McDonald’s harkening back to our life in Hawaii. Early childhood for me, happy young family memories for her.

My wife and I were thinking something fancier, and we wound up in a high-end, dark steakhouse, all the men but me in suits or sport coats. Made me smile. So there still are places like this, in Pasadena no less. Our waiter even spoke with an old world lilt.

It was Mom’s birthday, No. 86, and a baker’s dozen years since I last set foot in the Los Angeles basin. Cause for grander commemoration.

I’d heard much had changed, but what I noticed was only cosmetic. The freeways still are clogged. A high marine layer still grays out the sky many mornings. The sprinkling of tall, tall palms still leaves me faintly depressed, as does the circling helicopter with the spotlight. The strip malls and grid go on forever. Litter everywhere.

No, I’m not a fan. I don’t hate the place as I once did, counting down the days to high school graduation with my plane ticket back to Honolulu in hand.

There were some small, nearly forgotten pleasures, too: Walking into a pub and having the Lakers on one screen and USC football on another. It had been so long since sitting with people who cheer and groan with my hometown teams. In this I’ve been the stranger in the strange land across the country, becoming at least a fair weather fan of the Syracuse Orange, the Broncos and the Yankees, most stunningly.

Of the senses, I understand hearing is the last to go, but sports allegiance might well hang on longer. People have passed with their family rapt, watching the game.

I shouldn’t admit this, being terrible news and all, but I felt right at home taking in the wildfire coverage on television and sizing up how to attack each blaze from the aerial footage. The broadcasters said the same things they said 30-40 years ago, some of it accurate.

Much of what depressed me about the place can be found in the conventions of local TV news, something unchanged through the generations and tech disruptions. I just don’t share in the sensibility, I guess, decidedly suburban. Haven’t watched on my own since … living in LA.

Mom over steak dinner certainly had her Fox News talking points to click through, though, and we finally got into that risky banter. It was election night, after all.

“Of course, you’re a journalist,” she cracked. “We know how you all are.”

Good one, Ma.

“Oh, you mean educated?” I like to think I quipped. The greatest divide right now among white voters runs along the sharp spine of a diploma. Ironic, then, that Mom has her fine arts degree and a master’s worth of credentials as a teacher, and I have, um, well, life experience to go with “some college.”

But I’m a teaser, a contrarian, I’m told, delighting in the debate so much I’ll even argue against my own opinions. More of us should try this, to better understand the underpinnings, to see why someone might believe what strikes us as ridiculous.

In this, the debate team trumps basketball. More skills for life in the former than a good jump shot with the latter. All I got, really, playing on my high school team was a deep hunger for the game requiring ACL surgeries later.

Before the fires broke out, more nostalgia arrived with suddenly clear skies and palm fronds tickled by the first whispers of the Santa Ana winds. Familiar hairs stood on end. At the in-laws’, the first thing I did was clamber up on the roof to retrieve a table umbrella a gust had tossed up there.

A little later, we drove to Temecula for something different: wine tasting. Winery row along Rancho California Road has grown orderly and deep green out of ranchland just out of town. This came not long after Temecula and its neighbors metastasized to fill in a last gap between LA and San Diego.

I weighed whether to count Temecula and nearby Murrieta as part of the metropolis now. Maybe the expanses of vineyards have fended off the assimilation for just a bit longer. Then again, looking at the map, subdivisions encroaching all around, maybe not. Anyway, the wine was great.

I learned to drive on LA’s freeways and consider myself only mildly assertive, even taking into account my wife’s occasional squeaks and shrieks. So picking through the maze to the Grapevine, 101 being closed because of fire burning where I’d fought a similar blaze in the early ’80s, all that was nostalgic, too.

A far more sobering reality didn’t hit until we got home, and smoke from Paradise rolled over us during the afternoons last weekend, taking the light right out of our days. Welcome home.

The phone rang. It was my mother. She’d been watching the news.

Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at or 530-477-4299.

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