ewhightower

Woodminster: South Pacific, Day Six — The Old Firehouse

In Fiction, Theatre, Writing on August 22, 2017 at 11:52 am

(Your confusion has a cure! Start here.)

Day Six, The Old Firehouse: Sunday, 23 July 2017

Fire has a way of finding you.

After the 1906 earthquake, there was a lot of rapid real estate development in North Berkeley. Some of those homes are still there. But not many. Because by 1923 the development had outgrown the water supply, and when a fire started in the dry grass and chaparral of Wildcat Canyon just east of Berkeley, the water mains were not up to the task of keeping it at bay. Dry and gusty northeasterly winds — the Diablo Winds — blew the fire up over the ridge and into the neighborhoods of La Loma Park and Northside. The Berkeley Fire Department found that the hydrants in that area only hissed their emptiness, and 640 structures – most of them homes – went up in possibly the first firestorm to devastate the area in recorded history.

The second – and far worse – firestorm was in 1991. I worked at the Lake Merritt Hotel at the time. By night, from the roof of the hotel, the hills above Oakland and Berkeley were a wall of fire. It looked like it was a mile away. I was standing there next to my brother, Rob, who had gotten me the job of Houseman at the hotel. (A Houseman – at least at the Lake Merritt Hotel in 1991 – is a Bellhop who cleans toilets. Or a janitor in a nice shirt who carries bags.) Rob told me that the fire’s apparent proximity was an illusion – it was still about seven miles away. According to my calculations (Google), he was correct: it’s 6.5 miles from the Lake Merritt Hotel to the neighborhoods behind the Claremont Hotel. And it was in those neighborhoods that our noble firefighters made their last stand, valiantly fighting back the hellfire breath of the Diablo Winds, saving the Claremont and – in all likelihood – much of the rest of Berkeley.

Skipping back to 1923, there are newsreels and photographs of entire neighborhoods in the smoking aftermath: chimneys and fireplaces stand like gravestones, mute sentinels broadcasting their ironic survival – while those occupants whose hands these fireplaces  once warmed in winter may well have added their own unwitting ashes to the surrounding devastation.

After the fire in 1991, driving the neighborhoods near my grandparents’ house on Proctor Avenue in the Oakland hills, I saw the same thing: a cemetery of chimneys. How many times must fires devastate these hills before adequate precautions are the norm? Certainly this question echos many voices from the time, but I’m delighted to say that my grandparents’ voices were not among them – their house was saved. This happened because of a firefighter who chose to disobey orders, staying with his team and truck to save this one house – which had caught fire near …

… wait for it …

… the chimney.

The last name of the fireman who saved their house: Burns. I kid you not.

As a result of the 1923 fire, Eldred E. Edwards of the Oakland Public Works Department designed a storybook masterpiece of a firehouse for the Montclair District. It was built on Moraga Avenue in 1927 and served the Montclair District for over 60 years – until it was closed in the aftermath of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Not because it was damaged in any way, but because it sits on or very close to the Hayward Fault – a fault which did not move in the quake that caused the firehouse to be shuttered. (It should be noted that the Loma Prieta quake also got a lot of attention for snapping the Bay Bridge in half, but got no attention whatsoever for leveling much of Watsonville and Santa Cruz.)

Standing just north of the Old Firehouse on Moraga Avenue, I was deeply saddened by its state of disrepair. That the City of Oakland would allow this architectural masterpiece to fall apart simply because it sits on the Hayward Fault makes me wonder what they will choose to save instead. Because it is a choice. And history is important. Highway 13 also sits on the Hayward Fault – it goes right past the Old Firehouse. They’re upgrading 13 as I write this. It’s just a road. It’s not a masterpiece. Sure, more people use it. But how many people “use” the paintings hanging in the de Young? Their only “use” is the artists’ expression of … whatever. And would anyone go anywhere near those paintings if they were left to the mercies of the elements on Moraga Avenue? Probably not. Hence the protection and restoration of great art and architecture.

Gazing at the sad building with its jolly flames at the peaks of the roofs, I was struck by the feeling that this building is also a temple, like Woodminster. It’s a temple of protection, a municipal temple where locals tithed through taxes to keep the breath of Diablo at bay. And the same could be said of any firehouse. But this one feels different. It feels special. These thoughts lead me to the following observation: between 1923 and 1991, there were no devastating fires in the Berkeley or Oakland hills. There were a couple in the 70’s and 80’s that started right around where the 1991 fire started – but they were contained in time. Only after this Old Firehouse was shut down did the Diablo Winds blow sparks to a storm of devastation again. I believe that if Montclair is to stay protected, the Old Firehouse must be restored.

If I had the money, I’d buy and restore it myself.

With that thought in mind, I bounced up street, meaning to head right up the front steps and circle the building. As I approached, I noticed that a car was parked very close to the front of the building – right in front of the firetruck garage door – three words that sound best when said in the voice of a four-year old boy. It was, if I’m not mistaken, a 1968 Citroen DS21 Pallas III. Maroon. Leather seats. A car worth getting arrested for licking.

I moved in for a closer inspection – and a possible tasting – when nearby voices distracted me.

“He shouldn’t be looking around at all, Bill!” This voice sounded familiar. Older, gravelly, female.

“It was just one poem, Louella – ” Could that be … Weedbeard? Who the hell was Louella, and why did I recognize her voice?

It sounded like they were coming down the weathered stone steps on the other side of the Old Firehouse. I hopped up the front steps, leaning back in the shade under the overgrown cypress tree.

Louella appeared – it was Aughra! She of the Very Confusing Anagram Suggestion. Weedbeard followed, slouching like a kid caught smoking weed next to the propane tank.

“Do you remember what happened last time, Bill?” Louella was near shouting, short but mighty. “The girl in the show? Her eyes, Bill. Remember her fucking eyes the next time you think about leaving clues in anyone’s coffee!”

Bill Weedbeard was fiddling with something in his right hand. His fingers were all black; it looked like a burned stick. “I just thought that maybe someone else should know about the danger before we’re all gone,” he said.

“How the almighty fuck did he find out about the Historical Society to begin with, Bill? Loose lips sink ships. We need to circle the wagons or get the hell out of Dodge!” Louella stumped around to the driver’s side of the car. “Get in, I don’t want to risk you leaving any more messages,” she said.

Bill Weedbeard dropped the stick as he opened the passenger door, saying, “Will we really be back in ten minutes?”

Five, Bill. I said five. What is wrong with you – too many blood thinners, or not enough?” Louella said.

Bill Weedbeard took out a handkerchief to wipe his fingers, and I could swear he looked right at me, winking and pointing at the stick as they drove away. When they were gone, I went down to the curb and picked up the stick.

It looked like hardwood charcoal. I sniffed it. Possibly mesquite.

What did she mean about leaving more messages?

I sprinted up the steps, turning on the flashlight on my phone the better to scan the side of the building, the front door, then ran around the back and down the other side. There wasn’t a card or note anywhere. I saw a piece of white paper sticking out of a shrub. It was an old receipt, unrelated and useless.

My fingers, black from the stick, left dark smudges on the paper.

messages … did he write messages in charcoal?

I ran up the front steps and stopped before getting halfway. There was something scrawled back down on the sidewalk to the left of the stairs. I returned to see three words, half covered by dry oak leaves; the leaves were old, the writing was new:

was my purpose

What the fuck does that mean? And why did he point at the stick?

they’ll be back in five minutes …

I wrote the phrase in my notebook and took a picture of it just in case, then did one final circuit of the Old Firehouse. Nothing.

I headed off to find a solid brunch and do some thinking, then run my lines for rehearsal.

As I was finishing my brunch, I wrote this in my notebook: Fire has a mind of its own, and fire has a way of finding you. But what of the Firehouse? Did I find it, or did it call to me, like Bali Ha’i? If I continue down this path, will I get burned? Or will I find enlightenment?

When the check came, I was thinking about another storybook house I fell in love with back in 1991, a house that burned in the fire. I lifted the check off the little plastic tray, and beneath was a note that read:

Beware the fog. Beware the night. She is coming for you.

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  1. Like in an old-fashioned literary journal where publishing stories came in installments. And as popular wisdom dictates, unfortunately many a folk find enlightment by getting burned. It’s called experience!

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