Sunday, February 15, 2009

February Mudslide

The myth we believed, to a certain extent, when we left Chicago and moved to Los Angeles in 1979 was that the weather in L.A. was beautiful in the winter. The weather was not the reason we moved, mind you; it was our consolation prize for uprooting ourselves due to a job promotion (my father's). We assumed that we were leaving our tribulations of harsh weather conditions behind, and in terms of the thermostat, I guess we were. The air temperature in Southern California was undeniably milder. We moved at the end of spring, settled in during the summer, and made it through the "Back to School" season without incident. The end of the year, and the holidays with it, took us by surprise--we were lost without our usual seasonal cues of falling mercury, blankets of white--and our Christmas shopping that year was done in a last-minute rush (we simply couldn't believe it really was December). We rounded a new decade: January 1980, then February. We were living in a house, and it was partway up one of the canyon roads in Brentwood. The house had a pool; behind the house and pool was an ivy-covered hill; the hill was held back by a beige cinderblock retaining wall. Maybe we should've known. My memory of February in Los Angeles (any February) is mostly this: rain. Lots of rain. We learned that first winter that, in the canyons, lots of rain also meant flash floods. One day my parents and I were in the master bedroom. I don't know why we were all in there, but we were, and our conversation was interrupted by a cracking noise--muffled, but still audible from the second floor. I remember looking out the windows that faced the back of the property. At first I couldn't see anything. Then, I saw a brown murky mass spreading through the water of the swimming pool. I told my parents that the hill was sliding down into the pool, and they weren't sure whether to believe me. They soon saw for themselves. I remember all of us running outside. Sure enough, under the cover of ivy, the hill was giving way, dirt turning quickly to a river of mud flowing over the retaining wall and into the pool. I do not ever remember us owning a shovel--it is typical of our family to be less than fully equipped in terms of anything suggesting DIY home maintenance or improvement--and yet I also remember my father procuring one (from the garage?). I have a memory of the two of us starting to dig just enough of a channel on the ivy side of the retaining wall to divert the flow of mud. (Confession: we diverted it to the left, behind the white picket fence that separated our property from the down-canyon neighbors' driveway; the driveway sloped steeply down to the street, so the mud flowed to the canyon gutters, no harm done.) And then came the classic do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do parental moment. My father: "Whatever you do, don't climb up the hill!" I stayed where I was and watched as my dad scaled the low retaining wall, began to ascend the hill, and slipped. The result? At least one cracked rib. I get a bit fuzzy on details after that. I'm not sure where exactly my mom was in all this; I'm sure she was right there, but for me she really snaps into focus after the fact. Somehow, we did manage to divert the mud. Eventually, the rain stopped. My father got medical care. My mother would have to be the one to tell of her hours in line at L.A. "disaster relief" centers (I only seem to remember something to do with donuts). Eventually, our patch of landscape was returned to normal--at a cost to household budget and nerves. What may never have been restored: that sunny myth of a winter paradise. Welcome to L.A., land of natural disasters.

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