Thursday, December 17, 2020

Dreaming of a black Christmas


Lomalinda was into the dry season. Daytime temperatures soared to over a hundred degrees in the shade—cruel, withering.


The green scent of rainy season had given way to the spicy fragrance of sun-dried grasses. Immense stretches of emerald disappeared, leaving the grasslands stiff and bleached and simmering under unrelenting equatorial sun.


From sunrise to sundown, a stiff wind blew across the llanos (plains), a gift from God because the parched wind gave us a break from the profuse sweating we endured in rainy season so, in that way, it was a friend, but it could also be a foe.


One blistering afternoon, Dr. Altig hollered through our screen door, “Call for help! We have a fire!” Across the road, at Ruth’s house, flames leaped and smoke billowed.


I dialed the emergency number, told my little Karen to stay home, grabbed a bucket, filled it with water, and ran to Ruth’s yard, dousing flames closest to her house.


A few buckets later, my heart sank. Wind had whipped the fire out of control. The situation looked hopeless until I noticed that, by God’s grace, the wind blew the flames away from Ruth’s house, toward an unpopulated valley. Rich and Gladys Janssen’s home stood at the top of the low hill beyond.


I heard a siren, and soon an antiquated fire truck roared over the brink of the hill. Behind it streamed a line of motorbikes bringing men and boys, shovels, buckets, and blankets.


School had dismissed, offices had closed, and every able man and boy took on the role of a fireman, forming a line through the valley. Shovels in hand, they worked toward Janssens’ house, turning over soil, creating a fire line, fighting to keep the blazes from turning back on them. Someone hosed the Janssens’ side yard while flames neared.


In Lomalinda, only four degrees from the equator, the afternoon sun alone had potential to sicken a person from even mild exertion, but those men and boys gave their all, surrounded by flames, often without masks. They wore no protective gear as our firefighters do nowadays—they had only the clothes they wore to the office or school that morning. Their sweat-soaked shirts clung to them. Ash and dust coated their faces.


The guys succeeded in keeping the fire from the Janssen home, but it raced up a hill near the Kinch home. Wind whipped flames against their brick house.


A high school boy, Tim Goring, remembers:


“I tried to start a backfire but only had time to drop a match or two, and then the fire roared up the hill toward me. It got so hot I couldn't breathe. I lay down in a ditch for a minute until the fire burned out, then got up to check the house. The fire had melted the window screens and warmed up the propane tanks, but otherwise, no harm was done.”


From there the inferno changed its course, beyond Lomalinda, and continued to burn for hours, incinerating grasses and palm trees in its path. By the time the sun hung low in the west, the immediate danger had passed.


A couple of miles of grasslands lay between us and our farm, Finca Bonaire, and the staff had plowed a fire line. Before long the sky turned dark, but in the distance toward the farm, red glowing fingers reached into the night sky. By morning the fire had burned itself out.


A few days later, I walked a sun-cracked track while that celestial fireball cooked my skin and the smell of charred grassland swirled in the breeze. The school principal, Pris Bartram, puttered up to me on her red motorbike. “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas!”


Pris watched me for a few seconds and then laughed—my face had betrayed my thoughts. I had to bite my tongue to keep from saying, “This looks like Christmas? You’ve got to be kidding!”


To me, Christmas looks like frost-covered evergreens, and snowflakes, and frozen puddles. Heavy coats, scarves, mittens, boots. Runny noses. Sledding. Ice skating. Swags of cedar and pine and holly tied with red ribbons.


I learned a lesson that hot, dry December day. “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas” means different things to different people.


To most Lomalindians, especially kids, Christmas looked like a bleached landscape, charred fields, hot wind, and a whiff of ashes in the air. Folks enjoyed saying, “I’m dreaming of a black Christmas.” (from Please, God, Don’t Make Me Go:  A Foot-Dragger’s Memoir, Chapter 16)


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