Monday, July 2, 2012

No Words - Personal Note From K-Bar

No Words Anyone who knows me knows that I am seldom at a loss for words; be they the cadets I taught at the Air Force Academy, veterans who have attended my classes on job searching, or my friends at the Back East Bar who have been dumb enough to disrespect the Dallas Cowboys. All that changed on Sunday, 1 July 2012. As most of you know, my family and I were evacuated from our home in the Mountain Shadows area of Colorado Springs due to the Waldo Canyon wildfires. We left on Saturday and moved into a hotel downtown. On Tuesday the fire crested the hill across the street from our home. Over the next few hours it devastated our neighborhood totally destroying 347 homes. I was able to verify on Wednesday morning, via binoculars, that our home was still standing but five of my immediate neighbors were not so lucky. On Sunday, 1 July, I was able to go back to my home for a few hours to assess damage, etc. As I drove up Flying W Ranch Road everything looked normal for the first couple of blocks. Then I saw the first evidence of the fire as black burn marks streaked down the hill across from the elementary school. As I made the curve the air was sucked out of my lungs; it looked like the photos of ground zero that I saw many years ago at the museum in Hiroshima, Japan. An entire subdivision was gone. Hundreds of homes of my friends and neighbors were simply no longer there. Nothing left but a few chimneys and bathtubs. Even one as verbose as I had no words. As I turned onto my street I could see the fire had burned the entire hillside where I, and numerous other neighbors, walked their dogs on a regular basis. Going up the street I was relieved to see that many of my neighbors were there talking and hugging; their homes were safe. Another 100 yards and I saw the first of my neighbors’ home that was gone. I had the unenviable task of telling her on the phone a couple of days before that her house was gone. Beside it another home still stood, but then three more in a row were gone. I stopped to console my friends in front of what a few days earlier were their beautiful homes. The only thing still standing was a basketball goal. Another 100 yards and there stood the remains of a home that a few years ago was featured as a ‘holiday home’ on the Parade of Homes. One of the most beautiful homes in town at the time was now a pile of black, unrecognizable pieces of wood, brick and dreams. Across the street the entire hillside was black; no trees, no grass, just scarred rocks and homes that had been saved, somehow. My eyes watered as I thought of how grateful I was that one of my neighbors home had been saved, wondering how she could have dealt with losing her home only a year after losing her husband to cancer. I don’t think I could have spoken if someone put a gun to my head. Then I saw my home. Untouched, pristine, the lawn a beautiful green and the lavender bushes in full bloom. It was surreal seeing the blackened grass of my next door neighbor’s lawn less than eight feet away. Looking from my home to the destroyed hill across the street was night and day. How could we be so lucky? The only word that came to mind was guilt. I walked to the back of my home to my vegetable and flower garden to see if my fruit trees and chickens survived. I know it sounds petty to worry about easily replaceable chickens and apples, but they were a big part of our lives and we loved our garden. The first thing I saw was a dead chicken laying at my garden gate and half our garden gone. Then I saw movement in the chicken coop. I opened the door and found that the rest of my chickens were not only alive and well, but freshly fed and watered. I was shocked to say the least. I had no idea who took care of my chickens, but was grateful to have some normality in my life to come home to. As I surveyed the damage I realized that the trees behind my home had been destroyed and that the flames would have been within three feet of my back door. My kids swing was still there but three feet away the bushes had burned to ashes and scarred the supports of my deck. As I walked around the side of the house I could see where the fire had gotten within less than three feet of my son’s bedroom window. I glanced in the window and could see that it had gotten so hot that it melted the paint off the arm of the rocking chair that I sat in to read nursery rhymes to my kids. The only thing I could think was how could the fire get so close and not burn my house. As I turned to walk around to the front of the house I saw something that will be etched in my memory forever; the boot print of a firefighter. That is when it hit me. It wasn’t luck that saved my home, but heroism. Brave firefighters were behind my home keeping the flames from destroying 50 years of memories. I was humbled, and still had no words. As I reached the front door of my home I saw one thing out of place. There was a wrought iron fish that normally sat in the corner now sitting on my doormat. When I got closer I saw there was a piece of paper under it. What I found I will never forget and it will be framed and hung in my home once this craziness is over. It was a hand-written note on a piece of small spiral notebook paper that read, “We removed one dead chicken from your coop. We gave them food and H2O.” It was signed Montana Firefighters. Those words I will remember forever. It is not the saving of the chickens that makes that note so special. It is the fact that these men and women came from hundreds of miles away to save my home and those of my neighbors, and not only did they save our homes and possessions, at the risk of their own lives, but took the time to ensure the safety of a few lowly chickens. That is heart; that is dedication; that is love for your fellow man. Those words I can come up with. As I entered my home I was shocked. There was no visible damage; it was like I was just coming home from an errand on any normal day. There was a slight smell of smoke, but nothing that bad. I called my wife to let her know that everything appeared to be ok, and then went back to the hotel to pick her up. As I drove her into our neighborhood she repeated the same words over and over, at every turn, “Oh my God.” We turned up our street and began speaking to every neighbor we saw. Many hugs, many tears, and many promises of, “If you need anything,” and “we will help you rebuild, come stay with us.” Then she saw our home and repeated my feeling from my first arrival … guilt. How could we be so lucky and so many others lost everything? As we were spending time with neighbors and helping inspect damage at their homes we noticed that our neighbor across the street was erecting an American flag on top of the hill behind his home. Several others who just happened to be on the street at the time were helping him. As they raised the flag it reminded me of Iwo Jima and the famous Marine Corps Monument. Five men pulled and pushed to raise the flagpole at the highest point in Mountain Shadows. The neighborhood erupted in cheers, whistles, and yells. It was our way of saying, “Hey, Waldo, is that all you got?” One word came to me; pride. Pride in my neighbors, pride in my city, and pride in my country. My wife and I spent the next few hours checking our home and assessing damage. Needed the sofas cleaned, carpets, a couple of windows replaced, and probably leveling since the floors downstairs weren’t right. We would need a new deck too, but fortunately we have USAA insurance and they have been taking extremely good care of us. We will be fine. Relief. Although we were extremely fortunate it was not really luck. It was bravery and dedication that saved the 80% of the homes in Mountain Shadows. I will be writing a letter to the governor of Montana, with a copy of the note that was left of my front door, to thank those exceptional men and women who saved our property, our possessions, and our memories. I will do my best to find out what fire teams worked our street and make it a goal to personally thank every one of those teams… if I can find the words to do so. As my wife and I closed up the house, getting ready to return to our hotel, a fire Marshall’s vehicle came up the street. As I walked over to flag him down my throat tightened, my eyes watered, and I tried to come up with how to thank him. As he stopped I stuck my hand in the window to shake his. I could not speak. The only word that would come out was so much less than he deserved that I was embarrassed to say it. Thanks. My wife had cut some flowers that survived the fire in our garden. She walked over to the firefighter and said, “I know that you have been working a lot of hours to save our homes. Please give these to your wife.” Her words then failed her as well. As the fire Marshall drove away my wife and I held each other in the driveway. No words were necessary. If you know or see a firefighter or other first responder, please shake his or her hand and say thanks. Words to not seem enough, but just letting them know that we all love and admire them is all they really ask for. God Bless America K-Bar