Another October Surprise

By Becky O'Malley
Thursday October 29, 2009 - 09:25:00 AM

This last week has been a demonstration in living color of why California is called the Golden State. We spent four days, more time than we’ve been able to afford for a long time, at the family farm in the Santa Cruz mountains. The persimmons are almost ripe, and yet there are still tomatoes to be picked in the garden.  

The last grapes were picked last weekend. We have on our farm property one of the very few certified organic kosher wineries in northern California, a one-man show which a friend operates single-handedly in order to meet the requirement that the end product must be made only by religiously-observant workers, who are in short supply in Santa Cruz. There’s always a bit of a tension between the demands of the harvest and the number of Jewish holidays in the fall, but he manages to put by a respectable number of cases of excellent wine which he’s able to sell for very substantial sums. The publisher received a case of this fine stuff as a birthday present—today’s his birthday.  

In our family we have a similar holiday problem, an insane number of October birthdays for some reason. The latest grandnephew arrived last Thursday, on the birthday of one of our daughters. There are so many birthday parties that it’s hard to squeeze in any work. The weather in late October is seductive even without parties: cool enough in the shade, warm enough in the sun, and plenty of sun most years even between a few storms. 

Inevitably the halcyon days of late October spark memories of years when things weren’t quite so rosy. The big quake was just 20 years ago on the 17th of this month, centered just a few miles as the crow flies from the farm. My mother’s 75th birthday was two days later, and the freeway was out, so two of my daughters and I navigated our way down to Santa Cruz County with a cake via back roads—crazy, as I look back on it. On the farm with the other grandmother, daughter number three re-connected the well pipes so the animals could be watered.  

Then there was the 1991 Oakland hills firestorm—that one started on my mother’s birthday. One moment I was sitting on the back porch at home admiring the golden October day, the next moment eight firetrucks came tearing by up Ashby, and the rest was history. I was ordered to evacuate, and I spared myself a lot of trouble by accidentally locking my keys in the car so that I had to hitch a ride with a neighbor. Since I couldn’t take any possessions at all, I didn’t have to worry about what to take.  

That time a daughter and her then-boyfriend (now husband) tossed their bikes in the back of their truck and rushed up from Santa Cruz. They parked in the Co-Op lot, rode their bikes to our house and dragged hoses with sprinklers up to the roof: heroic, though as it fortunately turned out, unnecessary.  

We Californians are inured to crisis, and have learned to ignore it. On Monday as we basked in October’s golden glow another big Santa Cruz County fire was getting started just a few miles from our farm. We did nothing. As of Tuesday, it seemed to be under control, thank goodness. We have some big fires here, but we also have some great firefighters. 

Living in the land of the lotus eaters as we do, it’s hard to plan for disaster. We’re eternally grateful to those with a sense of community responsibility who try to help us remember to do so. The volunteer firefighters in the Branciforte Fire District where our farm is located visit every homesite every year to make recommendations about safety precautions. 

The Berkeley neighbors who work hard to remind us about earthquake preparedness are commendable (see last week’s Planet opinion section). But the temptation to kick back and just enjoy the October sunshine, to cultivate our garden like Candide, is strong. 

It’s a mistake, however, to rely on October’s aura to expect a peaceful future. As we’ve learned, there’s always another October Surprise lurking in the wings. The previous paragraphs were written on Tuesday morning, because we planned to go into San Francisco to see Salome that night. Our trusty vanpool set out at 5:30 in order to have time for dinner before the show, and much to our surprise we whizzed right onto the bridge. Just before Treasure Island a sudden traffic jam materialized. We passed three stopped cars, heard a siren, and one of our number thought she saw a cable in the road. 

We made it to the Opera House easily, no problem, but several regulars were missing from the Berkeley contingent in the balcony. Cell phone calls to 511 produced a report of a mysterious “severe traffic alert” which had blocked all four lanes of the Bay Bridge, both directions. The buzz in the lobby was that the bridge had failed again, and might be closed for weeks. Coming home by way of the jammed San Mateo bridge took an hour and a half.  

The October curse had struck again.