Thursday, April 9, 2015

Than curse the darkness

All this talk of drought and who's wasting more water than whom got me remembering when darkness was on the face of the deep and we were lost but then were found, redeemed utterly by a stranger.

Thirty winters ago.

Nancy had come to visit me in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley, and we planned to shop for wedding bands. First stop, Corcoran, where I had the job of covering the town council for my newspaper. Corcoran was headquarters for the world's two largest cotton growers at the time, and the council members worked for one company or the other. Probably they complained about high cable TV rates that council meeting. They usually did.

After that, we would head to Visalia, the next big city over.

A newcomer to the valley, I knew only this:
  • Everywhere was planted — something I shouldn't have been surprised by as an agriculture reporter, but still — and every season elicited its own aromas on the land: the sharp comfort of corn silage ripening, the synthetic skunk squirt of cotton being defoliated, the honey-butter bloom of oranges.
  • Tule fog came from the ground up rather than from the ocean in, and it was evil and insidious.
  • Perpendicularity ruled, and roads either went north-south or east-west, forever, with rare deviation.
It felt like all I needed to know.
My duties in Corcoran done, we headed east on one of the roads out of town. Which one? Who cared?! It was a road, we could go east on it. Eventually it would reach Highway 99 and we could determine then whether to go north or south to reach Visalia.

The night was crisp and clear, liberating enough. The winter fog instills real fear that a car might crash into you any moment, day or night; drivers move slow enough in the opaqueness to find the next dotted line dividing the road, hoping no one is coming up behind. But clear sky meant easy driving. We had taken Nancy's Ford®™ Maverick, a relic in metallic avocado that she had prolonged with meticulous care past its prime.

We talked and laughed and planned and assumed. Assumed this road would go on forever.

About three miles out of town, we suddenly saw shadows cast from our headlights and spreading horizontally, then growing and shrinking and growing as our car bumped along the work-worn road.

The road I thought would head forever east suddenly ended without warning to a T.

There's a thing cotton growers do at this time of year called pre-irrigation. It's one of those words people say without thinking much about it, because it's a silly word otherwise. I think it means pre-planting irrigation, because it's irrigation, plain and simple, nothing "pre" about it.

I can't remember if growers form the planting beds first, but either way, they flooded the cotton fields into a vast swamp of chocolate slurry.

So much water that some of the slurry spilled out onto the road.

Something I didn't have reason to know until we approached that T.

I braked, but the car didn't. It kept going as if I had left my foot on the gas. Nor did it respond to the steering wheel. It was a runaway sled, going where it would. Until the very last moment, when the wheels found traction too late.

This was a moment to find out who we are in a time of crisis. I am a screamer and a shouter, a loud repeater of dire wishes and regrets and woe. Nancy is calm and sensible.

Answering my mantra of gibberish, Nancy assured me she was not dead, not even hurt. She had to look up and to her left to assure me, because I sat nearly on top of her. The Maverick had nosed at an angle into the muddy ditch opposite the T, the right front stuck at the bottom.

The back of the car stuck its red-lit butt into the night air.

We climbed out the driver's side, slipped up the ditch, and … where to? Corcoran was three miles back west, just an orange wafer of sodium light on the horizon. In the distance a rare here and there, a little dome of yellow light: Farm houses.

We headed first to the nearest house, sitting alone in the emptiness.

Walking onto the property, we saw little lightning flashes just to the side of the house, then the thunder of dogs' voices as dark shapes galloped toward us, bellowing. The shapes gained definition in the porch light. It took a moment to realize that the dogs were tethered to a monorail of wire (the lightning flashes) that surrounded the house, and the dogs patrolled the perimeter in loud deterrence. It worked. We called to the house, but couldn't have been heard above the angry protests.

Back to the car we went, then up the road we had come from, where another little of dome of light lay next. After reaching Corcoran, it would be another 20 miles to Hanford, where I lived.

We passed the reflectorized sign warning drivers about the T in the road. The sign had been clipped off its post sometime back, and lay useless in the mud at the side of the road.

It was hard not to think of the things one thinks about on a dark winter night in an unknown land made stranger by the spare and shifting light. For example, it was hard not to think of the kid from these parts who had months before been convicted of hiring friends to kill his successful farming parents because they would not give him what he thought he deserved.

On the empty road in the watery void of southern Kings County, no one can hear you scream.

I don't think I said any of this out loud. We weighed our options instead, when I wasn't apologizing over and over again.

Suddenly, the empty road came to life. Funny how one approaching vehicle on a disquieting night can make you feel you've been running a race.

The truck's singing tires lowered their pitch as its headlights caught us. We didn't necessarily look toward the car; I was hoping, in fact, it would just drive on. Our safest bet would be to walk back to Corcoran and find a payphone.

Anybody, after all — literally, anybody! — could be in that car, good or bad.

Or bad.

"Everything all right?" came the voice from the dark open window, the truck squeaking to a rumbly stop.

"Our car ran into the ditch," I explained.

Classic slasher movie opening.

The cabin light of the man's truck came on, and an angel smiled.

He was headed home from work, didn't see too many people walking this road, especially dressed for mall jewelry-store shopping. He was a part-time farmer — I wish I could remember his name! — a self-sufficient type, the kind who had a motor winch strapped to his front bumper.

He drove us back to our car, stamped and wrestled through the mud to cable up Nancy's car and pull it out of the ditch, dragged it back to Corcoran to the auto shop owned by a guy he knew, drove us all the way back to Hanford, and disappeared into the night, refusing repeated offers of our meager cash for his kindness. He checked in on us later to make sure the Maverick's busted axle was being taken care of.

Nancy took my car back to the coast where she also worked as a reporter. I hitched a ride with my roommate to work for the week, until the next weekend when Nancy could come and fetch her car.

We got the rings another time, another place. What didn't kill us, I guess, made us stronger. Mine is engraved, "Love in all ways," hers "Always in love."

Thirty winters ago.

Seems like we've yet to pay forward what that man did for us on a black empty night. I hope he is warm and comfortable. He deserves to be.

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