Turning Out the Light on the National Guard
Randy pulls open the doors to the cave. The dim space is punctuated by winking lamps tunneling toward the heart of Howell Mountain, the corridor lined by French oak barrels like opposing sentinels forming a blond, symmetrical honor guard. He makes his way toward the farthest barrel, collecting a hose here, a hose there. Draped with heavy rubber coils, he ascends to the buildings above and attaches nozzles that can be directed toward embers or creeping ground fire during that short interval when a fire is possibly controllable.
More water will be needed for an inferno, however—more than is readily imaginable. Thirty feet from where that mountain lion once jumped through the window stands a faded red International fire engine built in 1946 by Van Pelt of Oakdale, California. It’s an elegant conglomeration of red domed lights, old cloth hoses folded and stacked like 100-foot pythons, rubber hoses on hand-rolled wheels, spiderweb-covered railings, and various other accoutrements out of a Buster Keaton film. Most important, though, the antique fire engine has an 800-gallon water tank, which Randy now fills, using a big plastic pipe from the well’s concrete collecting tank.
Randy bought the engine as is from Mike Robbins, the owner of Spring Mountain Vineyard—also known as Falcon Crest on the 1980s television show—when Robbins, despite the success of the soap opera, was in bankruptcy. The fire engine’s transmission was jammed, and Robbins agreed to take just $1,500 for this classic, even on the off chance that Randy could get it running. So Randy borrowed a crowbar, fixed the transmission in a few minutes, and hauled the fire engine up Howell Mountain on the trailer. He parked it in the field south of the house, where it has sat ever since.
When Randy presses the ignition switch, a blast of black smoke erupts before the motor turns over with authority, filling the afternoon with the resonance of old-time, unmuffled vehicles.
We pull the flat cloth hose onto the grass, up the stairs, and across the office porch, where Antonio Galloni will have to step over it the next morning—if there is still a winery here and cabernet to taste. The hose expands as the engine pumps water through it. For one frightening moment, the nozzle—sculpted brass, a work of art in its own right—blasts a barely manageable torrent as thick as a man’s arm before the motor is shut off.
Fortunately, the smaller rubber hoses emit streams of water less likely to break windows. Their pump runs off the main engine, and Randy gets it running, too. The rubber coils throb as they come off the roller. Pull the trigger on a fancy nozzle, and a shaft of water shoots half the height of a Doug fir. The fire engine’s water tank is full, the hoses are ready, and Randy shuts everything off.
It’s late afternoon, and there’s no sound now from the one house visible to the north, no sign of human life in the encircling view. The breeze is undetectable in the trees, but high overhead, curdled clouds move glacially out of the south. Randy walks around the paddock and down to the pond, where a child’s plastic paddleboat sits among the weeds.
He pushes the two-person boat into the water, then climbs in alone and tests the paddles. The boat lists to one side, so the paddles make it go round in a circle. Randy climbs out and wades in deeper. Here we could stand and possibly survive, although it would be a very long night. We would watch the firs crown out in paroxysms of flame, the Dunns’ house following. We would listen to bottles exploding in the cellar, hot embers raining all around as we felt the pressure of lung-collapsing heat. If we had fire suits and gas masks, though, we could contemplate the smoke through a thin sheet of scuffed plastic. But Randy says ruefully: “I’ve only got one gas mask.”
At dusk we go into the kitchen, where Randy makes margaritas with a single-field tequila called Ocho, for which he trades Dunn Howell Mountain cabernet. This sort of bartering—cab for a case of tequila, cab for a flat of apricots, cab for a reworked airplane part—is as old as agriculture. Meanwhile, I cook hamburgers doused in Worcestershire sauce, and then we devour them, Randy drinking a bottle of Sierra Nevada pale ale and I a glass of a previous year’s Dunn petite syrah from one of the open bottles next to the sink.
All outside lights are off now, and darkness settles in like a sentence. The thought of dying from smoke inhalation at two in the morning recurs, but Randy has been through this before; he’s no fool. And if I stay, I can have another glass of petite syrah.
A friend calls from St. Helena: rumor has it the National Guard is coming to evacuate any stragglers. Randy hangs up. “If we see anybody in the road,” he says, “we’ll just turn off the kitchen light.”
After dinner, he turns off the light anyway and goes back outside, where he puts on his headlamp. Exhausted, I head for the guest bedroom, where there’s a shower and double glass doors to stop any mountain lion. It occurs to me as I pick my way through the darkness that, in this age of calamity, falling embers are a metaphor for a host of real possibilities. We’re all waiting for fire now.
The last time I see Randy that night, he’s back up at the well house. If the National Guard comes, they will see a bobbing circle of yellow light and hear the sound of someone wielding a McLeod, working.