Wrapping Christmas presents in the dark

Ah, electricity. Invisible and unappreciated until it’s gone.

               
Like most of the west coast, we here in South Beach, Oregon got hammered last week by back-to-back storms. Rain came down in sheets while wind did its best to rattle everything loose. On Thursday, everyone was talking about the big storm that was coming. When I woke up to blue skies, I rushed out to finish my Christmas shopping and maybe take myself out to lunch before the storm hit. While I was in the checkout line at Fred Meyer’s in Newport, I saw people coming in huddled in wet coats and knew the storm was starting. Folks were talking about getting over the Yaquina Bridge before it was closed. Forget lunch. Time to get home.
               
Rain spattered the windshield harder and harder as I drove south. Wind gently nudged the car as I crossed the bridge. But it wasn’t bad. I still had power to warm up my leftover pizza, to read by while I ate it, and to finish my work at the computer.
               
The lights flickered. I closed my files, but Facebook grabbed my attention until suddenly, silently, the computer screen went dark. Oh. It was 2:12 p.m. Twilight outside, twilight inside. All the little green and red lights on my various equipment were out. The pellet stove, which runs by electricity, had stopped. The only sound was the rain on the skylights and wind thrashing the trees.
                
Okay. I had a plan. Power failures are not unusual around here. I have flashlights in every room, a large supply of candles, and two electric lanterns. I have wood for the wood stove in the den. I have cold food to eat, plenty to drink. One never knows how long the power will stay out around here. Once it lasted two days. An area farther south stayed dark for almost a week.
               
Since I couldn’t work at the computer, this was my opportunity to wrap my Christmas presents. So I did, with loud music playing from the battery-operated radio I keep handy for storms. The sound is tinny, but it’s company.
            
I wrapped and wrapped until it got so dark I couldn’t tell blue ribbons from green.  Now it was lighter outside than in. The rain had stopped and the wind had slowed, so I took Annie out for a short walk. Soon we heard the chatter of a radio from an emergency vehicle and came upon the source of the power failure. A giant tree on the next block had fallen into the power lines. Rain-suited crews from the electric company had cut up the tree and were now restringing the wires from the highway to the street that connects with mine. Big trucks. Bright lights. Noise. “Thank you for what you’re doing!” I called.
               
 “No problem,” a guy hollered back.
             
Satisfied that eventually the lights would come back on, we turned back home, running into our neighbor and her children coming to see what was going on. We’re all nosy.
             
I had thought I would work on my Christmas cards, but darkness in the woods is truly dark, not like back in suburbia where night is only slightly different from day. Instead, I talked to a friend on my cell phone, then settled in front of the wood stove to build a fire. Big logs, little logs, kindling, building from a spark to an orange finger of flame to a roaring fire.
              
I sat back and watched the fire, all other duties canceled due to darkness. I thought about the days before electric lights. Even with candles and lanterns, the light is limited and full of shadows. You cannot see to do anything intricate. If you spill or drop something, it’s difficult to see where it went. It’s hard to stay clean. And surely you go to bed much earlier because it’s so dark.
              
Electric lights have changed the way we live our lives. Natural light has become irrelevant. Many people work round the clock under artificial light. If we need more light, we just plug it on and turn it on.We forget how easily that light could disappear.
              
It’s not just light I was missing. I would not be able to heat my food. The food in the refrigerator would spoil if the power stayed out. My cell phone would lose its charge, the house would cool down, and I would not be able to watch my TV shows. But I could adapt.
              
Luckily, I didn’t have to. At 6:00, just as I was about to make a ham sandwich for dinner, the lights came on. “Yay! Thank you!” I shouted as I hurriedly threw a fish in the frying pan and a potato in the microwave before the electricity changed its mind.
                
Despite predictions of 90 mph gusts, it turned out to be a pretty average winter storm here. We just had a few trees and branches down. In Newport, the big sign outside Bank of America blew down. In Portland, a tree fell on a car, killing the people inside. California had flooding and mudslides. But here in South Beach, we just had a little electricity-appreciation lesson.
              
Lights. I like ‘em.
How is your weather? Any storm damage? Please share your stories in the comments.
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Walking Through the Seasons in South Beach

 I have been walking this road since my late husband Fred and I moved to South Beach in 1998. For the first eight years, I walked it with our dog Sadie and sometimes with Fred. Now I walk it with Annie. This road, officially 98th Street, was once known as Thiel Creek Road. Where the pavement ends, it forks into an upper and lower branch. We adopted Annie on the lower branch from a family that had two litters of puppies. The house is vacant now, but when we walk down there, Annie, who will turn 6 on Feb.16, still pauses to listen and smell and perhaps to remember. There’s something about this place . . .

Although I’ve worn out several pairs of shoes on this road, I’m still not tired of it. There’s always something new to see. Last week it was a new layer of rocks that bruised my feet right through my sturdy shoes. I also saw fresh deer tracks in the mud. The Scotch broom is tall and green now. It will soon sprout flowers so yellow they light up the sky. Wildflowers will follow and then wild blackberries which Annie and I will eat off the vines.

Paths lead off into the trees and shrubs. The ones we took with Sadie are overgrown, and some are blocked with concrete barricades, but a new path carved out by road workers a few years ago parallels the backs of the homes on Cedar Street, turning back around to Cedar at a wide viewpoint overlooking a ravine and the airport beyond. The path is isolated. I study the paw and hoofprints on the ground, seeing many dog prints and tennis shoes but also signs of deer, coyote, and bears. Annie and I both keep our senses alert here, ready to react if another creature appears.

Man leaves his mark, too. Unlike the street, where I can always find hamburger wrappers, empty cigarette packs, and Starbuck’s cups, the paths are usually clear of litter. But I see big yellow Caterpillar tractors parked along the road and muddy scars where they have carved out openings in the trees and brush. When we first moved here, we were told that the property owner–and yes, someone does own this wilderness–had plans to build a housing development and golf course resort. It hasn’t happened. We have also heard that the airport might build a new entrance off 98th Street, which would add a great deal more traffic, but that hasn’t happened either. The tree line has moved farther east, trees ripped off their stumps and carted away for lumber. But new growth sprouted up in their places.

If there is any sun, it shines on this path. Sometimes in late afternoon, we see the moon above the trees. We rarely see any other people or animals, but when we do, I wave and they wave back. The seasons of nature and of our lives change, but we continue to walk this road, rain or shine, and we always notice something new.

Just South of the Airport

I woke up this morning to the sound of a plane flying over my house. UPS? Fed Ex? A private plane heading to Portland or Silicon Valley? A couple years ago, I would have guessed it was a Seaport commuter plane doing its 4:45 a.m. run to Portland. That airline, like several others, tried flying out of Newport and couldn’t make enough money to stay. In the 14 years since Fred and I moved into our house a half mile south of the airport, we have watched Harbor Air, Sky Taxi and Seaport come and go. Each time, they left the airport a little more modernized for the mail transports, charter flights, and Coast Guard helicopters that continue to fly there. With new lights, expanded runways and fences to keep deer and elk off the tarmac, Newport Airport can accommodate the biggest jets, but it just can’t support regular flights that would let us avoid the three-hour drive to the Portland airport. Imagine being able to walk up the road with my suitcase and hop on a plane. Unless I buy my own plane, it’s not happening.

When we were looking at the house, the previous owner noted that sometimes the helicopter noise gets annoying. He was right. Although it’s nothing compared to our previous experiences with airports in San Jose and Los Angeles, it does get tiresome when the helicopters warm up on the runway for an hour or when pilots in training practice takeoffs and landings.
It’s also a little disconcerting to be sitting in the office and see a plane appearing to fly straight toward the house. But it’s fun to sit on the deck or be soaking in the spa and watch the planes fly over, to wonder about who’s inside and where they’re going. I have heard rumors that Bill Gates and other famous wealthy people fly into Newport to relax at the beach. I often wave at the planes, although I know the people inside can’t see me. It reminds me of when I was kid in San Jose and blimps from Moffett Field would fly over. Everyone would run out of the house to watch.
At night, the airport lights flash in the darkness, like constant sheet lightning pulsing like a heartbeat. I often hear the planes before I see their red and green lights blinking among the stars. If it’s cloudy, I may not see them at all, but I hear them flying over, hear their engines growing louder, then softer, then sighing into silence.
Living so close to the airport has its risks—and not just a plane falling out of the sky onto our house. Over the years, rumors have circulated about a resort, a housing development, new roads, and most recently an air museum practically in our back yard, but none of this has happened. Annie and I still take our walks around the open land just south of the airport, gazing across the ravine at the runways and the lights. The only thing that has changed is the pine trees and Scotch broom getting taller.
Sometimes it feels like we live out in the middle of nowhere here in the woods. All I can see from my windows are trees, but the sky is wide open and the aircraft flying over remind me that we’re not alone and civilization is not far away. I wake up to the sound of a plane flying over the house. It’s time to get up.

I write a lot more about the airport in my book Shoes Full of Sand, available at Amazon.com and at http://www.suelick.com/Sand.html.

Discovering the dog park

You can’t miss it, my friend Sue said. Indeed, you can’t. As I approached the construction zone next to Oregon Coast Community College, a long stretch of chain link fence gleamed in the sunlight. I parked beside the gate, let Annie out and entered South Beach’s brand new dog park.

Wood chips cover the ground. Tall fir trees surround the site, adding to an aura of serenity not found many other places. To the south, cars glide in and out of the college. From the north, we could hear soft hammering sounds from the houses being built in the new Wilder subdivision. Someday, this area will be filled with homes and shops. The dog park will be moved to another location, but for now, we had lots of room to run.

And we did run. No one else was there when we arrived, which was a relief because I’m never sure how Annie will behave around other dogs. She slowly sniffed her way around the park, marked her new territory, then sprinted across the park, running one way then another. I followed, tossing tennis balls I found here and there. When our legs got tired and Annie’s tongue hung a foot long, I sat on a stump and she lapped up the cool water provided in giant steel dishes.

It was so peaceful. Yes, we have a large yard of our own at home, but out there, I’m listening for the phone, watching the clock, thinking about how I should paint the shed, cut the grass, or stain the deck. Here we could just play and be free.

A car pulled up. I leashed Annie, just in case. A young woman got out, followed by a pup she said was only 12 weeks old. My dog chose to defend her new territory, so we went home. But we’ll be back.

If your dog wants to play and meet other dogs, follow the Oregon Coast Community College signs just south of the Yaquina Bridge. You can’t miss the dog park.

Then everything stopped

I rolled onto Highway 101 last night thinking this is the first time in ages I have left for church choir in the dark. Just then I came around a bend and saw a long line of red taillights. Blue and red police lights flashed way up ahead. Uh-oh.

I came to a stop behind a pickup truck. We inched ahead a half mile or so, then stopped again. Time passed. We turned off our engines and our headlights. I called the church and said I might not be there on time. Meanwhile, it seemed so peaceful sitting on the two-lane highway under a nearly full moon. It was so quiet. I felt a sense of community as we all turned from moving vehicles to human beings stuck on the road together.

After 15 minutes or so, my phone rang. A fellow singer had gotten caught in the backup somewhere behind me. He had heard on his police radio that a fatal accident up ahead would force closure of the highway for at least an hour. They had already closed the Yaquina Bridge. He was turning around and heading home. I said I’d stick it out awhile. It really was comfortable not having to do anything. I called my husband in his nursing home, and we had a nice talk. For once I wasn’t rushing around.

After awhile, I called my co-director to tell her I might not make it to the church at all. I listened to country music, opened the window and breathed the warm windy air and watched the world around me. No point in worrying about my altered schedule. What was happening to me was a minor inconvenience compared to the tragedy up the road where someone had died and someone had lost somebody they loved.

After an hour and a half, as three more police cars zoomed toward the scene, I did the math and realized it was no longer worth trying to get to Newport. I pulled out of line and turned around, driving slowly past a long queue of headlights. The cars thinned out near my turnoff, but I found an emergency vehicle and a guy directing traffic right at that intersection. I opened my window. “Can I go?” “You can go, ma’am,” he said.

In a few minutes, I was home, undressed and enjoying the warmth of my newly rejuvenated spa. Ahhh.

I enjoyed my evening off, but I have grown increasingly frustrated as I have tried to find out exactly what happened. The TV stations all broadcast news of Portland and didn’t say a word about anything here last night. All the local news on the Internet was old. The radio stations had given over the airways to pretaped shows. One country station let an announcer break in to tell us the road was closed. Nothing more. Even today, I can’t find any more than that online.

Two people in my yoga class were trapped on the north end of the bridge. They said the road was closed for 2 1/2 hours. They were pretty sure more than one person had died. They walked toward the scene and saw bodies on the road. All I can do now is wait for the local paper to come out tomorrow and hope somebody had the initiative to cover the crash.

Meanwhile, it was a good taste of what might happen if an emergency makes it impossible to cross the bridge into Newport. Highway 101 is the only through road. Those of us in South Beach and Seal Rock, located between the Yaquina and Alsea Bay Bridges, would be isolated without stores, without gas, without a way to get to jobs, schools or medical care. We would be forced to work together to survive, and we might have to revert to the ways of old, turning the beach into a highway, taking ferries across the bays or finding muddy logging roads through the trees to civilization farther inland.

As I sit here in the middle of a windstorm that threatens to take down trees, knock out the electricity and carry small dogs and children away, I can’t help but think about how little it would take to completely change our lives.

BLTA and Fries

DEC. 30, SOUTH BEACH, OR–After yoga class, feeling fit and flexible, I cruise over to Flashbacks for a thoroughly un-yogic lunch. I can hear the music as I get out of the cars. Beatles. The Rubber Soul album.Through the windows I see two middle-aged women, their brown hair in upswept dos. There’s nothing left in their red baskets except grease and salt.

I push through the door, pass the grab-a-toy game, and gaze at the much-erased and rewritten specials board: Cheeseburger, fries and medium drink, $5.95. Shake of the day? Pumpkin. Soup? Chicken noodle. Pie? Apple.

A waitress clad in a red Flashbacks tee shirt approaches, menu in hand. Before she can lead me to window area, I ask if I can sit in one of the corner booths by the ice cream counter.

Ah, my table. It’s warm, private, and the red vinyl seat isn’t torn yet. “I Love Lucy” posters hang over my head as I take off my coat, open my book and settle in.

I remember when this place was new. About 10 years ago, I interviewed the original owners for the News-Times. They had a vision of an old-time 1950s diner where all the kids would hang out. The juke box played more Elvis than ’60s music in those days. Yellowed copies of Popular Science graced every table for pre-dinner reading. The waitresses wore poodle skirts, and every now and then they’d stop everything to do a dance number.

Ah, those were the days. But the owners had another restaurant, The Chalet, at the other end of town, and running both was too much. Plus Flashbacks soon gained a reputation for miserably slow service. It was a great place for meetings because you had plenty of time to talk, but if you just wanted to eat and go, not so good.

The new owners have dropped some of the 50s kitsch and speeded up the service. They also added pizzas to the menu, but it’s the burgers and ice cream dishes that make it worth the trip. As the only place open for dinner every night in South Beach and located within walking distance of two hotels, Flashbacks is well situated to survive in this tourist-based economy. With the new college opening up the hill next year, things will only get better.

Today, it’s Christmas vacation. I watch as skinny young girls peruse the ice cream tubs. “I want some of that and that and. . . ” Lilly, a tiny efficient waitress, dishes up ice cream, tosses on sprinkles, sprays whipped cream from a can. She mixes trays full of milkshakes, served in big glasses with the leftovers in tall tin cups like the old days. In between, she runs the cash register and waits on regulars like me.

I order my usual, the BLTA. That’s a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich with avocado. It comes with a ton of crispy fries that I wash down with iced tea. I read my book and spy on the other customers.

A father tells his little boy, “I hear they have a game where you can drive a car.” I nod to myself. They do. Three of them in the next room, which is set up so the tables face a mural of a drive-in theater like the one that used to sit across the highway. Beyond that is a glassed-in room full of video games.

I’m not doing a commercial here. Some of the dinner items aren’t so good, and there’s something odd about the pizza sauce, but Flashbacks is a great place for boomers to take their kids and grandkids. Mom-types like me sit there singing with the jukebox while their embarrassed offspring play games until the food is ready. The kids don’t care about the Three Stooges or the Beatles or Elvis, whose pictures cover the walls, nor are they excited by the life-size cutouts of John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe on the way to the restrooms, but the folks enjoy the memories.

My BLTA tastes especially delicious today. Mayonnaise oozes out the sides, and thick slices of bacon hang over the edges of the bread. Soon my hands are covered with mayo and avocado. And the fries, oh the fries, crisp on the outside, soft and hot on the inside. I read and eat and observe.

At the table across the way, two kids drive the cardboard Corvette convertibles their food came in across the red-and-chrome Formica table. A fat guy wearing pajama bottoms pays at the register. An attractive woman with hard-soled boots and tight jeans clomps up behind him. A mother and daughter study the ice cream. Bubble gum or mint chocolate chip? The owner rushes out of the pizza kitchen, wearing an apron, a black scarf tied pirate-style around his head. “How ya doin’?” he says, not stopping on his way to the grill.

The phone rings, muffled video games jingle from the back room, conversation murmurs like the nearby ocean, and I sing “Under the Boardwalk” with the jukebox as I read, sated and content.

It’s going to take a lot of sun salutes to work this off, but I don’t care. Live in the moment. Ommmm.