Facing a Tragedy, the “805” Unites

1StrawberriesCoverWooden&Me_cover_PRFor a Personalized Autographed copy of STRAWBERRIES IN WINTERTIME” or “WOODEN & ME” mail a check for $25 to:

Woody Woodburn

400 Roosevelt Court

Ventura, CA 93003

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Facing a Tragedy, the “805” Unites

A dear friend, having gone through hell and back, once told me a startling thing: she would not wish cancer upon an enemy, yet she was thankful for having had it.

Thankful? For tsunami-like waves of nausea caused by chemotherapy; for sickly weight loss and the loss of hair from radiation treatments; for bone-deep pain and ultra-marathon-like fatigue; for haunting fear?

Yes, she insisted, she was thankful for it all because through the tribulation she learned how strong she was. She found out who her truest friends were. And she had gained a new perspective on life.

As a result, she reframed her view of cancer as being a gift instead of a curse. Other cancer survivors have told me a similar thing.1help

As the days and weeks and now the first month have passed since the Thomas Fire metastasized across our county, consuming swaths of Santa Paul, Fillmore, Ventura, Ojai, and beyond, in pitiless cancer-like fashion, I have been reminded of my friend’s reframing.

I offer a similar reframing not callously, especially considering there were lives lost. Nor do I say it distantly, for my father’s hillside home of four decades was among those that became ashes and a standing chimney.

Rather, in addition to being a calamity, I can see the Thomas Fire as a cancer-survivor’s-like blessing. At the lowest of times, our communities stood their tallest. As homes were razed, we pulled together like an Amish barn raising.

Seemingly everyone became a Good Samaritan. Neighbors woke neighbors in the dark of a night eerily lighted by an orange glow and helped one another evacuate.

Strangers gave rides to strangers; trucked the horses of strangers to safety; opened their homes and offered spare beds to strangers.

So many donations of clothes came in to evacuation centers that new offerings finally had to be turned away.

A single illustration of generosity speaks as a wider example. Thirteen families, all renters at a mobile home park and all without contents insurance, lost everything they owned.

A humanitarian made a request at his church and on social media for replacement beds, blankets and bedding, sofas, dining tables, kitchenware, coffee makers, microwave ovens, TVs, air purifiers. Thirteen microwaves appeared the next day.

And everything else listed above, and more, for all 13 families was donated within 48 hours. Toys to give the affected children a semblance of a merry holiday also poured in.

Similar narratives were the rule, not the exception. Moreover, the Samaritan spirit continues.

It is not just people helping people, but businesses have been involved too. To mention one local business that has provided free services, free meals, free clothing, free this and free that, to those whose homes burned down – and to those who were evacuated long-term and also to the heroes who fought the fires – would be to leave out a hundred other businesses that did likewise.

The other day, I read a story shared by a man riding the “L” in Chicago that struck home. He was on his commute, on a bone-chilling Midwest day, and saw a homeless man seated across the train car.

The homeless man’s clothes were basically rags, his sneakers had holes, and blood seeped through his socks of which he wore three or four pairs in a losing effort to keep his feet warm.

A younger man entered the train, saw the homeless man, and did not hesitate to do something noble: he took off his own shoes – actually nearly new, expensive, heavy, black leather boots well-suited for Chicago’s harsh winters – and gave them to the older man in need.

There was more: the younger man pulled a pair of fresh socks from his briefcase and these he also gave the older man, along with some kind words.

Reading the story made my heart sing, and not just because of the obvious good done by one person for another.

The exchange also touched me because the young Samaritan reminded me of Ventura County, our “805” united as one.

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Woody Woodburn writes a weekly column for The Ventura County Star and can be contacted at WoodyWriter@gmail.com.

Wooden & Me Kickstarter Front PhotoCheck out my memoir WOODEN & ME: Life Lessons from My Two-Decade Friendship with the Legendary Coach and Humanitarian to Help “Make Each Day Your Masterpiece” and my essay collection “Strawberries in Wintertime: Essays on Life, Love, and Laughter” …

Generosity Rolls in Despite the Fire

1StrawberriesCoverWooden-&-Me-cover-mock-upFor a Personalized Autographed copy of STRAWBERRIES IN WINTERTIME” or “WOODEN & ME” mail a check for $25 to:

Woody Woodburn

400 Roosevelt Court

Ventura, CA 93003

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Balls Roll and Bounce in Despite the Fire

The various collateral damages of the Thomas Fire, I anticipated, would include my annual “Woody’s Holiday Ball Drive.”

After all, donating a “toy” becomes a small thing when people have lost their homes and desperately need clothes and blankets, food and shelter, and other necessities.

And yet . . .

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“With all the major tragedies relating to the fires, this small thing seems inconsequential,” noted Alan and Kathy Hammerand, who donated three balls. “However, all these little things add up in fostering positive community spirit.”

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Natalie Swan was similarly inspired to give: “My heart aches for so many who have suffered from the fires.”

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Members of the generous Ventura Downtown Lions Club with a truck filled with 50 gift basketballs!

Ventura Downtown Lions Club with a truckload of 50 gift basketballs!

Brent Muth’s “Ballapalooza” party with boyhood friends Mark Franke, Adan Valenica and Craig Rasmussen collected 22 balls in honor of their late friend, Mike Sandoval.

Additionally, Franke inspired his fellow Ventura Downtown Lions Club members to donate 50 top-flight basketballs.

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Lennie and Bill Weinerth made a donation “in memory of Mike Sandoval and also in honor of Joe Vaughan, who coached our daughter Joannie at Buena High for four years in basketball.”

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Brad and Mia Ditto dished out five balls, with Brad sharing his dedication: “My ‘Mike Sandoval’ was my dad, who was never too tired to play ball with us.”

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Sherrie Basham donated two each soccer, football and basketballs “in memory of my mom, Janice Manjoras.”

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Bill Grewe donated two basketballs “in memory of a Little League teammate who did something decades ago which I have never forgotten.

“In the midst of a very important game, our coach comes running out of the dugout waving his arms above his head to signal time out. Chris, our centerfielder, had disappeared. We couldn’t find him.

“Turns out, he had climbed the centerfield wall and then down the bank of the Los Angeles river and was creekside trying to catch pollywogs. Sometimes a ball is a gateway to imagination and whatever else might follow.

“Sitting here, I can no longer remember who won the important game!”

A mountain of gifts from "Woody's Holiday Ball Drive."

A mountain of gifts from “Woody’s Holiday Ball Drive.”

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Glen Sittel donated one each basketball, football and a soccer ball, noting: “It’s always a great feeling knowing a child may receive their first new ball and the amazing joy such a simple, yet valuable gift brings.”

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A handful of multi-ball donations came from Vicky Ammons; Tom and Karyne Roweton; Ethan Lubin; Bobbie and Dave Williams; Patricia Herman; Anna and Tom McBreen; and my old sports department colleague, Jim Parker, and his wife Dela.

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Jerry and Linda Mendelsohn donated 10 soccer balls and 10 basketballs, with some assistance: “While this has been a challenging week here in Ventura with the fires and winds, I (Jerry) took three of our grandkids – Garrick, 7; Dannika, 4; and Parker, 3 – with me to help with the purchase.”

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Richard Dietz Sr. dropped off two balls in honor of his “Mike Sandoval-type pal, Vic DeBrouwer, who is dealing with a very serious form of brain cancer. I think of him almost constantly.”

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Howard Reich, as he does annually, donated a mixture of eight balls.

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Gary Clevenger, my classmate in middle school and high school, wished me a Merry Christmas ten times over with ten top-of-the-line basketballs.

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Sally and Tom Reeder donated five balls to the Sparks of Love Toy Drive, and shared: “The firefighters in our area have been so busy dealing with the Thomas Fire, we felt a little sheepish about possibly disrupting the few minutes they had to catch up on much-needed rest.

“But a fireman at Oxnard Station No. 1 was very gracious when we showed up and gladly received the balls we delivered.”

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Thanks to all those mentioned above, and many more who were not, this year’s total proved not to be a victim of the Thomas Fire. In fact, instead of falling far short of last year’s 318 balls, we edged past it with 322.

That is no small reason to smile. In fact, it’s 322 big smiles.

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Woody Woodburn writes a weekly column for The Ventura County Star and can be contacted at WoodyWriter@gmail.com.

Wooden & Me Kickstarter Front PhotoCheck out my memoir WOODEN & ME: Life Lessons from My Two-Decade Friendship with the Legendary Coach and Humanitarian to Help “Make Each Day Your Masterpiece” and my essay collection “Strawberries in Wintertime: Essays on Life, Love, and Laughter” …

Fire Casts a Glow on True Heroes

1StrawberriesCoverWooden-&-Me-cover-mock-upFor a Personalized Autographed copy of STRAWBERRIES IN WINTERTIME” or “WOODEN & ME” mail a check for $25 to:

Woody Woodburn

400 Roosevelt Court

Ventura, CA 93003

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Thomas Fire Casts a Glow on True Heroes

When the Thomas Fire burned my father’s home down to the ground, my boyhood bedroom went up in flames.

Lost, among more valuable things, were posters of Jerry West and Gail Goodrich, Stan Smith and Arthur Ashe, Bart Starr and Leroy Kelly, and more heroes from youth.

After the smoke cleared, this clarity: How misguided to consider someone a hero because he can hit a jump shot in the clutch, zip a backhand passing shot, throw a touchdown spiral.

Today, the poster I would want to hang up is an enlargement of a photograph I saw from the atrocious Thomas Fire. It is picture of a true hero. A firefighter.

1firemencourageStriding boldly through smoke and embers toward the camera, he is faceless, a good-guy Darth Vader behind a helmeted breathing mask. His firesuit looks like an astronaut’s lunar spacesuit, except instead of white it is soot-smudged tan with rows of neon-green-and-silver reflective stripes.

From his toolbelt hangs a flashlight. His black-gloved fists clutch a crowbar and red-headed fire axe. Deacon Jones, from another poster turned to ash, never looked more fearsome. The firefighter is ready for real battle, not the gridiron kind.

Hercules’ second labor was to defeat Hydra, a monster so devilish that every time the mythical Greek god chopped off one head, two would grow back. The Thomas Fire has seemed to multiply similarly.

Thousands of real-not-mythical heroes have been laboring to defeat this Pyra beast. Heroes from throughout California and also Arizona, Colorado, Oregon, Utah, Idaho and Washington.

Not only do firefighters, and other first responders, put their lives on the line – and frontline – helping others, but something that often goes underappreciated is they are thus absent from their own loved ones during trying times.

Another poster-worthy photograph taken during this Cal-amity features the black silhouette of a lone firefighter against an orange inferno backdrop. It is impossible to tell if the firefighter is walking forward toward the camera or away with back turned.

Actually, it seems certain the firefighter is stalking from the lens and towards the flames because that is what these brave heroes do.

If the world were fair and just, firefighters – not superstar athletes – would be on bedroom posters and have multimillion-dollar salaries. Like pro athletes, firefighters too often wind up with prematurely broken bodies, not to mention scarred lungs.

While it seems firefighters should wear capes, like Superman or Batman, one thing has proved beyond the powers of these real-life superheroes the past ten days: buying their own meals or cups of coffee. Seemingly every time they try, local restaurant owners or patrons pick up the tab and rightly so.1venturaspaULASTRONG

I did not know it at the time, but I was boyhood friends with two such heroes – rather, future heroes. And I have been manhood friends with a third firefighter for a quarter century.

Thinking of my friends Don and James and Hall, and their brave brethren, I am reminded of a parable about a man tossing starfish, one by one, back into the ocean after hundreds had been washed ashore by a violent storm.

A second beachcomber walks up and says dismissively, “You’re just wasting your time. There are too far many starfish for you to make a difference.”

Like stranded starfish, there have been too many threatened homes and buildings for firefighters to possibly save them all. And yet they battle on, tirelessly as the tide.

I imagine their answer while protecting a home from flames is the same the first man on the beach gave while tossing a starfish into the ocean: “I cannot save them all, but to this one I’m making a world of difference.”

One final photo: a young girl wears a disposable respirator mask outside her Ventura home. On a wall she has written, in chalk of pink and orange and blue and yellow; in block letters and in script; and written also in love: “Dear Firefighters, Thank You for Saving our Home.”

I wish every fire station could have a poster of this picture on a wall.

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Woody Woodburn writes a weekly column for The Ventura County Star and can be contacted at WoodyWriter@gmail.com.

Wooden & Me Kickstarter Front PhotoCheck out my memoir WOODEN & ME: Life Lessons from My Two-Decade Friendship with the Legendary Coach and Humanitarian to Help “Make Each Day Your Masterpiece” and my essay collection “Strawberries in Wintertime: Essays on Life, Love, and Laughter” …

Grace and Hope in Time of Calamity

1StrawberriesCoverWooden-&-Me-cover-mock-upFor a Personalized Autographed copy of STRAWBERRIES IN WINTERTIME” or “WOODEN & ME” mail a check for $25 to:

Woody Woodburn

400 Roosevelt Court

Ventura, CA 93003

* * *

Grace and Hope in Time of Calamity

I write and file this column midweek, when the fierce and pitiless winds are at a lull, and so the drama will have resumed by the time you read this. All the same, these sentiments will surely have been reinforced when the devilish Santa Anas roared anew.

I write these words after returning from a middle-of-the-night evacuation and, blessedly, finding my home still standing.

I write this bleary-eyed – and with tears in my eyes.1venturastrong

I write this with a heart that feels like it has been stomped upon by a marching band wearing army boots, yet I write this also with a heart filled with love and pride and hope because of the way my longtime hometown has responded to the home-and-heirlooms-purloining Thomas Fire.

Ventura, perhaps as never before, has shown itself to be We-tura.

So, too, has this same spirit emerged in Sant-Us Paula and Our-jai, and all our local communities, as the Thomas Fire scorched a path like General Sherman marching from Atlanta to the sea during the Civil War.

Indeed, when I write “I” here it truly echoes of “we” because the Thomas Fire touched us all in similar ways.

As mentioned, I (we) had to evacuate when flames crested a hill from the north and encroached Foothill Road with our home mere yards across the two-lane blacktop on the south. At 3 a.m. I (we) knocked on front doors and honked car horns to make sure our neighbors were awake and we all got the hell out of Hell’s way.

I (we) had countless friends, co-workers and family members who likewise needed to evacuate and worried about them one and all, as well as about those we do not know at all.

I (we) felt an earthquake rattle my soul learning about dear and longtime friends who lost their homes in Clearpoint and, as the fire surged on, in Ondulando.

I (we) learned of more friends, further down the fire’s path, who similarly were suddenly made homeless.

I (we) worried about relatives – me, about my father’s home at the ocean’s-view-crest of Ondulando and, below in the same tract, my eldest brother’s home and the home of one of my nieces. These fears extended a mile away to my other older brother’s home that lay directly in the evacuated path of this vicious monster.

I (we) hoped against hope all my family members’ homes – along with everyone’s homes – would survive.

Finally, I (we) learned of these fates, one by one: My niece’s home escaped unharmed, as did my older brother’s home. Meanwhile, the fire made a Pickett’s Charge-like charge and overtook the backyard fence of my eldest brother’s home before being defeated.

As for the fate of my 91-year-old father’s home, a home he has lived in for 44 years, his home that holds so much of my late mom? Answer: a solemn shake of the head, “no.” It is gone. Memories from half of a long lifetime disappearing in flame and smoke in a cruel instant.

Thinking of my father and my (our) friends, co-workers, neighbors and everyone who lost their homes, I (we) feel “Home” Survivor Guilt.

Why did my (our) home survive and theirs did not?

1friemanThere but for the grace of god, and the direction of the fickle winds, goes my (our) home instead of theirs.

Grace certainly was on abundant display. Our family members and friends naturally offered one another helping hands and shelter, food and drinking water, hugs and compassion – and so did strangers offer these same things to strangers.

In other words, in Latin, E pluribus unum – “out of many, one.”

Firefighters, as always, were heroes. In truth, however, most everyone rose to the occasion, standing tall and together like our famous “Two Trees. ” It seems a fitting simile, for while our iconic landmark was charred by the Thomas Fire, what it symbolizes – standing side by side as We-Trees – remains unconquerable.

I (we) have never been more heartbroken for my hometown, and yet conversely my heart has never been filled fuller for We-tura.

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Woody Woodburn writes a weekly column for The Ventura County Star and can be contacted at WoodyWriter@gmail.com.

Wooden & Me Kickstarter Front PhotoCheck out my memoir WOODEN & ME: Life Lessons from My Two-Decade Friendship with the Legendary Coach and Humanitarian to Help “Make Each Day Your Masterpiece” and my essay collection “Strawberries in Wintertime: Essays on Life, Love, and Laughter” …