The Suffering, and the Pleasure

It’s sad I’m cribbing from my own cycling blog a post I wrote more than a decade ago. But reflecing on some old cycling memories — and maybe I’ll write more about those in a day or two or three — this is a passage that means a lot tonight. It’s a short passage from the novel “The Rider,” by Tim Krabbé:

“In 1919, Brussells-Amiens was won by a rider who rode the last forty kilometers with a flat front tire. Talk about suffering! He arrived at 11.30 at night, with a ninety-minute leave on the only other two riders who finished the race. That day had been like night, trees whipped back and forth, farmers were blown back into their barns, there were hailstones, bomb craters from the war, crossroads where the gendarmes had run away and riders had to climb onto one another’s shoulders to wipe clean the muddied road signs.

“After the finish, all the suffering turns to memories of pleasure, and the greater the suffering, the greater the pleasure. That is Nature’s payback to riders for the homage they pay her by suffering. Velvet pillows, safari parks, sunglasses: people have become woolly mice. They still have bodies that can walk for five days and four nights through a desert of snow, without food, but they accept praise for having taken a one-hour bicycle ride. ‘Good for you.’ Instead of expressing gratitude for the rain by getting wet, people walk around with umbrellas. Nature is an old lady with few suitors these days, and those who wish to make use of her charms she rewards passionately.”

Hamburg and Paradise

The other day, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection — Cal Fire, for short — caused a little bit of a ripple when it issued a report that likened the conflagration that recently consumed most of the town of Paradise with the World War II Allied bombing of the German city of Hamburg.

The comparison was included in a Cal Fire green sheet — a preliminary report the agency does to review the circumstances surrounding firefighter deaths and injuries. I’ve become a regular reader of the reports mostly because I’ve been editing stories by a colleague in the KQED newsroom who started getting them several years ago.

The green sheet on the Camp Fire — the blaze that killed 86 people, by the current count, and destroyed 14,000 residences in Paradise and two nearby communities in Butte County — came out late last week. The bulk of the report recounted how five firefighters suffered burns during the first 24 hours of the blaze. But in setting the scene for how the injuries, sustained in two separate incidents, occurred, the report also sets the scene: the drought, the high winds, the low humidity that helped the fire become so monstrously destructive so rapidly.

The green sheet drops this remark about the fire’s character:

“When the fire reached the town of Paradise, an urban firestorm began to spread from building to building, independent of the vegetation, similar to the firestorm that consumed Hamburg, Germany, in 1943. … It is evident in many areas occupied by high densities of residential and commercial structures that the heat from the fire was transferred horizontally to other structures and ground vegetation by strong winds. “

I like a striking historical reference as much as the next human. But the Cal Fire offers no further context or detail about “the firestorm that consumed Hamburg, Germany, in 1943.” Maybe it was a super-bad wildfire.

Of course, the year “1943” suggests a connection to a major historical event that’s known even to most ahistorically minded Americans: World War II. Even if you’re not a historian, you may be familiar with the heavy bombing that took place throughout the war and several noted incendiary bombing attacks, mostly by U.S. and British air forces against targets in Germany and Japan.

Thanks to Google, a couple of pretty good accounts of what happened in Hamburg pop up when you search the name of the city along with the word “firestorm.” One of them comes from the BBC, which describes the relentless British and American bombing that touched off the inferno, the winds that accompanied it, the appalling casualty count, and the harrowing stories of survivors.

“I struggled to run against the wind in the middle of the street. … We couldn’t go on across [the road] because the asphalt had melted,” one witness is quoted as saying. “There were people on the roadway, some already dead, some still lying alive but stuck in the asphalt. They must have rushed on to the roadway without thinking.”

Several months after Germany’s May 1945 surrender, the U.S. War Department published an exhaustive review of the air war in Europe. “The United States Strategic Bombing Survey: Over-all Report.”

The survey’s purpose was, in part, to measure the effectiveness of the Allied bombing strategy, which had aimed to achieve “the destruction and dislocation of the German military, industrial and economic system and the undermining of the morale of the German people to the point where their capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened.”

In a passage cited in “The Oxford English Dictionary” as an early use of the word “firestorm” to describe the effects of aerial bombing, the survey mentions in brief, clinical detail what happened in Hamburg and the tactics behind such attacks.

For residential areas … fire was the chief cause of the damage that resulted from bombing. … The principal weapon for setting fires was the incendiary bomb. This weapon was most effective in causing destruction in city residence areas. …

Many German cities presented partial areas of vast devastation. Perhaps the outstanding example was Hamburg, where a series of attacks in July and August of 1943 destroyed 55 to 60 percent of the city, did damage in an area of 30 square miles, completely burned out 12.5 square miles, wiped out 300,000 dwelling units, and made 750,000 people homeless. German estimates range from 60,000 to 100,000 persons killed, many of them in shelters where they were reached by carbon-monoxide poisoning. The attacks used both high explosive and incendiary bombs as it was thought by the Air Forces and later confirmed that the former created road blocks, broke water mains, disrupted communications, opened buildings, broke windows, and displaced roofing. Most important, they kept the fire fighters in shelters until the incendiaries became effective. But, of the total destruction, 75 to 80 percent was due to fires, particularly to those in which the so-called fire-storm phenomenon was observed.

Fire-storms occurred in Hamburg, Kassel, Darmstadt, and Dresden. Differing from an ordinary peacetime conflagration which begins at a center and then spreads, these storms occurred when incendiaries started many fires within a relatively short time over an extensively built-up area. It was estimated that, in Hamburg, within 20 minutes, two out of three buildings were afire within a 4.5-square-mile area as the result of incendiary bomb strikes. The intensity of the bomb fall was so great that fire-fighting efforts were fruitless. As the many fires broke through the roofs of buildings, there rose a column of heated air more than 2 1/2 miles high and 1 1/2 miles in diameter, as measured by aircraft flying over Hamburg. This column was turbulent and was fed at its base by inrushing cooler ground-surface air. One and one-half miles from the fire this draft increased the wind velocity from 11 to 33 miles per hour. At the edge of the area the velocities must have been appreciably greater, as trees 3 feet in diameter were uprooted. In a short time the temperature reached the ignition point for all combustibles and the entire area was ablaze. In such fires complete burn-out occurred; that is, no trace of combustible materials remained and only after 2 days were the areas cool enough to approach.

The evidence is that the bombing served not only to destroy much of Germany’s second-largest city, but also, as intended, to shock and demoralize the population.

In one sense — the scale and meaning of the events — the parallel between Paradise and Hamburg is all wrong. But in others — the physical characteristics of the fires, the way they consumed whole communities and left survivors with little or nothing of their prior lives — maybe the comparison is fitting.

Post-Holiday Celebrity Crab

Horseshoe crab on Rockaway Beach, Queens, New York.

Post-Thanksgiving, we’re visiting my brother John and family in Brooklyn. One of John’s favorite spots in the metropolis, or anywhere, is Rockaway Beach, part of the barrier islands that face south across Raritan Bay toward northern New Jersey and the open Atlantic. Even though you’re technically within the city limits, it seems like a long trip, either driving or on the train. Today, John borrowed a car, and we drove out there with a couple of cameras each to walk and take pictures.

We happened across the specimen above soon after getting to the san at Beach 116th Street (and yes, it’s “Beach 116th Street,” and I don’t yet know how the numbered streets in this part of the city came by that designation, though maybe it helps avoid confusion with other numbered streets in the metropolis).

So, that’s a horseshoe crab. And until a week ago, when I first heard a repeat episode of “Radiolab” that explained horseshoe crabs’ unique (and crucial) place in the world of pharmaceuticals and biotechnology, I wasn’t aware that they were significant beyond the fact of their existence. But it turns out it can be quite credibly argued that every modern medical procedure you’re ever undergone — or at least those that involve some interaction with or contact with your blood — has depended on a sort of involuntary gift from an organism that evolved nearly half a billion years ago.

Here’s the link to the “Radiolab” episode: Baby Blue Blood Drive. And here’s the link to (and after that a snippet from) The Atlantic article that inspired the show: “The Blood Harvest.”

The thing about the blood that everyone notices first: It’s blue, baby blue.

The marvelous thing about horseshoe crab blood, though, isn’t the color. It’s a chemical found only in the amoebocytes of its blood cells that can detect mere traces of bacterial presence and trap them in inescapable clots.

To take advantage of this biological idiosyncrasy, pharmaceutical companies burst the cells that contain the chemical, called coagulogen. Then, they can use the coagulogen to detect contamination in any solution that might come into contact with blood. If there are dangerous bacterial endotoxins in the liquid—even at a concentration of one part per trillion—the horseshoe crab blood extract will go to work, turning the solution into what scientist Fred Bang, who co-discovered the substance, called a “gel.”

On Rockaway Beach, Queens, New York.

Road Diary: Atlanta Mockingbirds

I once almost visited Atlanta — made it to a vague part of what I recall to be the northwestern outskirts — in 1972. It is an enduring memory, fogged as it is with the exhaustion and anxiety that attended the episode and a certain amount of lingering regret.

You’d like to hear more — exhaustion? anxiety? regret? — but I’m not going to go into all that right this minute.

I’m in Atlanta for real now for the wedding of a former KQED colleague. And while I have not done a lot of exploring as of yet, I can say that I like the woodsy corner of the city I’ve landed in. The neighborhood is called Kirkwood, adjacent (or at least close) to Decatur in Atlanta’s northeastern quadrant.

One notable finding when I walked to breakfast late this morning — a discovery that may be entirely commonplace to the locals — is the profusion of mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) hereabouts.

Checking my own mockingbird history, I see I have posted on them before — in 2014 and again last year. So there’s something about the birds, including the poem “Thus Spake the Mockingbird” and my memory of how brilliantly Kate reads it, that stops me and makes me listen. A passage from said verse:

…I am Lester Young’s sidewinding sax, sending that Pony Express
message out west in the Marconi tube hidden in every torso
tied tight in the corset of do and don’t, high and low, yes and no. I am
the radio, first god of the twentieth century, broadcasting
the news, the blues, the death counts, the mothers wailing
when everyone’s gone home. …

 
So, here is a Kirkwood variation on the mockingbird’s never-ending solo.

Road Blog: Disaster Detour

Part of the ruins of St. Francis Dam, northeast of Los Angeles.

We managed to spend a whole day on the road today without getting out of Los Angeles County.

That was partly due to a detour to the Santa Monica Pier as we headed out of town. And then a second detour to the REI in Santa Monica. And then a third detour to Peet’s Coffee in Santa Monica. (We’re allegedly going camping and need to be real prepared.)

The main detour of the day was a search for the site of St. Francis Dam, which collapsed in 1928, killed at least 450 people, ended the career of William Mulholland, and wrought major changes in dam design and engineering.

We finally made it to the dam site in the waning half of the afternoon and spent a half an hour or so hiking part of the area (it’s worth more time; I hope to come back … soon-ish).

There is a lot of great background material on what happened at the dam. The best may be from J. David Rogers, a Berkeley-trained professor of geological engineering at the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla who has spent decades investigating why the dam failed and documenting the disaster’s effect on the practice of engineering.

In one of his many papers and presentations on St. Francis Dam, he summarizes the catastrophe:

“The dam failed catastrophically near midnight on March 12/13, 1928, in its second year of operation. … The resulting flood swept down San Francisquito Canyon, with an initial depth of 140 feet above the streambed. About five minutes later, the flood destroyed a powerhouse (and workers’ community) approximately 7,300 feet downstream, killing 126 of the 129 people living there. The flood wave swept on down the canyon, widening considerably at its juncture with the Santa Clara River coming out of Soledad Canyon. It then swept through Castaic Junction and on down the Santa Clara River Valley, blasting a Southern California Edison construction camp (killing 84 of the 140 workers encamped there), thence inundating the migrant farm community at Camulos, before skimming the lower elevations of the established cities of Fillmore, Santa Paula, Saticoy, and Montalvo. The flood waters reached the ocean around 5:30 a.m., after traveling approximately 52 miles. The official death toll was 432 persons, making it the greatest engineering tragedy recorded in America in the 20th century. But those official statistics did not include Mexican migrant farm workers, of which, an unknown number also perished. One hundred seventy-nine of the listed victim’s bodies were never recovered, including those of damkeeper Tony Harnesfaeger and his 6-year-old-son.”

As to what that disaster looked like, here’s one great resource, by way of the Los Angeles Times: “From the Archives: The 1928 St. Francis Dam collapse.”

The magnitude of the tragedy is a little hard to grasp standing at the dam site. There are some monumental heaps of rubble. If you look around, you can see evidence that the piles of broken concrete were part of something bigger.

But nature is reclaiming the site. A cool wind blew up through the cottonwoods and maples that have taken over the streambed where the calamity began. San Francisquito Creek sounded fresh and alive.

One note: It’s a little odd that there’s no official recognition of the site beyond a state historical marker about a mile and a half away — at the powerhouse that was destroyed in the 1928 torrent. This is a place — apparently national forest land — that deserves to be remembered and interpreted.

Road Blog: Days and Nights in L.A.

The Eli Broad wing of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Wilshire Avenue.

I have spent nearly all of the last 42 years in California, and all of that in the San Francisco Bay Area. I’ve visited Los Angeles about a dozen times. I only get to double figures by counting episodes like the time I delivered a drive-away car, a white Chevy Vega station wagon, to its perhaps rueful owner in Venice Beach; and day trips to do interviews for stories I’ve worked on; and visits to Disneyland, which some may dispute involve a visit to “Los Angeles.” It is not an impressive list, especially considering you can’t have any real idea of California without at least a passing acquaintance with this place.

So here we are on Day Three of dropping in for a visit and just … staying put for the most part.

Example of what I mean by “staying put.” Thom and Megan found an apartment that’s a short walk from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Today, we went to check the place out and spent the afternoon there (and spent virtually all of the time visiting one exhibit on the evolution and applications, practical and artistic, of three-dimensional imaging technology.

After that, it was back to the apartment, then a hike to the Los Angeles Farmer’s Market — which is actually a warren of dozens of restaurants and shops, including a couple that sell produce, that is reminiscent of the shopping district adjacent to Tokyo’s Asakusa Shrine — to buy some salad stuff for dinner, which was pizza.

Anyway: This is Night Three in Los Angeles — and I believe it’s the first time I’ve ever spent three nights here in a row.

Tomorrow: Breakfast here, then heading out. Only one stop set on the itinerary: the site of St. Francis Dam, northeast of the city, which collapsed 90 years ago this year and killed about 450 people. Considered by many to be the biggest civil engineering disaster in U.S. history. (William Mulholland, the general manager and chief engineer of L.A. Water and Power, had pronounced the new dam sound 12 hours before it failed.)

Road Blog: The PIts

The skeleton of Bison antiquus (Ancient bison) at the La Brea Tar Pits museum.

The tourists in Los Angeles today:

1) Did not fall down on the sidewalk.

2) Went to the La Brea Tar Pits (more below).

3) Watched a painful (for us) college football game.

4) Drove up to the Griffith Park Observatory, along with a huge crowd on hard to mark the equinox. We saw lots of people, lots of lights in the city below, and no parking spaces. We shall return.

About the pits: Growing up, the La Brea Tar Pits seemed to be part of an obscure joke. Visiting today and seeing them in person — the real science growing out of the millions of fossils recovered there and how the place fits into the ancient and modern city — I wondered why I thought so.

In the 1950s, there was a Bugs Bunny cartoon, “My Bunny Lies Over the Sea,” that makes an incidental mention of La Brea. It’s something slight and before my time, so I thought I must have picked up on the joke someplace else.

Johnny Carson came to mind. I don’t doubt that he was just one of many who found something odd and out of place about the asphalt deposits right in the middle of Los Angeles and made them part of a punchline. But, having watched Carson many, many times — and given his long tenure here in L.A. — it seems likely that that’s where I picked up on the tar pit jokes.

Thanks to the Sometimes Magic Memory Machine, here’s an extended Carson riff — one bad joke after another — on the La Brea Tar Pits.

Road Blog: City of Sprawled-Out Visitors

5th Street in Los Angeles, not too far from the La Brea tar pits in one direction and Beverly Hills in the other.

We drove down to Los Angeles from Berkeley today. History was made: Kate drove the first two-thirds of the trip, her first time negotiating the Interstate 5-San Joaquin Valley raceway. (As it happens, we haven’t taken I-5 south through the valley much, even in our 30-some years driving around California together, and when we have, I’ve been at the wheel.)

We’re here to visit Thom and Megan (that’s our son and his girlfriend, if people still say girlfriend), who just moved down here. After we got to our hotel, a little after dark, Kate and I walked over to their place, which is about a mile away. We remarked, as some non-Angelenos do, that there are not a lot of pedestrians on the street, even in this well-groomed old neighborhood. We also noted that some of the sidewalks are in amazingly bad shape, pushed up by tree roots in this well-groomed old neighborhood. I managed to trip on a panel of concrete jutting up a good 3 or 4 inches higher than the preceding slab.

The fall was not graceful, and it hurt enough that I was content to lie on the curb strip for a minute before I got back up. No lasting damage beyond a couple of skinned knees. It wasn’t fun, but once I started walking again and the little bit of adrenaline or endorphins or whatever kicked in, I actually felt oddly exhilarated.

Picture above: a front walk on 5th Street, near where we are staying and not far from where I fell on my face.

Illuminating Dark Corners of the California Vehicle Code

Shattuck Avenue and Walnut Street, Berkeley.
Curious fact: Until this year, it was against the law in California to start across a street after the countdown timer started (or when the red “don’t cross” hand appeared).

That law was mostly unenforced, except in Los Angeles, where the LAPD went after people hard.

A state legislator from down there got a bill passed (and the governor’s signature on that bill) that now allows pedestrians to start across on the countdown as long as they make it to the other side — or can stop in a safe place mid-street, like a median — by the time the counter hits zero.

For intersections with the older signals — those that display the walking man or the red hand only, with no timer, it’s still illegal to begin crossing once the hand starts flashing.

‘Individual Acts of Hospitality Are Not the Answer’

I think a lot about homelessness, about what it represents in our society, about our responses to it collectively and individually, about the many encounters — with a man named Charles, instance, and with Eric, and with Perry — with the destitute and down and out I’ve had over the years. And about the meaning of personal gestures.

The New York Times just published excerpts of the prison letters of Nelson Mandela. One, to his son Makgatho, talked about effective responses to poverty:

I have been reminiscing a great deal … Those were the days when you lived a happy life free of problems and fenced from all hardships and insecurity by parental love. You did not work, grub was galore, clothing was plentiful and you slept good. But some of your playmates those days roamed around completely naked and dirty because their parents were too poor to dress them and to keep them clean.

Often you brought them home and gave them food. Sometimes you went away with double the amount of swimming fees to help a needy friend. Perhaps then you acted purely out of a child’s affection for a friend, and not because you had become consciously aware of the extremes of wealth and poverty that characterized our social life. …

It’s a good thing to help a friend whenever you can; but individual acts of hospitality are not the answer. …

This is not a problem that can be handled by individual acts of hospitality. The man who attempted to use his own possessions to help all the needy would be permanently ruined and in due course himself live on alms. Experience shows that this problem can be effectively tackled only by a disciplined body of persons, who are inspired by the same ideas and united in a common cause.