The morning sun flecked the curtains as shock waves coursed from my chest to my gut. The events of the prior day, November 24, 1980, had not been a bad dream. The nightmare was real.
My classmates and I smelled smoke from a distant fire and figured the mountain backcountry was burning again—like it always did during the high, autumn winds. But when the smoke drifted over our school, apprehension rose. Rumors ricocheted through the hallways, “Structures are on fire at the base of the mountains!” My home stood in those foothills. My hands shook as I called my family from the school phone—no answer. I panicked and raced for my truck.
Patrol cars blocked my way home, so I detoured toward my grandma’s house. Gripping the steering wheel, I drove through the smoke and screaming wind. Loose pets and livestock darted between buildings and across the road. I inched my way through the chaos, fearing the worst.
As I pulled into the driveway, my family met me on the front lawn. Thank You, God. They’re alive, I breathed. But my brother's two words said it all: "It's gone,” he whispered. And I knew, in one afternoon, we had become homeless, losing nearly everything but the clothes on our backs.
With nowhere to go, my dad, mom, brother, and I crowded into my grandma’s two-bedroom, one-bathroom house.
Do Unto Others
As I drove to my grandma’s after school, I glanced down at the passenger side of my El Camino—everything I owned now fit on the seat.
As I opened the front door, piles of trash bags met me in the entryway. “They’re filled with clothes,” my mom said, pulling them out of the walkway. It was surreal to be the recipients of charity. Life isn't supposed to be this way, I lamented.
I fumbled with the plastic tie on the nearest trash bag. Stuffed inside were blouses from the ‘60s, skirts from the ‘70s, torn jeans, and stained shirts—a virtual circus of clothes. Bag after bag revealed more of the same with only a few of the items fit to wear. As a newly homeless 17-year-old, this felt like rock bottom.
But a funny thing came over us as my mom and I numbly eyed the clothes now piled on the living room floor—a spark of God-given resolve. One by one, all articles of clothing became fair game as we picked our prize and headed for the back bedroom. Reappearing in a puffy, lime-green blouse—complete with stains on the front—I sashayed into the living room with chin in the air and hands on my hips. "How does this look?" I beamed. “I’m so in vogue, don't you think?"
"You look mah-velous, dear,” Mom chirped as she disappeared into the "dressing room." Out she strutted in bell-bottom jeans with a tear in the pocket. With pivot turns and a flip of the wrist, she wore Christian Dior on a Saks Fifth Avenue runway.
"Those jeans just become you, dahling!" I applauded.
In the midst of our antics, someone knocked on the front door—a childhood friend had sent me a package. Tucked between the tissue paper was a note and a model horse. But it wasn’t just any horse—it was King, her prized possession. I embraced him and read the note: “I know your entire horse collection burned,” she wrote. “King was my favorite, and now he belongs to you.”
My friend’s selfless gift helped soothe the pain of receiving others’ rejects. Luke 6:31 (the golden rule) became my new motto, and I vowed to always give the best I had when another's need arose.
My best friend, Dorothy, and I slowly walked together up the long driveway. My once beautiful childhood home stood lifeless, the concrete shell standing in the midst of white ashes. Gaping holes where the windows once set now stared blankly at me like a ghost. As my hands flew to my mouth, I felt her arm resting around my shoulders.
In the days that followed, friends, family, and even strangers stood shoulder to shoulder with us. They sifted through rubble, brought food and wearable clothes, and replaced photos that burned. They prayed and consoled us as we cried.
A rancher had caught my horse as she galloped through town, graciously trailering her to the safety of his corrals. My plea for her in the local paper united us.
Actions comforted more than wordy platitudes of, “You can rebuild.” Or, “At least your family didn’t die.” The Good Samaritans sympathized with our shock and discerned what we needed, sometimes without asking. We witnessed God’s Word walking as our town worked in harmony to help all 280 families who had lost their homes.
After a few weeks and frayed nerves in my grandma’s little house, our prayers were answered for another place to stay. A friend phoned my mother. “I don’t know if you’d be interested or not,” she said, “but some friends of mine are going on vacation for a month and need a house-sitter.” Within a week, our family moved into their lovely, two-story house.
The day before the owners returned, a rental house became available on a lake in the mountains. And we realized that God had not forsaken us; He was restoring us. We stayed in the rental for a few months until my dad, a general contractor, built a house for us in a nearby town.
It’s The Little Things
The aroma of popcorn and chocolate chip cookies drifted through the air as raccoons loafed on our rental’s deck rail, and squirrels peered through the sliding glass door. We eagerly anticipated this community of critters that scampered across our deck to indulge in our weekly handouts.
Finally, with popcorn bowl in hand, Mom slid the door open. The temptation was too much for one young squirrel—he blasted through the gap like a rocket. Squeals and popcorn peppered the air.
Up the walls, over the counters, bounding over the couch, that squirrel flew like his tail was on fire. Mom grabbed a broom as I ran in circles, flailing my arms at this fly-by furball. We nearly collided as he squeezed between us and shot up the curtains.
Before the white flag waved, we somehow corralled him and he careened out the door. Mom slammed it shut and slid down the frame in hysterics. We laughed so hard tears flooded down our faces.
These characters of God’s creation appeared at the perfect time—a merry heart indeed does good like a medicine.
No Longer a Victim
Life hurts sometimes, but God is faithful to His Word. I found that time does not heal, but God does. He abundantly restored us, honoring our trust in His promises and in Him. He also helped me break the bonds of materialism, which remain broken to this day. As 1 Timothy 6:17 encourages, I can enjoy the things God has given, but never cling to them for hope and stability.
He gave me a newfound compassion that rose from the ashes to help me comfort others suffering loss. I can now come alongside them with the hope of Psalm 27:13: “I would have lost heart, unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”