Sunday, November 21, 2010

San Bruno revisited: A tragedy's aftermath & a high school reunion

I was totally miserable back when I was in high school -- painfully shy, big-breasted at a time before implants, an outsider intimidated by a stupid social stratification system controlled by popular kids and cliques, unhappy at home and lost at school. Back in the 1950s, I was my school's only beatnik. Hell, back then I was the whole town's only beatnik. And based on this pathetic back-story, you can probably imagine how much I dreaded going to my 50th class reunion this fall. But I went.

Screwing up my courage, I timidly entered the fancy hotel ballroom where our reunion was held, took one look at the tons of middle-aged people in leisure suits who I didn't know, panicked completely and spent the next two hours hiding out in the computer room of the hotel's business center. But then I finally got a grip and went back -- and actually ended up having lots of fun hanging out with some members of my old Girl Scout troop. Not so bad after all. Thank you, Liane, Cecilia and Carol Sue!

But what (besides my old Girl Scout troop) really convinced me that this reunion -- and even my miserable high school experience from 50 years ago -- was actually not all that bad? It was when I considered the alternative. Yes, I could be dead. And, actually, a goodly percentage of my former 1960 classmates already are. Dead.

And even worse things than death could have happened to me too. "Worse things than death? Such as?" you might ask. I could have been horribly burned, maimed or torn limb from limb. "But how?" you might ask. Here's how.

While I had actually been raised in Millbrae, a highly-conservative San Francisco bedroom community, the high school I attended was physically located in San Bruno -- recent scene of one of the worst and most tragic fires in U.S. history, when a gas pipe suddenly exploded and decimated an entire community. Had I remained in the Millbrae-San Bruno area, perhaps I too would have lost all my worldly possessions in that horrible fire -- or had major chunks of my skin burned off or been maimed for the rest of my life.

Here I am bitching about a bit of minor discomfort I might have suffered 50 years ago -- while just recently many fire victims who lived near my school have just lost their homes, their families, major body parts and even their lives.

But I am proud to say that my Capuchino High School Class of 1960 has just collected over $5,000 to donate to the San Bruno Lions Club relief fund for these suffering families. And in appreciation, the San Bruno fire department recently hosted a dinner for some of our class members. We got to eat in the firehouse kitchen, take a tour of the "Fighting 51" engine company's firefighting equipment and were even given the opportunity to slide down the firehouse pole -- yeah like I could actually do that kind of stuff any more.

"What was it like at the firehouse when you first got the 911 call?" I asked a fireman as he served me a generous helping of mashed potatoes and gravy.

"At first we thought a plane had crashed up there but then the fire burned too clearly to be caused by a crash. And the heat was intense. All we could do was encircle the fire, fight back the spreading fingers of flames, try to contain it and call in for backup -- which we did. We had firefighters coming here to help all the way from Eureka."

And now, three months later, these very same San Bruno firefighters were cooking us lamb chops and serving us dessert. I felt so honored.

"What's happening up there at the site now?" I asked next.

"Eight people died from the fire and 37 were injured.
And two of the survivors are still in hospital burn units," he replied. Sigh. "And PG&E is currently trying to buy up the empty lots in that area and some of the residents are now trying to rebuild. However, some of the streets in that area are still closed and the crater caused by the explosion is still just a gaping hole in the ground."

Most of the rest of the world has already pretty much forgotten the San Bruno catastrophe and moved on after just a few short months -- on to the next media circus such as who was able to buy the most stuff on Black Friday. But for these heroic San Bruno firefighters who stood their ground against Hell itself, the memory of that tragic day will forever be engraved into their minds, hearts and souls.

I learned a lot at the "Fighting 51" firehouse that night. I learned that the firefighters were really good cooks, that there are firewomen in San Bruno as well as firemen, and that it is time for me to stop whining and sniveling about how hard I had it back in high school. I have been one of the lucky ones. I too could have been dead -- or scarred for life.

"When's the next reunion!" I cried.

PS: Donations to fire victims can still be sent, care of the San Bruno Lions Club, P.O. Box 242, San Bruno, CA. 94066. Please write the word "Fire" in the memo section of your check. All money received will go directly to the fire victims.

Although mostly forgotten by the media in just a few short months, the victims and survivors of this tragedy still need all the help they can get.

PPS: Please bear in mind that many parts of Iraq and Afghanistan still look pretty much like this burned-out section of San Bruno, with new fires and explosions happening there every single day -- no matter how many times George W. Bush tries to sugar-coat his actions on the Jay Leno show.

I know that I am lucky that I didn't get caught in the San Bruno maelstrom. But do all of us Americans know how REALLY lucky we are that we don't live in some war-torn country such as Afghanistan and Iraq, where terrible tragedy and horrendous damage like what happened in San Bruno is just another part of day-to-day life.

Wanna tour Afghanistan and/or Iraq? Here are the best ways to do it:

Afghans4Tommow has a wonderful program to help rebuild Afghanistan -- you could donate to that too. And they also have a secure guesthouse in Kabul you could stay at, including meals, for $50 a night.

Global Exchange is offering an outstanding package tour of Kabul in March 2011:

Hinterland Travel can show you the historical sites and artifacts of Iraq, including the National Museum, Babylon and Ur: