Escondido – Encinitas, California
Fire raged on the eastern hills of Escondido, illuminating the night sky. Angry halos glowed red against the orange-capped peaks as they spit sparks out into the darkness like a star shoots charged particles into the blackness of space. The flames poured down the mountains in front of the furious gusts of the Santa Ana winds blowing in from the California deserts. Had these mountains been volcanic, one might think that they were belching magma, sending lava and ash flowing down into the populated inland valleys. Yet the fire was not in the heart of these mountains, they were burning because of the old growth chaparral that clung to their slopes, giving its dense brush to the flames.
On the hills, a pitched battle was being fought between man and this force of nature. Whether or not the impending apocalypse would consume the city below was still an open question. The sky echoed with the syncopated thumping of helicopter blades and droning propellers as aerial firefighting squadrons bombed the encroaching flames with water and retardant. On the ground, firefighters dug trenches and cut lines in the chaparral to create a no-man’s land, separating themselves from the onslaught of noxious smoke and consuming fire. Like soldiers on the bloody grounds of Verdun, they dug in to face the enemy’s advance with abandon and resolve. They were the thin line that kept the hellfire on the hills from overrunning the homes in the valleys and burning all the way to the shores of the Pacific. In the face of nature’s fury, these brave men lifted up their prayers into the smoke-choked night for respite from Santa Ana’s gales and steeled their nerves to face the fires, come what may.
The Brandt brothers watched this infernal drama unfold from the back porch of their home, which offered a panoramic view of the hills to the east. There was something both terrifying and sublime in the carnage that refused to be ignored. Standing mesmerized on the porch, they couldn’t have taken their eyes off of the flames if they wanted to. It was as if such displays of power and violence demanded witness. The call of impending destruction went out to all onlookers, imploring them to observe this strange beast nature had conjured to show humans their place in the order of things. In the face of such indifferent power, a man is reminded that he is small and frail; that he lives in a vast, wild world which defies all his pretenses to control. The imperatives of nature rose up before the Brandts’ eyes, demanding reverence and awe.
“Chances are we will be evacuated tonight or tomorrow at the latest. I say we pack up Mom’s SUV in case that happens and plan on heading out to the coast. With these winds and the swell coming in, the surf’s bound to be good,” said Malachi.
“Yeah, school will be cancelled for sure, better to be there than here if everything goes up,” answered Jacob, “maybe we should reserve a hotel or something out there so Mom can meet up with us if they call for an evacuation.”
They continued peering into the horizon as they planned for the next morning. For an hour or so afterward they stood on the back porch of their mother, Seraphina Brandt’s, home as fire devoured the hills.
They left Escondido late the next morning while Serafina was taking some of her pictures and valuables to her storage unit in neighboring San Marcos. Ash and embers were falling from the sky. Ashes settled like a light dusting of snow on the trees that lined their street. A scorching wind blew in off the hills, bringing with it the ever-present smell of smoke that made breathing laborious. Their surfboards were loaded in the back of Malachi’s late-model Toyota pickup along with wetsuits, dry clothes, and a cooler full of beer. It was uncertain whether or not there would be a home to come back to when they returned. Flames occasionally peered through the murky curtains of smoke that blackened out the eastern horizon. Without a shift in the winds the neighborhood stood a good chance of going up in .
Jacob drove at Malachi’s urging and soon they were winding Del Dios Highway toward the coast with a speed that made it seem like they were fleeing the wrath of God himself. The flames and smoke could be seen in the rearview mirror. It was as if they were retreating to the Pacific to ensure that no flame could touch them in the safety of the water. The Brandt brothers knew the Del Dios like the back of their hands, having travelled it countless times on their way to Del Mar, Solona Beach, or Encinitas on surf trips as teens and for beach outings with their family as boys. The highway followed the San Dieguito River valley from Escondido west to the coast. The valley narrowed at Lake Hodges and the highway hugged the shadow of the hills as they steepened into a ravine where the Hodges dam straddled the narrow point of the valley before it widened again. Thick chaparral was strewn across the hills that, in the spring would be dusted with lilac blooms over olive-colored ridges dotted with granite boulders the size of houses.
“So, you’ve decided against ministry?” asked Jacob.
Malachi nodded, unscrewed his flask and took a snort of whiskey before answering, “Yeah, I figured I’d sign up for OCS and try to become a SEAL. With things heating up in Afghanistan and about to start in Iraq there’ll be plenty of action and I figure the best seat in the house will be right in the middle of the mess. I head to Basic at the end of May after I graduate.”
“Jeez, man, do you have to drink in the car?”
“Aww, c’mon baby brother, sure you don’t want some?”
“No, I don’t,” said Jacob, “just put it away so I don’t get slapped with an open container violation along with a minor-in-possession citation.”
“What does it matter? I’m twenty-two,” said Malachi.
“Yeah,” Jacob retorted, “well I don’t turn eighteen for another month, and I don’t want your dumb ass getting me into trouble like you always managed to do when we were kids.”
“All right,” said Malachi with a wink and a devious smile, “It’s in my pocket and will stay there until we get to the coast.”
“I suppose you are putting the pot-smoking, theology major days behind you?”
Malachi laughed, “Yeah, haven’t smoked in a while. I stopped after I was able to get a little peace about what went down with Mom and Dad. Haven’t missed it much.”
At the time of Malachi’s visit, David and Seraphina were estranged and moving towards a divorce. The events of the past year eviscerated the Brandt family. David was living alone in San Diego selling insurance, still in a daze over his affair with Jenny, and Serafina remained in the Brandt home while she continued to teach high school English.
Jacob cleared his throat and threw a smile back at his brother “They’re also going to make you cut those long dark locks you are so proud of.”
Malachi raked his fingers through his hair that hung near his shoulders with a sense of regret, “Well, at least I’ll get to keep it until after graduation.”
“I get your attraction to the military,” said Jacob, “but what made you opt out of continuing on with seminary and pursuing ministry? Was it what happened with Dad, or was it something else?”
“I don’t know, man,” said Malachi, “Look at Dad. He has devoted a good deal of his life to studying Scripture and shepherding souls and what good has it done him? Did his convictions hold him back from leaving Mom or making a mess of the church?”
“Nope, sure didn’t,” answered Jacob, “but what’s that got to do with you?”
Malachi took another pull from his flask much to Jacob’s dislike and said, “Well, I’m not saying I have some major objection to the ministry or anything like that. But, there’s something wrong with men that makes them lose God even when they’re doing what they think he wants. I’m not saying I think Dad is some awful or irredeemable person. After all, he’s just a man with warts and wounds like everyone else. The same things that are in him are in me, too, and I’m afraid if I go down the same road I’ll miss God in it like he did.”
“Couldn’t have anything to do with the fact that you’re young and reckless and don’t want the responsibility of leading others?” asked Jacob.
“Well, yeah,” Malachi chuckled, “That kind of goes without saying. But that’s only part of it. The catechism says that ‘the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.’ Right? We’ve had that drummed into our heads since we were kids. I get what it says, but I haven’t a clue what it means. How can I tell others what it means when I don’t know myself? All I can figure at this point is my young, restless soul has a part-time hunger for God and a full-time hunger for life in all of its messy wonder, so I’m going to roll with it.”
“So basically you’re saying you are going to do your thing until God makes you do ? Sounds kind of fatalistic to me, like you are absolving yourself of the responsibility for your choices,” said Jacob.
“Well, yeah. We all have to live our lives, I’m no different. I am who and where I am and I don’t see that changing anytime soon, which makes ministry seem kind of like a foolish choice.”
Jacob asked, “Even if you have the ability to be really good at it?”
Malachi responded, “I’m just not ready to walk that path for now. Besides, if I am really called to ministry, it isn’t like I’ll ever be able to outrun .”
By the time they reached Encinitas, it was about eleven in the morning. Malachi suggested they head south to Solana Beach and pick up some pizza at Pizza Port, then double back and enjoy it in the San Elijo parking lot. All it took was mentioning Pizza Port to convince Jacob, so they decided on lunch before surfing. The brothers raided the cooler for a couple of beers and sat on the tailgate of Malachi’s truck with the pizza between them and the blue Pacific stretching out to the horizon in front of them. While they were eating, Jacob took a call from his mom on his cell phone.
“Mom was able to pull a few strings with a friend of hers that owns a vacation rental in Carlsbad. She’s already there. The evacuation order came just after we left,” Jacob said with half a mouth full of pizza.
“Where in Carlsbad?” asked Malachi.
“Right off of Tamarack. Mom’s friends said we can use their place as long as we need it.”
“Not a bad way to spend Thanksgiving week, if it comes to that,” said Malachi.
“I’ll drink to that,” said Jacob.
Malachi turned the topic back to the situation between their parents. “How’ve you been holding up since Dad filed for divorce?”
“complete and total horseshit.”
“Is it?” asked Malachi.
“Are you saying it isn’t?” retorted Jacob sharply.
“No, I’m not. It’s a tragedy. I just want to understand why you think it is horseshit.”
“Other than the fact that he betrayed everything he claimed to stand for and screwed Mom over?”
“I know what he did, but how are you doing with it?” Malachi pressed further.
“I still can’t get past the fact that it never should have happened in the first place,” said Jacob with eyes full of anger, “Dad knew better. He had to have known that there was no way it would end in anything but disaster, and not just for him. It is humiliating to go to church and have other people’s noses in our drama; even their concern and sympathy feels like an intrusion. Mom still hasn’t stopped crying at night and I feel helpless when she does because there is nothing I can do to make her feel better.”
As much as Malachi seemed at home in a world where nothing was black and white, Jacob was an alien to it. His keen sense of justice often served him well and just as often failed him. He was still in a state of denial over how his father’s failures had shattered his world. When a hero fails, especially when that hero is a father, the world can feel like it is caving in. For Jacob, the struggle went even deeper – it undercut his ability to trust in God. After all, God allowed his dad to fail and to cause so much pain in his life and in the lives of the people he loved most.
Malachi asked, “Do you have anyone you can talk to?”
“Not since Daniel retired and he and Tina moved up to Temecula to start a winery. But talking doesn’t seem to help much anyway.”
Sensing the deep wound in his brother and not wanting to press further, Malachi responded, “Well, brother, I want you to know that anytime you need someone to talk to, I’m here.”
“Thanks, man, I appreciate that.”
Malachi shifted the subject, “Mom told me you’re leaning toward Northwestern. Are you seriously considering Chicago?”
“Well, they offered me a full-ride scholarship to wrestle,” said Jacob.
“Last time we talked you seemed dead-set on wrestling for Cal Poly so you could surf? Don’t you think you’ll miss it too much?”
“Probably. But part of me thinks it might be good to get the hell out of Dodge for a while,” said Jacob, “and if I’m jonesing to surf, there’s always Lake Michigan.”
“You wouldn’t find your nuts for six months if you did that,” laughed Malachi.
“Hey, man,” grinned Jacob, “When you’ve gotta surf, you gotta surf even if there’s a price to be paid.”
“I guess, but I’m lost when the water is below 50 degrees. In the lake, you’d be paddling out in an icy slush,” said Malachi, “Anyhow, what are you thinking about studying?”
“Mom’s trying to sell me hard on English. If I go that route, I’ll likely only minor in it. I’m leaning toward political science,” said Jacob.
Malachi looked at him slyly, “Don’t tell me you’re thinking about going into politics.”
“Why not? I’m not sure if I want to be a politician per se, but government work seems interesting to me. What’s wrong with trying to do some good in the world?”
Malachi laughed, “So that’s why you wouldn’t take a pull off of my rye on the ride out, eh Senator?”
“Quit trying to corrupt me, dude,” chuckled Jacob, “I might have to go into law so that I can bail your ass out of trouble someday.”
“Sounds like a plan, I’ll hold you to it.”
The brothers wrapped up lunch and surfed for a couple of hours out over the reef south of the inlet to the lagoon behind the San Elijo parking lot. As the tide dropped they decided to pack it in and head north a mile and a half to Swami’s. The Santa Ana winds had not abated and with the swell ranging from four to six feet the conditions were perfect for an evening surf session at the point break.
The winds had blown the smoke from the inland fires low over the evening sky. The disappearing sun in the west shone on the sandstone bluffs above the shoreline, giving them an amber glow. Due to the Santa Anas, it was unseasonably warm for the last week of November. The Brandts suited up in their wetsuits. Malachi rode a nine-foot single-fin noserider, opting for a surfing style over fifty years old. Jacob, on the other hand, rode a six-foot tri-fin shortboard that was nearly half as thick as Malachi’s board. Jacob’s surfboard suited his more modern and aggressive style. They headed down the several flights of wooden stairs that connected the Swami’s parking lot to the beach nearly fifty feet below. As soon as they came to the water they began paddling out into the breaking surf.
They sat on their surfboards in the lineup out beyond where the waves broke. The offshore wind hollowed the waves to perfection, carrying their mist out toward the horizon. It was an hour before sunset and the golden light of the evening sun glinted on the waters, transforming the surface of the Pacific into the Road to El Dorado. They sat in silence, taking in the display in a shared moment, a sacred participation of soul and senses.
After a while, Malachi broke the silence, “There’s a language to all of this, you know.”
“A language to what?”
Malachi drew his arm out of the cool water and drew his dripping hand in an arcing motion as if he as pulling the sky and the sea into himself. “To all of this.”
“How do you figure that?”
Malachi gazed out into the horizon entranced, “Look at how the sunlight dances upon the water, how it gilds the clouds and gives the last of its warmth to the evening sky. Look at the green water – beneath its surface is boundless life and ceaseless mystery. Hear the wind in your ears, the rhythm of the crashing surf, the symphony of water rolling over the rocks on the shoreline. Listen to the cry of the gulls out over the gentle roar of the ocean. See how the pelicans catch the updraft of air currents on the face of the waves, how the dolphins hydroplane beneath the surface. Each of these has an individual voice that is taken up into a collective harmony.”
“What do you think they’re saying?” asked Jacob.
“Not a language that can be parsed or translated, but I think we can catch the meaning of it.”
“And that is?”
“Doxology,” replied Malachi.
“Doxology?” asked Jacob
“Yeah, they are speaking a language of praise and thanksgiving to their Creator for their existence, and their joy in that existence. We can hear it simply by being still and opening our eyes and hearts to it. It’s a conversation we can join at any time, but I doubt we could catch the depth of its meaning even after a lifetime of careful listening.”
As if to signal he had said all he could say about it, Malachi grabbed the rail of his board and churned in a circular motion to paddle into one of the oncoming set waves. In a fluid motion he was off of his belly and onto his feet, gliding along the hollow face of the wave. He cross-stepped from the center of the board out to the front, hanging all ten toes off of the nose. He arched his back and held his right arm in the air for balance in a pose. After standing suspended on the nose for about twenty meters he cross-stepped back toward the center of the board and crouched down, letting his back hand gently caress the face of the wave for another hundred and fifty meters, kicking out before the wave closed out. As he paddled on his knees back out into the lineup, Jacob was paddling into a wave about eight feet in height; it was the largest of the day.
Jacob’s artistry was on full display. He dropped into the wave a half a body-length higher than his lanky six-foot frame. His downward momentum carried him into a gouging bottom turn at the trough of the wave. The speed he gained from the bottom turn carried him vertically to the lip of the wave where he snapped his feet and shot fifteen feet of spray into the air. He raced horizontally across the top of the wave for about twenty meters as he threw his weight into a backside turn, cutting back into the hollowing peak of the wave. He shifted his momentum back into a front-side turn. He then placed pressure on the tail of his board to stall his speed in the curling face of the wave as he dragged his back hand to pull into the barrel. He was hidden behind the green curtain of the wave for what seemed like an eternity, exploring the strange sacramental space where the water enclosed the sky. Thirty meters later he emerged from the empty mouth of the wave, pulling up to float above the last section that was walling up and closing out. As the breaker gave way to whitewater he turned back into the crashing foam.
Malachi slowed his journey back into the lineup to watch Jacob’s visceral poetry. His brother had honed his skills and become a master while he was away at college. Malachi saw Jacob’s physical expression as a conduit to something that burned much deeper within him that Jacob was probably unaware of himself. His ability to navigate the tension between power and beauty spoke to a fire within him, a fire that Malachi hoped Jacob would come to know and embrace someday.
The sun was beginning to creep behind the western horizon. The golden light of evening had given way to the molten liquid orange of the waning sun. The smoke-laden clouds from the fires caught the dying light, cradling hues of crimson, pink, and bruising purple. The sky at the horizon held the orange light of the sun, gradually giving way to magenta, then lapis, then indigo as the smoky night crept in from the east. The brothers joined up as they paddled out to the lineup again, making their way westward in silence. As they sat on their boards in the gentle rising and falling of the swells, they met eyes and nodded to each other, returning their gaze to the horizon for incoming waves, both smiling with deep satisfaction. It was the last time they would surf together for many long and difficult years. For now, however, they found solace in the cool green waters of the Pacific where the mysteries of buoyance and baptism offered refuge from the flames.