Coastal Voices: Tsunamis, Secretariat and coming home

By Jon Alexander December 26, 2011 04:04 pm

Christmas is many things to many people. This year, I find myself one block south and down to ground level from last, yet I still hear my muse of the channel horn barking and feel pressed to write.

The melancholy sadness I have come to associate with the “holidays” began seeping in this afternoon, with thoughts of Mom and Pop’s going across the bar, taking me back in time, many years ago, when I would be driving the 12 hours home from college in Kentucky, through the snow, to find the Christmas lights adorning my home in north New Jersey, with my family and Spike all waiting up after midnight for my arrival. All ghosts, shrouded in misty memory, so long ago, yet yesterday. Seemingly gone forever.

I put on my sweats and began peddling, looking to forget, or at least find the comfort that exhaustion brings. Moments later, I’m out past Point St. George in a friend’s barn, working out on the heavy bag.  I can hear my old man yelling at me once again, as he did when I worked out there during the election — “don’t quit, two more minutes, keep punching.” I look around the still, cobwebbed emptiness, to a chalkboard that says “No Retreat, No Surrender,” and I know he's there in the shadows. I start peddling south and see the 5:35 United flight landing at the airport and minutes later find myself in the lobby. Twenty to 30 people get off the plane and are welcomed by mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, friends, lovers and a host of children. You realize all of them have had a year like yours, each with tears of joy and sadness, the ubiquitous ups and downs that life doles out to each one of us and still, there is nothing in that room but joy and love and you feel guilty in your pall, but blessed to share the feeling.

I then look across the counter and see Alison Baxter, the Director of our DA Victim Witness Division, as she assumes her other role as airport baggage handler.  I recall a little girl named Cecilia Mortenson who came to our town earlier this year, only to be taken away by a madman’s bullet. I remember Baxter taking a day off, at her own cost, flying Cecilia's ashes to her impoverished family in Santa Clara, because she believed Cecilia’s last ride should be in someone’s loving hands, instead of a cargo hold. Then I turn to the hugging and laughing throng in the airport lobby and I think of an Iowa farm girl whose greatest joy in life lay in doing something kind for others who had hit a rough stretch, who was always at the door after midnite on those snowy nights in New Jersey and I know I saw my Mom across the airport lobby tonight.

I head south once more, down Pebble Beach, then past the high school where each year our Relay For Life people camp out and walk hundreds of miles in search of a cure and support for those affected by cancer. Then I’m at the fairgrounds and remember Teri Sandler’s annual testament to compassion, sharing and community — something we call Thanksgiving.

Minutes later, I pass the Methodist Church I don’t get to as often as the Lord would like, where a woman named Pastor Carol Layton has managed to transform her belief in peace, hope and humanity into something called religion.

Seconds later, I sweep past my new office in the courthouse and can’t help thinking of Judge Weir, who retires next week after 40 years on the bench. I think of his  unwavering belief in the overall goodness of people and especially, Friday afternoon juvenile court and his talks from the bench to many of our kids that got lost along the way — talks that have never lost a care, concern and love more akin to a father figure than the austerity of the bench and a black robe.

Past the S curve and I’m at the Harbor. I recall a March 11, 5 a.m. call from County CEO Jay Sarina, telling me a tsunami was coming. I remember the first 8-foot surge at 8:44 that morning that destroyed much of the harbor, and the next that destroyed many of the vessels, leaving them in mangled piles, the twisting steel sounding like screaming horses.

 I ride into the harbor tonight and look proudly at the Kristen Gail, the Amanda B, the Amy Lyn and their sisters tied to the dock, clean and shining, waiting to drop their pots in the coming weeks. They remind me of a talk I gave to the kids at the Lake Earl Grange a month ago before the showing of “Secretariat.” I had been there at Churchill Downs in 1973 when he won the Derby, incredibly going every quarter-mile faster than the last and later going on to win the Belmont Stakes by an astounding 31 lengths. I told the Grange kids that night that there was a thing in this world called “resilience,” something my father called the “no quit” in people and animals and how it defined champions. I told them it was also the story of Secretariat’s owner, Penny Tweedy — a woman the male-dominated sport of thoroughbred racing had tried to run out.

I told them how on some days, when you’re clear-eyed and strong and ready and you look in your opponent’s eye and you know, you know — not here, not now, not today, not on my block, my street, my track or my town, you can’t beat me, because I won’t let you. Because it’s over already. You just don’t know it yet.

  I look out at the harbor and then across the street to a town that has taken some hard shots, has seen logging and fishing go south and still refused to stay on the canvas.

I began the bike ride back through town and all of a sudden, I could swear I was riding through the snow and there were lights on the trees and I could see Mom and Pop and Spike waiting up and as I turned the corner from A onto 9th, realizing I was coming home.

Jon Alexander is the Del Norte County district attorney.