A Letter From An Old Friend

Walter Salm

The following letter comes from a gentlemen I used to share an office with over 40 years ago. We were exact opposites. He was a serious technical writer and I was a chatty news reporter. I usually get an annual holiday letter from Walter just around Christmas time. In recent years his letters are delivered by email.

This year his letter talks about some of the most devastating challenges facing many Americans today. I asked him if I can share the letter with you because I want everyone to remember the difficulties many people are facing everyday. He gave me his approval.

Chico, CA, December 2018

To all of our friends and family:

Two events have overshadowed our lives as the year draws to a close: My wife. B.J. , fell and broke her right femur near the hip on Oct. 25; and on Nov. 7, the horrific Camp wildfire burned most of the city of Paradise and part of Magalia to the ground. We have both friends and family who lost everything to the blaze, and are now living in temporary quarters: shelters, trailers and RVs (frequently borrowed) and other peoples’ homes. The city of Chico is bursting at the seams housing and hosting many thousands of fire victims. Now that the fire is out, most of the nearly 7,000 firefighters have left along with their hundreds of fire engines. They established a containment line, stopping the advance of the fire only two miles from our house. The air was thick with unhealthy smoke for nearly a month, and filter masks were necessary when venturing outdoors. We no longer see dozens of fire trucks parked cheek by jowl in the vacant lot next to Costco. Our daughter Lenna lives in a part of Oroville that was under threat and evacuated with her two dogs to David’s house in Meridian. She’s back home now. The fire did not reach her house.

Chico’s population jumped from 110,000 to about 150,000 with many, many fire refugees living in emergency shelters, or with family or friends, or in trailers and RVs, some RVs rescued from the fire, others borrowed. Housing was already in short supply in Chico before the fire. There had been six or seven mobile homes for sale in our mobile home park, and they have all been snapped up. Parking lots everywhere are full, the traffic has become brutal, and many parking lots contain numerous RVs. There are still people camping in tents in spite of the rainy and cold winter weather in the large vacant lot next to WalMart. They are learning some basic survival skills from Chico’s approximate 2,000 homeless, who are quite willing to share their knowledge. There isn’t a single empty hotel room in Chico and surrounding communities. Our oldest granddaughter Paige and her husband Tyler, lost everything and are now living in a borrowed trailer in her father Phil’s back yard. Andy’s mother, Theresa, was burned out and is now staying in Andy’s house in Chico. We met Paige’s next-door neighbors, a young couple with three children who had also been burned out and are now rebuilding their lives in Roseville (near Sacramento). I met them at a Black Friday get-together and dinner at son-in-law Brad Pierce’s house.

A Red Cross shelter has been set up in the vacant Toys R Us store; the empty Sears store has become headquarters for FEMA and dozens of booths for insurance companies, realtors, etc. Parking there is at a premium. The East Avenue Church has set up a large, comprehensive shelter with lots of volunteer services available. This has also happened at St. John’s Episcopal Church, which has absorbed the burned out St. Nicholas Church in Paradise. A new shelter has been established at Chico’s Silver Dollar Fairgrounds (next to Costco) which had been used as the staging area for all of the thousands of firefighters.

B.J. missed most of the excitement, residing in the comfort of Enloe Hospital’s Rehab Center, after having her broken limb treated with an implanted titanium rod. Chico’s 300-bed Enloe Hospital absorbed many patients from the hurriedly evacuated and burned out 100-bed Feather River Hospital in Paradise. Other patients were sent to the hospital in Oroville. Some of the overflow was pushed into the Enloe Rehab Center, where B.J. was a patient until November 29, when she finally came home. She is learning to get around with a 2-wheel walker, but still has trouble mounting the 4 stairs up to our house. She has lost even more weight and we’re trying to fatten her up now. I keep offering to give her some of my excess poundage, but so far have not been able to work out a transfer.

Before the fire happened, our three granddaughters, Paige, her sister Jazmin, and their cousin Letty all came to visit B.J. at the rehab center. Paige and Letty have both had their stomachs removed because of the mutated CDH1 gene. Jazmin had received the incredibly good news that she does not have the bad gene. Grandson Atty was home for a week or so on leave from his duties as a U.S. Marine. He visited B.J. twice and was at the Black Friday family fest. He has since returned to North Carolina pending deployment. His wife Lindsey, also at the family get-together, is pregnant and will present us with a great-grandson next Spring.

Finally, I have been busily working on writing my memoir, calling it “Half-Life” since it only covers my first 44 years at which point I married B.J. The other half-life is another book, which I have already partly written. All this is possible because I am now fully retired. Here is a quote from my Author’s Preface:

“I have one primary discomfort today — a fear that an old man’s failing memory will rob me of the ability to retell these many minor adventures. I am periodically reminded of my age when I reach for a specific word and cannot remember it, even though I can picture its precise meaning. I am a wordsmith; I should remember it, but I don’t. I do all the typical things joked about by old timers — walking into another room and then forgetting why I am there; getting into the car to run errands forgetting all my necessaries: my partial dentures, keys, wallet, cell phone, shopping list, Nook book, the correct glasses, wrist watch. Each one of these may require a special trip back into the house, since I seem to remember only one at a time. Yet I marvel and comment to friends that I still have three or four brain cells that are connected and functioning.”

Here’s to a New Year filled with recovery and hope, and remember to give your special someone a good hug and remind them how much they are loved.

Walter and Elizabeth (B.J.) Salm

6 thoughts on “A Letter From An Old Friend

  1. Lois, this letter made me cry, first for the sorrow I have for all of these folks that lost everything. Second for the gratitude I and we all should have for our comfortable lives. I wish everyone well.

  2. Wow Walter Salm. I worked with him so many years ago. Even went to his wedding. So sorry to read all this horror he and his family went through. I’ve also been getting two Digidames, one the night before.

  3. My heart goes out to your friend. His letter expresses acceptance and even optimism, which must be such a challenge to achieve after experiencing such losses. But the situation he describes is dismal. How do these people manage to go on, day after day? I admire such resilience!

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