By Fred Dickey Originally published December 10, 2012
Up here on the skyline, 4,000 feet above and 70 miles east of the ocean, is where two 26-year-olds, Steven and Monica Ritter found a place to call home. Up here, they could be both safe and poor — or so they thought.
They and their son, Ray, not quite 3, are standing in the middle of that very place, just off Tierra del Sol Road. It’s not far from the high-desert community of Boulevard, just off Interstate 8. The family’s place is a clearing under a canopy of tall oaks and pines, with boulders randomly scattered over nearby hillsides. The trees seem alive, but that’s an illusion. Most of them are dead, maybe all of them. Time will bring them down.
Within a few yards of where the Ritters stand is a pile of scattered white ash, like a huge abandoned campfire. That used to be their home. Off to the side is the frame of a vehicle, with nothing left but a scorched metal skeleton. A short distance away is the ash heap of a small house in which a 69-year-old man burned to death. The devastation was caused by the Shockey fire that hit this area in late September, denuding 3,000 acres and destroying a dozen homes.
About noon on Sept. 23, Steven was emptying trash during his part-time custodial job at nearby Golden Acorn Casino when he glanced at the sky in the direction of home and saw billowing smoke. “I thought, ‘That looks close to my house.’ I looked around, I talked to another fellow I work with, and he said, ‘Aw, don’t worry about it,’ kinda laughing at me.”
However, Steven rushed home and found the fire a couple of hundred yards from the house and moving fast. “Monica and the baby and her (disabled) uncle were just sitting in the house like nothing was going on.”
Monica recalls: “Yeah, we didn’t even know there was a fire until he came in and said, ‘We need to go! Right now!’ We just grabbed what we could and loaded up and left.”
As soon as the smoke cleared, literally, they returned to inspect the damage. “When we drove up and saw the ashes, I thought, ‘What are we going to do now?’ ” Monica says.
Aid agencies and local residents were quick to give assistance to those burned out, but that was temporary. You don’t rebuild a life on charity.
And rebuilding for the Ritters will be especially tough. No insurance adjuster came calling to assess the damage and write a check. No boss told Steven to “take as much time off as you need. You’ll still be paid.”
The Ritters don’t have the proverbial pot, and they couldn’t buy one if it cost more than a few dollars. Steven and Monica are survivors, have always had to be, but sometimes you just get overwhelmed.
Steven works three days a week at the casino for $9.50 per hour “cleaning bathrooms,” and he scrambles every other moment to make a buck here and there. “I do everything. I help everybody do everything. You know, mechanic, carpenter, it doesn’t matter. … There was a lady just here wanting me to work on her log splitter.”
Steven has a gift and a love for auto repair. He installs transmissions and rebuilds engines. He’s the classic shade-tree mechanic. He’s the talented guy that somebody knows who “can fix your car cheap.”
The Ritters lived in a one-bedroom house that was once a railroad construction shack but got turned into a livable, getaway cottage by its San Diego owners. They lived there rent-free in exchange for cleaning up and maintaining the property.
After the fire, they lived in a tent until another out-of-town owner offered the use of a small house nearby until they could get on their feet.
Trying to jump-start their lives, they bought a 40-foot RV-type trailer for $800 and paid $300 to have it towed to their site. It will eventually give them one bedroom. It is old and has a gutted interior, leaving the impression they definitely didn’t underpay. Nevertheless, they are working doggedly to restore it to a livable state that includes bringing in electricity. They had a hope of moving in by Christmas, but when asked directly, Steven sadly shakes his head and says, “Not likely.”
Both of them realize they’re knee-deep in problems, as well as ashes.
They are determined not to leave their mountain refuge. The alternative is to return to the metro area of San Diego. Monica shakes her head defiantly at the idea. “The main reason we moved up here was we didn’t want Ray to grow up around drugs and gangs, all the stuff that goes on down there (San Diego).
The Ritters know firsthand that for more privileged citizens, underclass living in the big city might be a civic concern. But for the poor who get trapped in the web of it, it’s a prison.
The Ritters, both of them, have always had a tough row to hoe. Steven is one of those guys who, at first, you think might be kind of slow because his speech is a bit faltering and painstaking, as though the words he’s looking for have run and hid. I’m sure people have dismissed him all his life because of that. But then you realize this is a resourceful, dogged man with old-school values like your grandfather had (or that you’ve been told your grandfather had).
If you want to understand people, first impressions are not your friend.
You can also tell Monica is smart, right from the get-go. She is articulate, and the direct way she answers questions shows she is focused and analytical.
Steven had the type of upbringing that sees a lot of kids grow into adulthood and then curl up and die.
For beginners, Steven says, “I’m legally blind. I’m blind in my right eye completely. I was born like that. I have, like, a form of scoliosis; my back is just not straight.”
School started uphill for him and then got steeper. “I didn’t like school so much. I can’t read very well, I’m dyslexic. I never got along with the reading part. I was good at math, good at science, you know, but I wasn’t good at reading.” Consequently, he dropped out at 16.
Spring Valley was home base for his family, but that was fluid: “We lived in cheap motels, RVs. Anywhere we could stay, we would stay. It didn’t matter where. So, my childhood was not that great. My family was homeless from the time I was 12 until 16, so that didn’t make it easier. As soon as I turned 16, I quit school, got a job and got (my family) off the streets. We lived with my boss, and I helped remodel houses from the time I was 16 till 20.”
Monica grew up in Hemet, moved to Spring Valley six years ago and met Steven. They’ve been together ever since, and married for three years. I ask if she had a happy childhood. She hesitates. “Ah, um, it was rough. My dad was always in and out of prison, pretty bad into drugs.” She says she did well in school and wanted to become a nurse, but circumstances built too high a wall. She’s been troubled with a bad back for three years because of an auto accident.
Because of Steven’s current income, meager though it is, the Ritters have seen a marked reduction in the monthly amount they had been receiving from public assistance — down to about $200, Monica says.
They just spent what little they had for equipment to bring power to the trailer. She said their resources, before Steven’s next casino paycheck, is “probably five bucks.”
I ask Monica what Christmas promises. She gives a wan little chuckle. “I have no clue.” What would she like? “To be able to come home to my trailer.”
The bite of the autumn wind up here foreshadows winter, which can be tough, even in a cozy house where the snow can be admired through a window but not felt.
The future is not very sanguine for this little family, but they have their dreams, which are all about their son. However, talk of dreams brings tears to both.
Monica says, “We’ve worked so hard for little Ray to have what he needed, and now it’s gone, all gone. He doesn’t know where he belongs. He tells us every day, ‘My house burned up, all my toys burned up.’ It’s real hard to hear your 2-year-old tell you that.”
Steven chokes back his grief, burdened by the belief that he’s the man and he’s supposed to provide. “Ray’s everything in the world. He’s the best. All I know is, I got to keep trying.”
Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer who believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes column ideas and other suggestions; contact him at [email protected].
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