Roger Bielasz, MD is a popular physician. He and his wife Dena were known up and down Highland Valley Road. The view of the San Pasqual Valley just down the way from the Wild Animal Park was a source of pride. Roger prepared for potential fire danger the way he prepared for a surgical procedure. No detail was left unexamined.
As he took his friends to his viewpoint over-looking the valley below to the ridges off in the distance under the clear skies of North County, they would often ask, “Do you ever worry about the fire danger?” Roger had an answer.
His house was a model of fire safety and preparedness. All the windows were replaced with fire-safe dual pane fire-resistant materials. The same with the roof. And the decking surrounding the house. All of it state-of-the-art non-flammable synthetics. He was ready. He surrounded the property with succulent ground cover and kept it irrigated. He cleared the dry brush around the house. His insurance agent told him that everyone in the neighborhood should follow his lead. In the risk management business – the doctor’s house was Exhibit A on how it should be done.
So before they went to bed that late October night with the television set on, they monitored the fire’s progress on round the clock coverage, switching stations one after the other to see if maybe the flames might head their way. Satisfied they were in the clear, they shut off the lights and the noise of Breaking News and drifted off to sleep. At one thirty in the morning, high winds slammed against those dual pain windows in the bedroom and woke them up. Roger raced to the large window in the living room. A horrifying orange and yellow light filled the room – just outside, racing up the ridge were twenty foot flames heading right for the house.
“Dena – we’ve got to leave!” he called out. They began stuffing two suitcases they kept in the closet of their master suite. But it was too late. They could feel the heat of the flames outside, already lapping up against the house. Roger grabbed Dena by the hand and barefoot, they raced outside. Flames surrounded the property. There was nowhere to go. “In the pool,” Roger cried. And the two of them jumped into the swimming pool and waded through the embers and the howling wind to a shelter beneath a rock overhang at the spa.
It was barely two in the morning. From their place in the cold shallow water they watched. The dream home they occupied together for nineteen years succumbed to the flames. The roof collapsed. The walls fell. The fire-retardant windows melted, as did the deck and the wrought iron railings twisting into a tangled mass of molten metal. Later they talked haltingly about the destruction that followed. For three hours they held each other in the water as the heat intensified. “Keep your hair wet,” Dena shouted over the deafening noise of the fire. “Don’t let your hair catch fire,” she warned Roger. Over and over, they dunked themselves in the pool under the rocks that gave them shelter. Burning embers, flaming debris hit the pool water before them hissing and steaming just inches away. The scene was devastating. Finally the kitchen was exposed, and the refrigerator stood as the last bastion against the intense heat. They could hear cans exploding in the pantry and their collection of fine wines popping like firecrackers as glass shattered. The steel refrigerator melted as they watched, disappearing into the flames like candle wax.
As Roger stood in the protective waters of the pool next to his shivering wife, he thought about his mother. She died just a year before. She was a spiritual woman who took pride in her son’s considerable success. “My son is a physician,” she would tell her friends with a smile. But Roger knew her well. He knew she prayed for him regularly. He knew she cared more about his soul than his impressive collection of stuff. And just before she died, she told him that she would be his guardian angel. She handed him a tin box. Inside were a Book of Prayer and a tiny New Testament. Shortly after he buried his mother, he placed the box on the mantle over the fireplace in the living room of his fire-proof house. There was a strange and unexpected reverence about that box that gripped the hardened scientist who rarely allowed himself the indulgence of reverence.
Roger and Dena pulled themselves out of the water in a state of shock. They survived. Their house did not. Up and down the street, that wonderful street with the wide vistas, neighbors shared their fate. The homes were gone. Three days later, they learned that investigators confirmed their fears. The couple next door did not escape. The remains of their bodies were found in the ash somewhere near their bedroom.
As they sifted through the ruins, still smoldering, the heavy smell of smoke lingering over their property, the pool black with soot, charred debris still floating on the surface, they wandered into the garden. An angel stood there, the angel Roger put there in memory of his mother. Strangely, it was untouched, not even singed, looking up just as it did before disaster hit. Arms wide open. Roger remembered. His Guardian Angel. He called Dena over. She took one look. She reached for her husband. Tears filled her eyes.
Next to the angel in the garden was a page from a book. The edges were charred. But the page remained in tact. Roger reached down and picked it up; the text was clear. He could only reach one conclusion. It was a page from the prayer book in the tin box on the mantel. Somehow it drifted through the heat to the garden and found its rest next to the angel. The scripture read, “Be strong of good courage. Be not afraid. The Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”
Pastor Jim, a good friend of mine, went to high school with Roger. Roger told this riveting story to his old friend and said, “You know, Jim, this whole thing has got me thinking.”
Jim answered, “I guess so, Rog.”
* * * * * * *
It’s Monday morning. You are a leader. Once in a great while, circumstance calls all our values into question. The things we assume, the path we follow, the process we employ all of them are up for review.
Roger and Dena’s story caught the media’s attention. They were interviewed by CNN and CBS. They were featured in the Los Angeles Times, the North County Register and the San Diego Tribune. Jim called his old high school pal, and they spoke for nearly an hour.
There’s a newfound humility in the good doctor’s voice these days. He’s thinking about his mother’s prayers; and the reality that transcends the scientific method.
As you and I contemplate those three unscheduled hours in four feet of water in the middle of the night; when survival hung in the balance; we re-evaluate, too.
It’s a restoration of the soul. Somewhere, a mother smiles.Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2007 Posted in Vancouver, BC