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By C.J. Salgado

The average house fire burns at 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit.

So I am in San Francisco having dinner; gorgonzola penne with shrimp, clam chowder, and sourdough toast at Cioppino’s on the wharf. My cell phone rings. It is my younger sister.

“You have to come home! There’s been a fire. The house burned. Please hurry.”

“Is everyone OK? Mom?”

“Yes, she made it out. But …the house, our things, all burned. We can’t stay there anymore.”

Is this really happening? I thought.

No one hurt! Still, my mind went to the insurance. Was it current?

I have been in San Francisco the previous few weeks, a choice assignment for a young government physicist from East L.A. My job is to protect people from harmful radiation. I am there to intern at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), a leader in health sciences, and to investigate possible radiation hazards in the area.

Mornings, I walk from my apartment in the Haight-Ashbury district to the campus of UCSF at the foot of Mount Sutro. The campus is massive. Some 16, 000 very smart people — studying and practicing medicine, dentistry, nursing, and pharmacy — convene here daily.

Ionizing radiation, its harmful form, is widely present on the campus, used for healthcare, teaching, or research. That’s the type of radiation that concerns me. And that’s why I’ve come to this school — to learn more about it.

Ionizing radiation is too elusive for our senses. It can damage human cells covertly. So, handling it safely requires specialized knowledge, skills, and instrumentation. Because most don’t understand it, accidents can come easily.

None of that matters tonight as I scoop a final spoonful of clam chowder and take a bite of my toast, pay the bill, and dash out, while dialing the airline’s number to find a flight the next day.

Back in my room, I can’t sleep, as I wait for morning to take the first flight to Los Angeles. My mind toggles between worrying about what I would be leaving behind and about what I was going to.

I have unfinished work at the medical center. Patients with thyroid cancer are given radioactive iodine ablation therapy. The radioactive iodine is administered orally to kill the spreading cancer of the thyroid gland. Beta particles emitted by this radioactive concoction bombard the cancerous thyroid cells, destroying them without ever leaving the patient’s body. That’s a good thing.

But radioactive iodine also sizzles with another type of radiation, gamma rays. Too much exposure to gamma rays is harmful. These are ghostly, can travel several yards, and easily penetrate matter. They can exit the patient’s body, and potentially injure unsuspecting persons nearby.

This is the same radioactive iodine produced by nuclear reactors and atomic bombs.

So the gamma rays must be monitored. After a few days of radioactive iodine treatment in isolation rooms, patients are surveyed to make sure they can safely leave the hospital. That is my role.

Any extra radioactive iodine administered that is not absorbed by the thyroid gets excreted from the body, mostly in the urine, but also in saliva, sweat, and tears. So I survey the patient’s hospital room to make sure that any bed sheets, towels, gowns, clothing or other items the patient come in contact with aren’t released if contaminated.

But by my leaving UCSF in such a hurry, the patients’ release to home can be delayed if I don’t show up to measure their radiation levels. I like to help people, almost as much as I like to chase gamma rays.

I got into gamma rays because they were mysterious packets of energy akin to light. Ever since, as a little boy, I pointed a flashlight into the dark of space. I imagined riding on the beam traveling out at the speed of light, slowing time and only bending for gravity and Einstein.

Fire, however, terrified me. It was the destroyer.

As a kid, my grandfather would tell me of the volcano Paricutín, which rose from a cornfield near his ranch in the Mexican state of Michoacán, ejecting stone, ash and lava in the early 1940s. Flames of fire climbed thousands of feet into the night sky. It rained fire. His fields were peppered with burning rocks lobbed from the volcano.

Waiting to fly to Los Angeles, I worry about fire the destroyer because it had found our home.

How did it start?

What did it burn?

I feel guilty. Why did I leave home and come to San Francisco? I could have done my internship nearer to home, probably at UCLA. If I had stayed, this tragedy might have been avoided. I always check the batteries on the smoke detectors and look for frayed power cords.

But I know why I came. The opportunity excited me. To live, work, and study in San Francisco seemed so thrilling. I love seafood, Chinese food, the waterfront, rolling hills, fog, the wharf, history, storied penitentiaries, and panoramas. Add gamma rays to the mix, and the dish was irresistible.

It is exciting the moment I arrive in San Francisco. I walk to the sidewalk outside the San Francisco airport terminal to wait for a taxi. Within minutes, a tall man in a black leather jacket and boots stands next to me. It is Nicolas Cage, the actor, one of my favorites. I say hello. We share a cab ride. He tells me about a place he liked to eat. Next chance I get I go there – Yuet Lee Chinese restaurant in Chinatown for the fish in black bean sauce.

In the business of radiation, work, too, is exciting. Radiation is a beast of burden when tamed but a dangerous wild animal when loose and uncontrolled. Every once in a while, it gets away and I pursue.

One day, a radiation alarm goes off at the local waste transfer station, where trash trucks drop off their garbage for temporary storage or sorting pending further processing. The station has radiation monitors to screen incoming trucks for radioactive materials hidden in the garbage truck waste loads.

When a radiation alarm goes off, transfer station staff detain the truck until it’s cleared by the government radiation control authority. Me. That day, I grab my emergency response gear and head over to the transfer station. The truck is parked in a corner of the lot away from others, isolated behind yellow and magenta barricade tape.

I am in a Tyvek ® protective coverall suit, shoe covers, two pairs of gloves, and face mask. I approach the truck and survey radiation levels with my radiation meters. I tell them to dump the truck’s load onto the pavement and spread out the waste with shovels. I keep one eye on my watch and another on my radiation meter. The more time in this radiation field, the more exposure to gamma rays.

I work quickly, swinging a radiation meter in one hand and a shovel in the other, sifting through 12 tons of garbage. I wish I had my father’s strong arms. The sweat trickles down my forehead into my eyes and burns. An hour passes.

With a sensitive scintillation detector connected to my radiation meter, I walk through the pile methodically trying to ignore the foul smell. As I get closer to the source, my meter’s audio alarm chirps faster.

I come upon a plastic bag, which I separate out from the rest of the garbage for closer inspection. I turn on my radiation isotope “identifier” meter, an instrument that can read the type of radiation and identify the radioactive material producing it. Radioactive iodine. I looked inside. Diapers.

It’s a story I know too well. A hospital patient undergoing radioactive iodine treatments for thyroid cancer urinates out much of the unabsorbed radioactive dose onto disposable diapers. These diapers are supposed to be segregated, isolated, and secured to decay in storage for three months until the radiation dissipates. Sometimes, this isn’t done and the contaminated diapers leave the hospital too soon.

My alarm clock goes off. It is 3 a.m. and I have a plane to catch.

I arrive in front of my childhood home about 8 a.m. The windows are boarded up; walls blackened, and burned furniture sits in our front yard. At the entrance, the metal security door is damaged, a large cut made vertically at the door locks, no doubt from the fire fighter’s rescue saw. I peek inside. Everything I see is black, either burned, charred, or covered in soot.

The vertical vinyl blinds in the living room window hang twisted, melted by the intense heat from the dining room where the fire started. A line on the walls of the living room demarcates how far the smoke descended after it spread up from the point of ignition. Everything above that line is sullied. Everything below it is clean. I suddenly remember a grade school lesson: to escape during a fire, fall and crawl.

In the dining room, our wooden dinner table is charred. The plastic table cover was simply fuel to accelerate the burning that ignited when a lit candle fell over. From there the flames reached up to the chandelier and ceiling, spreading horizontally to the walls and kitchen.

My mother brought her love of devotional candles from Mexico. So she had lighted a candle for the Virgin Mary, placed it on the dinner table, and left it unattended, forgetting about it when she opened a window on a windy day.

I look to one corner of the dining room where we kept many of our most treasured family valuables. Dozens of old family pictures are burned. Me as a kid in a purple suit, my father playing with us at the park, me sitting atop that garage where I imagined traveling on a beam of light—all are gone. Some look burned around the edges. Some look burned from the inside out, as if they self-ignited. Some I can’t find.

I search the remains for one picture in particular. For my first birthday my parents took me to Mexico for the first time. My mother sat me all dressed up in front of my birthday cake, a single lit candle adorning its center. Nothing.

By 9 a.m. the first of many suited men begin to arrive at our front gate. Some in business suits, some in protective coveralls, one after another they come all morning, to urge us to immediately hire them to restore, remediate, rebuild or adjust our fire loss. They are there to help, they say.

I take their business cards and stuff them in my pocket, oblivious to their rattling voices. I figure I paid the premium because our insurance adjuster would come by later, too, and hand me a check for $10,000 dollars so we could start to replace the things that burned.

Can he really do that?

They say people fear what they can’t see. That’s not me.

I’m terrified of fire, the destroyer.

The average photograph burns at 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

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By Susanna (Whitmore) Franek

 My heart pounded as I walked into the fire circle. One hundred and fifty firewalkers were chanting and jumping in unison, trance-like, preparing to make the 10-second trek over the hot embers. I was not walking, but out of the corner of my eye, I saw that Ondrej had decided to go for it.

We had met the previous year at a painting retreat in the village of Lažánky, in the green rolling hills of Southern Moravia. I was there at the invitation of the Iranian Sufi painter, Rassouli, with whom I had studied in Los Angeles; he was taking a small group of students on an artist’s journey through Vienna and Prague. I was fully immersed in growing my company; my life had become reduced to my workload. I needed a break.

Ondrej and I spoke only briefly that first night in Lažánky, but his impeccable, British-accented English, and his warmth and humor swept me off my feet. I watched him paint the next day, his nose inches from the canvas. Over the next four days we chatted frequently, discussing the joys and frustrations of painting. There was a buzz in the air when we were near each other; his otherworldliness fascinated me. At the end of the retreat, he joined our group on the bus ride back to Prague. We exchanged phone numbers and said we’d keep in touch since I had planned an extra week in Prague on my own.

A few days later we met at an Azerbaijani restaurant for our first date. We feasted on lamb and mutton spiced with cinnamon and coriander, grilled eggplant and tomatoes, fresh herbs, smoked cheese, olives, yogurt, and beer. Ecstatic and full, we walked the streets of Prague engrossed in intimate conversation. Iconic statues of saints watched over us. We held hands, surrounded by centuries of history and architectural eye-candy at every corner.

He was leaving in a few days for his holiday to a hot springs resort in Slovakia along the Hungarian border, and asked if I’d join him. I hesitated. My dating woes had kept me comfortably single. He left, while I took my time to think it over. I had planned four more days in Prague, alone, to roam the streets, experience Kafka, hit some museums and cemeteries, and then return to Vienna for more of the same before leaving for L.A.Susanna Whitmore story photo

Instead, after two days of trekking in the rain through Prague on my own – in the worst storm of the century – letting my intuition guide me, I acquiesced, realizing I had fallen in love at first sight with a partially blind man.

Ondrej picked me up at the train station in Sturovo. The lovely mineral springs made up for the post-Soviet dreary architecture of this blue-collar resort town. We tested the waters over the next four days to see how we’d get along; floating in our birthday suits in warm bathing pools, making love, traveling to Budapešt, sitting on the Danube riverbank, and drinking wine with his friends, including a young woman who interpreted at the painting retreat.

Ondrej made the journey back to Vienna with me. We parted, promising we’d see each other again.

Once back in L.A., we communicated through daily emails and a couple of calls every week on Skype. We learned a lot about each other in ways not common to couples falling in love who can see each other whenever they want. There were no physical distractions; our conversations were deep, our emails voluminous. He was my Czech prince, and I became his American queen. Our future together was unfolding. High on love, we even spoke about purchasing a house together in Costa Rica. We started making plans to see each other again.

Four months later, with work in tow, I returned to Prague for six weeks where we’d try living together, but this time in his tiny studio apartment. The new bedroom city of Černy Most where he lived consisted of boxy, brightly colored apartments, a sparkling mall, a Costco-type store, Ikea, and thankfully a subway line where we could escape into Old Town in 15 minutes. While devoid of the magic and beauty known to Prague, it was still our haven; we got a taste of what it was like being together in close quarters.

We traveled to meet Ondrej’s family, and to get his mom’s blessing. Only seven years older than me, she was a retired accountant, a traditional woman having lived her adult life wedged between God and communist hardliners. She was concerned about our age difference, but was relieved once she and I met. I was immersing into Ondrej’s world, hell-bent on learning Czech, though my brain, mouth and tongue struggled to pronounce its alien sounds.

It seemed crazy, especially the 6,000-mile void between us. It was my nature to go against the grain with relationships, but the 18-year age difference was a generation apart. What would Freud say? My oldest son, Sergio, was Ondrej’s age. I also struggled with people constantly staring at us, especially the day a young group of kids snapped shots of us on a subway in Prague.

Ten days later Ondrej crossed the pond for a three-month stay in L.A. He was a world traveler, but the U.S. was never on his list. In communist Czechoslovakia, the grinding propaganda machine against the U.S. was ever-present. On our side of the globe, Soviet bombs were always a threat. I grew up learning to “duck and cover” to protect myself from the “Red under the bed” menace that always lurked in the dark. Luckily, neither of us carried any nation-state baggage into adulthood.

Adapting to a new environment takes great effort for a blind person. Unlike in Prague, if he wanted to venture off on his own, public transport was cumbersome. My older Craftsman house was cold compared to the warm central heating of his comfy studio apartment. The strain of speaking English non-stop with no one around to chat with in Czech took its toll. He missed the safety net of his close-knit group of friends that he’d spent years building, especially his personal assistant who helped him shop or with whom he could meet for a beer.

We spent time at the beach, hiking in the mountains, traveling to the desert, and dining with friends. But we also had to work. We comfortably shared my upstairs office. He continued earning his living virtually for a Prague Geo-tech engineering firm. My research business kept me computer-bound for a good portion of his visit. Even though our cyber work circumstances allowed us freedom to be together, we were stressed. My friends and family embraced Ondrej – they were genuinely happy for us. Everything on the surface appeared right, yet there was a nagging undercurrent.

We were both against the idea of marriage. Initially, it was not a consideration. He had been in a 10-year relationship, and deemed marriage unnecessary. I was twice divorced. Though the emotional strain was evident between us, he proposed at a friend’s Christmas party, on a balcony overlooking L.A. Live in downtown. Blinded by the glaring neon lights in the background, I had to think about it. Even with our doubts and difficulties, Ondrej insisted I purchase my plane ticket for another Prague Spring adventure.

Thirteen months into the relationship, the distance and expense was getting to us. This was my third trip to the Czech Republic. The tension escalated just as we arrived for the highly anticipated four-day tantric “Art of Being” festival, where the fire walk took place. The countryside setting seemed an idyllic place for us to reconnect and solidify our intentions. Instead, Ondrej suddenly decided he couldn’t leave his bachelor lifestyle; the sting of yet another failed relationship distressed me to no end.

But the fire walk tipped the scales; the prince slayed the dragon, the queen woke from her sleep.

Two months later we were married in L.A. Surrounded by close family, a sweet and peaceful ceremony took place at the Self Realization Fellowship, Hollywood Temple. A short honeymoon up to the Santa Ynez wine country, followed by a celebration with 60 close friends in our backyard, sealed the deal.

As a youth, there had been intermittent flashes of California Dreamin’ in the back of Ondrej’s mind. I was always in awe of a country that had a playwright for a president. L.A. is where we call home for the time being; Ondrej’s green card just came in the mail.

It couldn’t have been any other way. Even before meeting Ondrej, I was painting faces with one eye.

___

Susanna (Whitmore) Fránek is a native poblador descendent of the city of Los Angeles. She is a cultural anthropologist and has her own business conducting consumer research among mostly Latino immigrants and their second generation offspring. Passionate about writing her memoirs, she hopes to eventually publish these short stories in a book. She paints and plays Persian percussion when she isn’t writing.
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