7/21/19: Santa Barbara Stars, Fleas, and Laughter

These last ten days have been truly challenging, and to cope better I’ve pulled up some stored memories to relish. This one dates back to 2011, when Joe, Lisa, our younger daughter, and I visited California for a wedding. 

We’d lived in Santa Barbara from 1975-77, and it didn’t rain once during our stay of nearly two-and-a-half years. If you needed a bathroom anywhere in most of California, you had to buy something. Glasses of water and cloth napkins vanished from restaurant tables. Lawn police heavily fined desperate homeowners who’d sneak out to water their expensive landscapes in deep night. 
Finally, anything green died: lawns became stone. Literally. 
That awesome drought lasted more than four long years. There were rarely clouds: just perfect blue sky, day after month after year. 

It was a town where I’d shop for groceries alongside Cary Grant, or Fess Parker, of Davy Crocket TV fame; where fish, barely out of the ocean, were delivered to the shop around the corner from my sister’s home; where I could pick avocados right off the tree in her garden; and where I’d perambulated our infant daughter, Jenny, to Cliff Drive Park next to the wharf, there to watch the occasional large shark idly eyeing people strolling the long boardwalk. 
I’ve never cared to swim in that ocean. No sir. In there be monsters. 
(Recently, we read that a surfer had been eaten north of town.) 

I have mixed feelings about Santa Barbara. The karma there was never- quite right. Two examples: 
- Our dog Fred was ticketed fifteen minutes after we hit town. Though licensed and at heel in my sister’s front yard, he wasn’t leashed. Money was scarce; every dollar counted, and the fine was steep. I was so angry! 

-After living with Kath for a while we’d finally managed to rent a tiny, inexpensive cinderblock home on Cliff Drive (100 feet away from the famous 1000 Steps, which descend to one of the world’s most spectacular beaches). That place was not only a long-time garbage receptacle but also infested with fleas. The guy and his frowsy wife owned three large, bug-ridden dogs and two Siamese cats. After we signed a year’s lease they’d moved out the next day, leaving us with a colossal mess.  

As we walked into our home my white jeans were quickly covered with moving black specks.  

We’d faced some filthy rental houses over the years (during his four years of medical school and then his residency, we’d moved twelve times in eleven years to different states, and even to London, England for a three-month surgical stint at St. Mary’s hospital.) Most of our rentals were in pretty sad condition. This tiny house, though, took First Prize for filth. For three awful weeks we released potent flea bombs, vacuumed and scrubbed everything from the ceiling down (the stove had to be tossed; it was too far gone) till our hands ached, and applied gallons of paint to grubby, fly-specked walls. 
Then came the test. Wearing those same white jeans, I lay on the carpet and waited. Five anxious minutes later, not. one. flea.  

We moved in and made it shabby chic-charming. I was seven months pregnant. 

Now, thirty-six years later we were back again. Lisa, our younger daughter, could see where her parents and baby Jen had once lived.  

One pretty afternoon we parked in front of the same boxy, one-story cinderblock residence we’d occupied for over two years, which still has no yard, garage or ocean view, because one other teeny house stands between it and the cliffs.  

Nevertheless, it was up for sale for well over one million dollars! 

We trekked down the 1000 Steps to that wide, glorious, empty beach, and walked for a long time on golden sand beneath towering cliffs. I collected seashells for my Traverse City garden fountain, and we recalled nine-month-old Jenny, our older daughter, holding Joe’s forefinger as she navigated the damp sand, taking multiple steps to her daddy’s one… 
It was a marvelous, reminiscent hour. 

Then, a fun, weird thing happened. Climbing up to the street again, huffing and puffing, we three were greeted by – odd, musical chuckles. 

There were no people about, and few cars. So, who…? The sounds were strangely infectious: we found ourselves chuckling, too. 

There! A chocolate lab hung out a barely moving truck’s window. His dark eyes were glued to the 1000 Steps’ entrance.  
No…it couldn’t be that dog! 

Could it? 

Yes. Anticipating the Steps and beach, he was- chuckling!  These sounds were indescribable. Unique in all the world. 
But then, when the driver picked up speed again and they left, his ethereal chuckles changed to an anguished “Oo,o,eeo,o,aho…”  

Our hair rose. We stood there, staring down the empty street, open-mouthed. 
“This whole thing is unreal!” Lisa exclaimed.  

Exactly so. 

The truck shrank with distance and finally disappeared around a corner...We continued to stare. 

Thirty seconds later the same vehicle popped into view again! They were coming back! His uncannily beautiful libretto had switched from despair to tonal joy! The dog (maybe as talented as the world-famous opera singer, Pavarotti) had convinced his master to reconsider!  

The thirty-something guy parked and issued a soft “heel” command. He was smiling to himself and shaking his head as he passed us to approach the Steps; the delighted animal practically bounced on his toenails next to him. ‘Chuckles’ shot us one triumphant glance before the two of them began the long descent down to the ocean, that haunting laughter echoing down the stone stairs before finally fading, incorporated into the Pacific’s rhythmic, beach-lapping sighs. 

Never, even all these years later, have we (and, I suspect, his owner) heard anything remotely like this dog’s vocal prowess, or witnessed a happier, more demonstrative canine.  

Santa Barbara’s irritating memories are more palatable too, when filtered through this surreal experience.

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