State Street Scribe
by Jeff Wing
At this writing a fire yet rages. Begun as a smoldering spark somewhere in the woods near St. Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, the flame blossomed into an all-consuming monster, clawing and burning its way out of those formerly verdant forests and down into the outskirts of Ventura, California. Good people in their thousands grabbed whatever they could and fled, their homes and mementoes vaporized by a massive and explosive whimsy, the fire having its way with us as an enormous, angry, adolescent Titan might torment an ant colony.
Change is good, it’s said (often with a note of distracted resignation), but one would not wish it ushered in by a firestorm. Now, one year ends and a new one begins. A corner, as they say, is turned. An unwanted new beginning seeks its embrace. It happens. Over and over. And over.
Lawrie Rutherford. There’s a name for a boy. Today a name like that would earn you a beating by the merry-go-round, or endless snickering in the office kitchenette. Per the custom of the time, though, the young guy’s given name is his mother’s maiden name. Born in Goleta to Scottish arrivistes and recently relocated a few miles down the coast to swinging Santa Barbara—along with his parents and five much-loved and anymore intolerable siblings—Lawrie is today making his brazen escape from Santa Barbara, the small provincial village planted in the confining little strip between the annoyingly modest Santa Ynez mountains and a broad Pacific ocean as looming and omnipresent as a jailer. Lawrie Rutherford is headed out, is ready to see Someplace Else, or Anyplace Else, whichever comes first. You know the feeling.
Now he alights on the gilded, steam-shrouded, surprisingly filthy street of fabled New York City, and he knows it’s finally real, knows he’s truly made it out of SB and into the larger world he’d scarcely had the imagination to envision. Lawrie Rutherford, all idiot grin and rapid heartbeat, shoulders his duffel, squeezes into and is carried along with the thronging khaki crowds making their way to the docks. His eyes are aimed up, ever up. Every building he sees is 6 times as tall and twice as swanky as the Arlington Hotel back home. The Arlington….aww jeez. Seriously? Lawrie Rutherford, escapee and adventurer, feels his heart twist a little, and he moans. Aloud. It’s only been seven days since he left home.
Stephen gets it. Boy, does he get it. When Lawrie had asked his dad’s permission and blessing, the response came without hesitation, surprising Stephen himself. He saw in a flash that Lawrie’s impulse to quit town and light out for a more expansive world was the same longing that had driven Stephen and his brother John out of Aberdeenshire, Scotland those years ago, and into the opening paragraphs of an embryonic California whose future they would help write. Aberdeenshire, with its damp spires and clocks and cobbled thoroughfares—the Rutherford brothers had traveled, at great expense and not a little hardship, to where a guy could breathe, spread his arms, maybe own a little something, build a little something.
When Stephen had settled himself in his job at Glen Annie Ranch in Goleta, he sent for his love back home, and Agnes Lawrie was as excited as he to see through sunstruck eyes a new life in a new place. They’d married and begun a family, raised six kids; had energetically interwoven their shared story with that of Santa Barbara. Alongside his brother and sisters, Lawrie had grown up a native Santa Barbaran, knew the town and landscape cold, had explored every corner, every hill and cove and stretch of beach. He’d morphed from gangling awkward boy running up and down State Street with his buddies, to a shy, uncertain teen, and finally to a young man yearning for just a glimpse of what lay beyond his over-familiar hometown.
Saying goodbye to Lawrie had been hard, almost unbearable, really; particularly given his destination. But his son would be the first of the stateside Rutherfords to take up arms on behalf of their new home, and that stirred in Stephen something of the fire he’d felt on arriving in the westernmost reaches of this crazy experimental country. Perhaps most important of all, Lawrie would have to leave their home to finally see it, Stephen had assured his Agnes. When he comes back he’ll see what we see, he’d said. And if he doesn’t, he’ll find his own home somewhere and stay there, love it the way we love this place. What could Agnes do but nod? She wasn’t hearing a word of it.
In the meantime, Stephen had his hands full. He’d done well since arriving in SB back in the 70s, had managed at one point to buy the seaside Dos Pueblos ranch out there in the overgrown Goleta hinterlands, but the year before Lawrie left he’d unloaded it. Things were really beginning to happen in the next town, and with the Dos Pueblos Ranch proceeds Stephen bought 120-some acres of agricultural gold between San Roque Road and Alamar Avenue from the manager of the Arlington Hotel, just down the coast in Santa Barbara—a picturesque slowpoke coach stop with an Eastern elite fan base and growing sense of Self. Stephen had plans.
The Sightseeing Sixth
So, France. Lawrie looks in vain for the Eiffel Tower. What he sees instead is countryside that looks like it’s been through a meat grinder. Twice. On the anxious and nauseating voyage over, he’d finally come to grips with both the scale and stupidity of the conflict, and the stalemate nature of the individual battles savagely fought by tens of thousands of men at a time, the soldiery on both sides falling like faceless chaff in numbers too huge to understand, for meaningless territorial gains of 10 and 15 meters which would be reversed the following day. And for what? Because some guy got shot in the backseat of his car in Sarajevo? Really? One guy? And where the hell is Sarajevo?!
The war, if that’s the word for it, is not going well for either side. 18th century battlefield tactics are bumping up against 20th century war machinery and the two don’t mix. But the belligerents, comfy jackass Royals actually related by blood, are too busy cabling each other churlish messages to notice that their subjects are being mown down like grass in complete anonymity. Lawrie’s division had been initially sent marching all over France, feinting in order to trick the Germans into misapprehending large troop movements. The constant movement of the division has earned them a nickname – The Sightseeing Sixth. Now all Lawrie can think about is Stearns Wharf, the St. Charles Market downtown, the fam’s new house in the foothills; from which you can see the ocean on a clear day, by the way. Hello? What, exactly, had he been thinking?
Dark and Deep
When he and the guys are finally assigned to the Vosges region and real action, the world turns inside out—black, seamlessly deafening, and screwed. Incoming artillery turns men into hamburger, chugging on approach like boxcars flying through the burned air.
And the barrages include mustard and phosgene gases; stuff that will turn your lungs to liquid if you don’t manage to get your Jules Verne mask pulled over your face in time. Lawrie and the guys find themselves running full tilt across chewed-up, smoldering fields, terrified German kids sweeping the advancing line with machine gun fire and everything else they can lay hands on, his newish buddies ducking and screaming and sprinting on either side of him.
He’s learned their new orders are taking his Sixth Division to a forest that stretches along the entire length of the war’s western front. The plan? He and about one million other guys will rush through dense, muddy woods and a storm of flying metal, with sheer blunt force shove the allied cause through the enemy’s defenses, break the line and finally end this stupid thing. Right?
On September 28 Lawrie is feverishly focused on a picture in his ringing head—the shady place where Stearns Wharf meets the beach, and where he and his pals would sit like ninnies under the pier for hours, swapping stories and watching the water lap the sand and the tarry pilings.
The order arrives and everyone gasps. On the call, and completely against his better judgment, Lawrie jumps up with the others and charges screaming into a fusillade of hot steel that rips up the trees in front of him, green leaves momentarily raining like confetti.
When word comes to the Rutherfords it buffets them, a gale. They’re stunned, destroyed. But why? They hadn’t been paying attention. Stephen recalls the farewell at the train station, his hat in his hand like he’s saying so long to a neighbor, and not his beloved boy, Lawrie. Through the sorrow, Stephen’s dream of a uniquely beautiful place, the land he’d bought the year before Lawrie deployed, begins to bear fruit. Initially called Rutherford Park, the area between San Roque and Alamar will defy the bland, grid-like layout of the growing frontier town. This place will be like Lawrie, Stephen decides; colorful and restless and unpredictable, but with a still center.
There will be curved streets, and in a nod to the town’s tradition they’ll bear the fashionable Spanish nomenclature of Santa Barbara; “calle” this and “calle” that. But the neighborhood will have a hub, the politely disorienting chaos of curlicue roads and houses will be anchored by an orderly, perfect circle which, despite the confused pleas of Stephen’s advisors, will have a French name and not a Spanish one; the name of a French forest, actually. Stephen Rutherford is adamant on this point, he won’t be talked out of it. It’d been the last place on Earth his son laid eyes on.
In 1939 Stephen Rutherford’s dying breath will sigh the memory of his gallivanting son, his restless, lost Lawrie—the young guy who simply had to see what more there was to the world, what lay beyond little Santa Barbara. Lawrie resides in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in Romagne, France, alongside his recent buddies of the Sixth Division, all of them fodder in the war-ending cataclysm that was the Battle of the Argonne Forest. But this place, Stephen thinks as the light fades on the curtains, will bring Lawrie home for good. Argonne Circle will see to it.