The birthday invitations had been sent out weeks earlier and the RSVPs had been returned. The cake had been ordered, the Game Truck had been reserved, and gifts were hidden throughout the house. There were a few “Happy Birthday” banners on the wall, but the real decorating was schedule to begin 24 hours later. Garrett went to sleep content in knowing that in just a few short hours, he would be celebrating his birthday with his family and friends from school.
What he didn’t expect was to be woken up at 1am by me whispering into his ear, “Garrett. I need you to wake up. We’re evacuating the house. There is a fire outside and we need to leave now.”
Two hours earlier, GWE stood at the back of the house overlooking the San Fernando Valley. She noticed a strange orange glow coming from behind the mountains to the left of us. In response, she turned on the news to discover a fire had started in the area. I brushed it off as not being a big deal and I went back to binge watching a Netflix series. Periodically, we’d flip back to the news and the fire seemed to be growing, but I still didn’t think it was serious. It wasn’t until I turned around to look out the back window that I realized that we might have a big, burning problem headed in our direction.
GWE asked me if we should prepare to evacuate. I thought it wasn’t a bad idea as a “just in case.” I honestly didn’t think we’d need to leave. However, 5 minutes later, I saw the fire come over the top of the mountain and we raced into evacuation mode. Since this is the second time we’ve done this in 13 months, we’ve gotten pretty good at grabbing the most important stuff as quickly as possible.
I gently woke up Justin with the news that we were evacuating. He met the challenge head-on by going back to sleep. I tried again 10 minutes later. “Justin, I’m not kidding. There’s a fire outside. Time to go.”
Garrett was far more responsive. Once he heard what I’d said, he popped out of bed, jammed his backpack with stuff, grabbed his electric guitar, and he was out the door.
We left the house at 1:30am without any idea of where we were going. Hotels in the area were getting swarmed with calls and our friends and family were fast asleep (and not responding to our texts)…except for my mother who was awake at 4:30am in Atlanta because she’s become nocturnal, I guess? Luckily, my parents are Marriott preferred customers and she was able to use that status to get us a room at the Marriott Warner Center. It’s about 20 minutes away from the house.
We checked in, got to our room, and collapsed on the beds. GWE and I tried to bring some normalcy to the moment by getting the kids ready for bed all the while watching the local news coverage of the fire. Justin was asleep as soon as he hit the bed. Garrett was just about to close his eyes when all of a sudden, the hotel fire alarm went off. Crap!
Once again, Garrett popped out of bed, grabbed what was important to him, and then he demanded I take him down the 17 flights of stairs to the lobby because the elevators were deactivated due to the fire alarm. I protested, but he won. We walked down all 17 flights of stairs. (Fun fact: In the 5th floor stairwell, there’s a toilet just sitting there. I guess ‘when you gotta go, you gotta go.’) It turns out that there was so much smoke outside that it was setting off the fire alarms on the inside of the hotel.
At 3am, GWE texted, “Where are you?” I sent her a picture of Garrett and I sitting in the lobby. She thought it was hilarious. I did not.
At 3:30, the elevators resumed and we made it back to our room. Garrett passed out around 4am. I think I fell asleep soon after.
At 8:30, I rolled over and saw Garrett staring at me. “Happy Birthday, buddy,” I said to him. With a look of concern on his face, his first question was, “Will I be able to go to school today so that all my friends can sing me the Happy Birthday song?” I explained to him that school had been cancelled for the day, but I’m sure they would be singing to him on Monday.
At this point, GWE and I had to balance a way to celebrate Garrett’s birthday in a spontaneous and care-free way all the while catching glances of the news to make sure that all of our stuff didn’t burn to the ground. First, breakfast!
We went to our favorite diner to grab a quick bite. It’s a real diner where the clientele runs the gambit from ultra-wealthy Mulhollanders to nightshift janitors. As we walked in, I recognized a former porn star who was leaving with her parents. (Only in LA.) We know the owner of the diner, so before we sat down we were able to fill him in our past 9 hours. We also informed him that it was Garrett’s birthday. He left and then quickly returned with a short stack of pancakes for Garrett with a candle in the middle. What followed was every patron of the diner singing “Happy Birthday” to Garrett.
After breakfast and a few other errands, we returned to the hotel so that Garrett could open some of his gifts. He was thrilled to get a massive box of 12 different “speed” Rubix cubes along with some Lego sets. He was thrilled with every gift he got.
At some point during the day, we heard from our friends Jon and Nkechi because they had finally seen GWE’s texts. They graciously took us into their home. They fed and entertained us refugees with an evening of dinner and a movie. At the end of the night, we all parted ways and returned to our hotel room.
It had been a long day. Garrett had only slept 4 hours over a span of 24 hours. He had evacuated both his home and his hotel room. He didn’t know if he’d ever seen his stuff again and it was his birthday. Anyone else would have had a meltdown at some point during the day. (Including me.) Not Garrett. As he climbed into bed, I asked him how his birthday was. His response: “This was the greatest birthday ever!”