Neighbors with the Reagans
Ronald Reagan was my neighbor for a couple of years. Well, actually, I worked and lived at a fire station next door to his ranch near Santa Barbara during the fire seasons of 1978 and ’79.I never met him. But I did cut some of his wood, and on a hike I found one of his love rocks, where a sandstone hollow had a heart and arrow with the initials N.D.R. and R.R inside the heart, much like the doodle the magazines and newspapers have printed over the past week. This was how I figured out that I had stumbled into the ranch somehow that day with just my Australian shephed, Leroy, for company, between girlfriends at that forlorn age of 21.You could stumble onto Reagan’s ranch back then, before he won the presidency and the Secret Service descended.The ranch was atop the mountains overlooking the ocean about 30 miles west of Santa Barbara – stunning, solitary mountain, ranch, cliff and beach country, with the sunset way out there on the ocean that went out forever. His white adobe ranch house was remarkably humble, next to a little pond amid rolling grass and oak trees. I think I remember a canoe, too.My Forest Service fire station was just on the other side of a wire fence from his ranch, which he’d owned since he was governor, if I recall correctly, off Refugio Pass. Santa Barbara bustled, albeit in that distinctive low-key SoCal beach town way. It was lonely out here, where a tiny road snaked up asphalt from the ocean side and broke into dirt on the way down the backside to Buelton. At that age, the path out for me was always toward Santa Barbara.The road was used little enough that one night as I drove around the corner where a checkpoint would later guard the entrance to Reagan’s ranch, my headlights caught a couple on the hood of their car as they engaged in some X-rated amorous play. Unfazed in the sudden glare, the fellow raised a hand and gave a thumbs-up.Years later, a couple of my crewmates on a different crew happened to be scouting for deer on the mountaintop road, Camino Cielo, three or four miles east of the ranch. One thought he could get a glimpse of the house through his rifle scope. Amazingly to them, the Secret Service pulled up within minutes, and they were all business. Times certainly had changed, in many ways.I left the engine crew at the isolated station before Reagan’s election to highest office for a far busier life as part of a 20-person “hotshot” crew based closer to town. One night off I helped fill a shift on the Refugio engine while the old man was staying at his ranch. Tough duty: All we had to do was stay awake through the night. Secret Service guys on patrol pulled in and chatted about every hour. Seemed to be bright, friendly guys, though always alert. An agent we met decades later in Beaver Creek said the agents liked duty in Santa Barbara. As for the legend of the president cutting and chopping his own firewood, well, maybe. I know we cut a nice chunk of it for him during one of our best assignments when not on a fire.Actually, we started at my old fire station, running our chain saws through a wide swath of brush and trees that desperately needed thinning. I have a notch in my metal helmet’s bill from forgeting about the wire fence while racing a buddy as we cut our way through the brush at that point. I swooped down with the saw and it bounced with a spark right back toward my face. Closest call I ever had in nine years with the Forest Service.We worked into the ranch and the fun stuff, the oak trees. We limbed, dropped some, bucked up the resulting logs and stacked what didn’t require splitting. I don’t know what was left for the president to do after we passed through. We left enough wood that day for about five years worth of crackling blazes in the fireplace.One year, we fought a nasty little wildfire at the base of the mountain leading directly up to the ranch, set by an arsonist. A little drier, a little windier and he might have torched off a rager. But as luck would have it, the thing ran for a short ways, then dinked around in the underbrush all over the place just enough to make for a really irritating night of “cold trail.” The rule with our brand of firefighting was to scratch line to mineral soil around every fire, regardless of whether it looked or even felt out. This one hit folds and gullies you’d never know existed in dense brush that took forever to cut and clear out, and at night it could be damn hard to figure what was burn and what was “green.” So we spent the night and into the next morning chewing line around this little 5-acre or so fire, pretty much ready to strangle whoever set it – not so much for committing a dangerous crime but for making the night’s work so dully miserable. A few months later, the superintendent of our crew was summoned to the ranch for an audience with the president. I recall he even put on his khaki official uniform shirt for about the first time ever.Supe reported back that the old man was sharp as a tack. (Even then we joked about Alzheimer’s, which became not so funny in a few more years.) A real cowboy type. The Supe had told him it was an arsonist, obviously someone who didn’t like the president, and that the fire was set in the right place, if not the right time, for conflagration. The person who set the fire was never caught.The president looked the Supe in the eye, no doubt with that characteristic twinkle in his own, and said, “Well, there’s cause for justifiable homicide.”The Supe, a tough guy who engaged in some real “cowboying on the side” at the largest ranch in Santa Barbara County, couldn’t stop chuckling as he told us the story. Reagan, who always seemed to know just what to say to world leaders and such, well, it turned out he spoke the Supe’s language, too. Managing Editor Don Rogers can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 600, or firstname.lastname@example.org
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