“A High Wind In Sunny Hills”
by Paul Saevig, ‘67
The coach had to take his Renault sedan to work, and weighted it with bricks to prevent capsizing in the Santa Ana winds. At only few yards up the hill to the high school in Sunny Hills, a gust buckled his suspension. There was a palm tree: a mass of fronds and no leaves, which was almost hidden in a cloud of swirling dust so vivid as much to obscure the outline of the low buildings ahead. Students have often lost their way trying to negotiate Santa Ana winds, and foundered by rushing into them: it cannot be done.
He parked his Renault in front and leaned into the wind walking to the faculty room. The lunch his wife packed seemed sodden and heavy in his hand. On the walkway,colleagues greeted him through gritted teeth, muttered pleasantries or complaints, as it happened. The coach had no appetite for small talk but only for coffee, black as sin and thick for his virile palate. He shouldered his way to the coffee pot, filled his mug and turned for the door. With a blast it opened and he stepped outside into the maelstrom of the quad. Everywhere the wind lifted and tossed scraps of paper, dust devils danced to the canteen, gusts flattened student bouffants and pompadours, and only ebullient students stood to talk, scarecrows tormented on the concrete.
At the ramp to the canteen, a side wind lifted the coach’s toupee and carried it in a lilting arc over the biology classroom, over the library and across the expanse of grass next to the cafeteria. He pivoted and wanted to run, but the effort would be futile. Already the bareness of his pate felt unnatural, and students around him stared curiously. He pushed through the winds with his shoulders and hurried into the boy’s locker room. In his glass-walled office he fought the icy claws of despair, for he was sensitive about his baldness. If anyone teased him, he might lose his control and throw a terrible punch.
At that moment, a student’s mother rode her chestnut south in Golden Hill along the gulch toward Euclid. As a horsewoman of wide repute, the winds barely challenged her, and her mare was hardy and brave. When the coach’s peculiar rust red hairpiece floated above them in the torrid currents, she clicked her tongue to make her horse follow. They rode faster and her mare peeled back her ears in the chase. The woman recognized her quest only vaguely, except that she must secure the adornment unharmed. After one hundred yards, they galloped in a dead run, and the blotch of rust red hair bounced on the verdant trail, skittered to treetop heights above them, threatened to drift onto Valley View, and Bossa Nova’d in the zephyrs.
Euclid loomed ahead, busy with morning drivers and school buses. In an instant the rider and her horse would reach the thoroughfare and risk injury most gruesome. In a sweeping gesture, the woman pulled a lasso from her saddle and roped the toupee less than one inch from the roadway, in harmony with her mare, who pivoted to the North.
Boldly they crossed the road and proceeded into Arroyo and the depths of Fern Drive, where the downhill slope blocked enough of the devil winds to create an unearthly suction. Bathed now with perspiration, the woman and her mare raced up North Arroyo, leaped to the left on Fern Drive and rode hard onto a homeowners’s yard, through the back yard and through the Younger family yard onto Valley View, racing west in the clubhouse turn, where languid students raised their voices in cheers.
The woman hurtled down and jumped the entire width of Bastanchury, and blazed through the field of sour grass and tumbleweeds. By now traffic had stopped to watch and applaud, buses braked, and cows in the ag farm lowed their approval. The spectators gasped as the woman and her mare started up the treacherous driveway to the parking lot, the Eleventh Wonder of the Ancient World. Rosaries came out, faithful snapped beads and prayed them, fingers were crossed and student breath was held. With a mighty kick, the woman and mare crested the top and headed for the playing fields.
The coach stood with his back turned, fingering his whistle, wondering what he had left to live for. No one in the school world had ever seen him bald,and he believed he looked ridiculous without hair. Dark were his ruminations. A class of seventy freshman boys would arrive soon and begin their grudging calisthenics. If the coach abandoned the campus, he might lose his job. He didn’t want to work on oil wells again, or split more logs in Oregon. His made fists so tight his hands became numb.There seemed no way out.
“Coach! Coach!” the woman yelled, and in another second she reached the coach on her mare. Instead of stopping, he dropped the toupee gently into his hands, and he sank to his knees in gratitude to the Lord above. There was time to place the hairpiece on his head and adjust it as before. He threw his chest out, squared his shoulders, assumed a manly frown and took the rolling sea-leg strides of a veteran athlete, waiting for the boys.
The woman and her horse continued to the cliffs above the JV baseball diamond and vaulted onto the plain. Slowly now they enjoyed their own kindness, and wondered if they’d been recognized by many, for the woman rode with a scarlet scarf over her head and another over her face in the winds. She didn’t realize yet she’d been taken for any of twenty local women by speculating students and staff.
They called her Zorra. The afternoon edition of the Fullerton News Tribune featured a two inch story about “an unknown woman riding through the gulch, Fern Drive and the high school campus”. The principal said to himself, “She outran the wind.”
In the years that followed, no fewer than eleven local women claimed to be the mounted woman. One of them submitted her account to Reader’s Digest. Two others wrote screenplays and persuaded agents to offer the script to the studios. Nothing came of it, but the legend lived on. In some versions, the woman retrieved the coach’s heart pacemaker handle -- whatever that was — and in others a rare medication he needed for his attack of hemophilia. In one version there was a hailstorm, in another a comet. One woman persuaded a priest to report the incident as a miracle to the Vatican.
The coach believed that Divine Providence had returned his toupee in time. He eventually applied for a coaching job at a Bible college in rural North Carolina. He got hair plugs and with his new confidence, he took a degree in divinity and began preaching. He always mentioned the miraculous return of his toupee as his own moment on the Road to Damascus.
The mare, Dixie Lou Belle, soon went to live on the woman’s sister’s ranch in La Canada, where Dixie Lou Belle spent her remaining years lolling under oak trees and perhaps, just perhaps, remembering her own heroism.
The woman herself, later when her children were in college, studied counseling psychology in a private university in Westwood, and became a psychotherapist in South Pasadena. She preferred an unorthodox approach of seeing her patients on horseback as they rode up the arroyo to the Rose Bowl and back. She was highly successful, too.
The high wind in Sunny Hills never came back with the force of that day. Most residents attributed it to destiny.