Friday, December 23, 2011

A Memorable New Year's Eve Escapade

California Central Valley Tule Fog

The New Year's Eve of 1970 was one of the most memorable events in my life in the United States. It was a peculiarly distinct night that I endangered us, me and my wife Macrine, by driving into the unknown, for a chance to celebrate a late dinner out. It was also the night we got to meet and know friendly strangers, who invited us to celebrate the New Year's Eve in their lovely home.

Before arriving in California, we were living a blessed life with four young children in Kansas City, Missouri. I loved and enjoyed working as a chemist for Chemagro Corporation. I could have stayed and worked longer for the company, but fate had other plans for my career. We had several friends, and we were established and comfortable in the ways and life in the Midwest. Our children were attending elementary school, while my wife was a full time housewife.

In September of 1969, I found a new job with Shell Development Company in central California. It was an attractive job offer which was difficult to turn down. They presented a substantially bigger salary suitable for my growing family. It was also a chance to move to the warmer California climate, and leave behind the harsh Midwest winters. After consulting with my wife and discussing the merits of the possible move, I immediately accepted the offer without any doubt and reluctance. Leaving a place we have learned to love and appreciate was sad, but we had to move on.

Our family relocated to Modesto, California, and we were excited about living in a new community, meeting new friends and getting to know new neighbors. The move was easy and relaxed. The relocation expenses, including the packing and unpacking by the movers, were paid for by my new employer. We simply moved in and got accustomed to our new surroundings.

The city of Modesto is located right in the heart of the central valley of California. It is the land of fruits and nuts, and also the agricultural region of the state. I love the outdoors, and living in Modesto gave us a chance to visit the nearby magnificent Sierra Nevada, and its various easily accessible natural attractions and parks.

The central valley is also known for its sinister side, its tule fog during winter, which covers much of the central valley in poor visibility mist. The locals called it the "soup". The tule fog (/ˈtuːliː/) is a thick ground fog that forms and settles in the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys of California's great central valley. This spectacle is named after the tule grass wetlands or tulares, as they are called, found in the central valley. Vehicular accidents caused by the thick and zero visibility tule fog, are the leading cause of weather-related casualties in central California.

As a newcomer to central California, I had no idea about the soup and the gravity of danger it poses for motorists. Moreover, I was unaware how frightening an experience it could be to drive through the fog. I would never recommend anyone to go through such a worrisome ordeal.

During the last four months of 1969, we were occupied settling down and adjusting to our new home and community. We found a new school for our children, church, grocery, shops and parks. My life was thinly spread between my new job and home. We had no time to join any local group, and had no friends except for our neighbors. The demands of my job and family life made me a very busy man, and I had no time to make new friends except with my co-workers.

Before the New Year's Eve, my wife and I wanted to find social interaction in our community, but we had no friends or family to visit nearby. We decided to go out for a late dinner in one of Stockton's nicer restaurants, to celebrate the arrival of the New Year. It is about twenty miles north of Modesto. We left the children at home, while the teenage daughter of our neighbor watched over them.

We were excited to get out of the house and party for this New Year's Eve, like a young couple eager to go out on a date and explore the night life in town. As we left the house on that chilly and foggy night, we were about to embark on an adventure we never imagined. I remember the smile on my wife's face to get out of the house and enjoy the night together. We discussed the food and wine to order, and probably having dancing and celebration for the arrival of the New Year.

We reached the restaurant at about 9:30 pm, and the place was filled to capacity. We didn't realize that many couples had the same wonderful idea for the last night of the year. We had to wait in the bar before they could offer us a table. At the bar was another couple who was also waiting to be seated. They were a little bit older than us. The lady was of Asian ancestry and the man was Caucasian.

The couple appeared friendly, so me being the extroverted, outgoing and friendly individual, I started the introductions. I made small talk which initiated an animated conversation to pass away the time. We felt relaxed talking with the couple, and when we were called to be seated, we decided to get a table for the four of us together, instead of two separate ones.

Our dinner of steak and lobster was enjoyable. The conversation flowed freely, loosened by two bottles of wine. Based on our rapport and discussion, it appeared like the four of us were long time friends. We learned that the lady had Filipino ancestry. The couple is also Catholic, and has resided in Stockton for the last ten years. They had no children and had plans of adopting a child from the Philippines.

Their house was in a property near the restaurant, and a short drive away. We finished dinner and dessert at about 11:30 pm. Our new found friends decided to invite us to their home for an after dinner drink, and to avoid driving home in the highway at midnight, the New Year's Eve. With our adventurous spirit, Macrine and I trusted these strangers, and accepted their invitation without any fear or hesitation.

When we got out of the restaurant, the fog was already thick with only a few feet of visibility. I was not alarmed since the couple's residence was nearby. The house was tastefully furnished and decorated with several Philippine antiques that the lady had inherited from her Filipino grandparents.

We had a bottle of champagne at midnight and celebrated the arrival of the New Year. I only took a sip since I was the designated driver. We stayed at their home chatting and getting to know each other better. We talked about our families, interests, places we've lived and visited, and about the central valley. We ended the party at 1:00 am, and decided to go home.

As we stepped out of the warmth and comfort of their house, the cold air and the soup welcomed us outside; we could see nothing in front of us. It started to sink in my mind, whether we should proceed and drive through this very thick fog or not. I remember thinking; maybe we should pass the time somewhere, and let the fog go away before driving home. On the other hand, we could not delay the trip home to our children, and the babysitter also had to get home to her family.

I decided to start the car, drive slowly through the thick fog; my eyes open wide, a little bit nervous and anxious. We glanced at each other; my wife had the look of concern on her face. I remember her saying "this looks dangerous, and how will you see the road or the other cars on the highway". Seeing her worried look increased my growing apprehension of the peril of driving through zero visibility. The fog was so thick, my car's fog lights were useless, and we could only see a few feet away.

With arrogance, I was telling myself this was nothing to worry about. I've driven through blinding snowstorms, and snowy and icy roads in the Midwest. This would be easy; there is no rain or snow on the highway. I would manage this by driving slowly and totally focused on the road. Besides, at this time of the night there are few people and cars on the road.

On the contrary, my rational side was conflicting with my self-confidence. It was advising me to get out of the road and avoid any accident. It continued telling me that driving in this road condition is like a blind man walking through oncoming traffic.

Silence pervaded during the whole trip. No one dared to speak of negative thoughts. Both our minds were already consumed with thoughts of angst. I remember how distressing it was with all the worries racing through my mind. It made me imagine of graphic images of car wrecks, bloody and mutilated crash victims, and disturbingly, orphaned children left behind by foolish parents.

Driving the usual thirty minute ride home from Stockton took an eternity. Due to the slowness of my driving, seconds felt like minutes, and minutes felt like hours. I was hearing the clock ticking on my head slowly and forever. It was a never-ending hour of nerve-racking and concerned driving.

It took me a full hour to finally reach the safety of our home. It was a huge relief to find our children at home asleep. I was thanking all the saints in heaven that we were home safe and sound despite the danger that we just went through. The baby sitter was also pleased to see us back at 2:00 am.

Driving in the soup with zero visibility on New Year's Eve of 1970 is an experience I would like to avoid repeating in my life. The drive was terrifying; I vowed I will never again drive in a fog, maybe not even during an emergency situation.

Reflecting back to this experience, I cannot imagine that Macrine and I allowed ourselves to get to know and visit the home of complete strangers, who later on became our close friends. We continued our friendship with the couple until 1974, when we moved to the San Francisco bay area. I lost my job from Shell Development Company when it closed the agricultural research facility in Modesto. The company decided to get out of the pesticide business.

This was definitely one New Year Eve's escapade that we will always remember for as long as we live.

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