During the recent rainstorm my old friend Will Fowler telephoned to ask why Angelenos are so inept in dealing with rain.
"We go ape," he said, reciting some of the strange behavior that a little precipitation brings out in us.
I realized he was right. We react toward rain the way Northeasterners react toward blizzards. The only difference is that rain doesn't completely ground us, so we go out in it and get into all kinds of trouble.
I had to go see my doctor in Pasadena that morning, so I crept down the hill and onto the freeway with my wipers going thwach thwach thwach. Knowing how slick a freeway can become with a coating of rain on it, I drove slowly and avoided situations in which I might have to brake suddenly. Cars whished past me at 60 m.p.h., throwing up sheets of water from their tires.
I turned on KNX for the traffic news. It was full of dire reports. The whole system seemed to be one far-flung disaster. People were crashing into one another all over Southern California. In some places, traffic was backed up for miles.
The rules for driving in the rain are simple. You go slow. You avoid lane changes. You avoid sudden acceleration. You avoid sudden braking. Most of all, you go slow.
Why is it then, that every time we get a little rain people begin skidding over the freeways like ice skaters? As a CHP officer put it, "We had so many crashes today that all our officers are doing is basically going from one crash to another."
One reason we are such maniacs, I suspect, is that we have been conditioned to believe that we don't have any rain in Southern California. Our self-promotion and our long periods of drought seem to bear that out. So when it comes, we are hopelessly unprepared.
I don't even own a raincoat anymore. A few years ago my wife and I spent a week in Washington. Expecting cold, I took my raincoat with the fake-fur liner. It was tan, single-breasted and rather smart looking. It didn't rain in Washington. It wasn't even cold. When we left the hotel, I inadvertently left my coat behind.
My wife suggested I write or phone the hotel and get them to send it on. I said, "What's the use? I never wear it anyway."
I have been getting along quite well without it. Everywhere we go we go by car. Of course, one can get soaked just getting from the car to shelter, but it's hardly worth getting into and out of a raincoat just for that one exciting dash.
Actually, Los Angeles is one big dry wash, and when we get an inch of rain in the foothills we are flooded. It used to be worse before the big flood-control projects. After every rain the paper ran pictures of cars bogged down to their hubcaps at intersections in the San Fernando Valley.
Oblivious of the danger, we build houses on our hillsides, so that when we get an inch or so of rain the earth turns into mud and the houses go skidding down the slopes like kids on a sled.
Earl S. Draimin of Van Nuys recalls the big rain of March 2, 1938, which caused a Chicago newspaper to proclaim in a banner headline, "38 Die in L.A. Flood!" Draimin worked downtown at the May Co., and he recalls that downtown streets were rivers.
"Young men in hip boots were carrying damsels in distress across the intersection for 25 cents." (Draimin wonders what men today would charge for the same service. But he notes in defense of those 1938 gallants that if they were working they were probably making $18.50 a week.)
By 1:30 in the afternoon all the downtown stores shut their doors to the public and sent their employees home. How they got home was their problem.
During the cold spell before the rains, I noticed that my wife had no coat when we went out to a party. "Why aren't you wearing a coat?" I asked her. "I don't have one to wear with this outfit," she said, as if that were a reasonable answer.
I bought her a heavy purple coat at Nordstrom for Christmas. It turned out to be too big and too purple. She took it back and bought a long black raincoat. "A raincoat!" I exclaimed. "What are you going to do with a raincoat?"
The day it rained she went to a luncheon at the Music Center. I noticed when she came home that she hadn't taken her raincoat. "I forgot I had it," she explained.
As I say, we simply aren't conditioned to rainfall.
Meanwhile, if the management at the Jefferson Hotel in Washington finds my raincoat, I hope they will send it along. It might rain again some day.