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COLUMN ONE

It's their nature to persevere

In their 80s, the Wiers reeled when fire took their home. But they, and their beloved canyon, are recovering.

January 23, 2008|Joe Mozingo | Times Staff Writer

POWAY, CALIF. — The 88-year-old man sits on a bench and lights a cracked briar pipe. He looks out at the black void and sighs.

The firestorm three months ago killed most of the sound here. No birds warble, no leaves flutter, no coyotes yelp in the night. The giant, tilted slabs of granite on the ridge peer like statues down on a moldering pyre.

Jerome "Joe" Wier comes up here most days in his little Chevy pickup and secondhand clothes. He sits for hours under a scraggly tree, staring up at the boulders -- and at the place where his house once stood.

A neighbor across the gully has seen him crying. He denies it.

He built the house with his own hands. When the fire took it, Wier and his wife, Marion, lost every possession they had collected over 58 years of marriage. They lost every photo of their family, the bundle of letters that Joe sent her while he was in the Navy, the leather-bound journal Marion scribbled her thoughts in for the last quarter century. They lost all their clothes, keepsakes, records, medications -- even Joe's hearing aid and dentures.

And they lost this bit of wilderness that fed the life in themselves.

"Remember the hummingbirds we had here, Joe?" Marion asks, looking out at the canyon. "Oh, sure, nature will rejuvenate itself in a few years. But we don't have a few years, Joe. That's the sad part."

Joe Wier is wiry, quick on his feet and sharp with the wisecracks. He stays fit by driving golf balls into the mountain and hiking up to collect them. Marion, 80, still dotes on him, while noting that he is a tightwad and stubborn as a mule.

"He lost his hearing aid," Marion points out. "That's why he talks so loud."

Joe's eyes crinkle into a smile. He pulls back his upper lip to show a gum as bare as the hills. "My upper bridge is gone, my eyeglasses, my hearing aid," he says. "I'm in bad shape."

The couple fall into bouts of despair and then whip out of them, knowing they don't have the time to dwell on loss the way others might.

They couldn't take all that junk to their graves anyway. Now is about the future. With characteristic humor, tenacity and self-reliance -- imbued in them as children of the Great Depression -- they are moving forward.

Joe's mind churns as he stares at the empty lot. He built the ranch-style house when he was 68. He designed it, framed it, built the roof, put in the windows. It was giant: two stories and 5,500 square feet, perched up on the mountainside.

Marion says he built it to leave for his heirs.

"He would be happy in a camper or a mobile home," she says. "But he wanted to leave something for the future."

Just before the fire, Marion ordered a sign, "Joe's Magnum Opus," to be placed on the driveway post. Now she's canceled the order.

But Joe is planning his new house. He wants to improve on the last one. There will be less wasted space and just one story, because the stairs were killing his replacement knees.

"I'm visualizing things," he says. "I take this as a challenge."

With no photos or letters, what they need from the past they pull from their memories.

Jerome Joseph Francis Wierzbicki first strolled up to Marion Womble at the Penguin Club in Washington, D.C., shortly after the end of World War II.

He was a chief petty officer in the Navy, the son of a Polish immigrant from Buffalo, where his father worked as a car repairman for the New York Central Railroad. She was a beauty queen from tiny Nashville, N.C., working as a fingerprint analyst for the FBI.

Joe wore his crisp navy blue formals and had the white hat under his arm. Marion swooned. She says he looked like Tyrone Power.

"Excuse me, are you Louise?" he asked.

"No, but I wish I was," she said. Her sister kicked her under the table.

He excused himself, went to the restroom and came back. "Even though you aren't Louise, do you want to dance?" he asked.

"Oh, yes," she said.

And that was that. In retrospect, there was as much craftiness to the approach as romance. "He didn't even know a Louise," Marion says.

"A hayseed like that, you know, and me a city slicker," Joe says, "I figured I could wine and dine her and woo her and whatnot. I've been paying for my mistake for 60 years."

They married in 1949 and moved to San Diego, which Joe fell in love with on a brief stay during the war.

He earned a business degree from San Diego State University, left the Navy in 1959 and went to work managing missile guidance system development for TRW. They had a son, Michael, and a daughter, Nanette.

On the side, he and his brother started a real estate business. To their father's eternal wrath, they shortened their last name to "Wier" because they thought "Wierzbicki" might scare off white-bread buyers.

The business did well. When he retired, Joe and Marion had enough money to build their grand house. He bought 8 1/2 acres off a dirt road in a remote canyon of Poway, northeast of San Diego. He hammered the nails, sawed the wood and directed the electricians, plumbers and concrete subcontractors.

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