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Dispatches From the Russian River: Homer of the Redwoods

After a car rolls off the road and into the river near Alexis Coe's cabin, the neighbors mobilize to save the driver and clean up the mess. The scene is reminiscent of another tragedy in the redwoods, which dates all the way back to 1947. Turns out that when a tree falls in the forest, it makes a long-lasting community.
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Near the author's cabin, a truck rolled off the road and into the river. (Photo: Alexis Coe)

Near the author's cabin, a truck rolled off the road and into the river. (Photo: Alexis Coe)

With World War II’s Southeast Asian Theater as a backdrop, Homer Canelis fell in love. He was a lieutenant in the Army Corps, the son of a Greek lawyer in the Bay Area. She was an Army nurse named Theo, who came from a Korean family with an orange grove in southern California. They were stationed in Burma, where America was backing the Nationalist Chinese regime and Chiang Kai-Shek, a man whose slogan was “first internal pacification, then external resistance.” The American-Chinese union would eventually fail, but Homer and Theo’s didn’t. Homer’s father disapproved of his Korean bride, but the young couple had fallen in love during the deadliest conflict in human history. His family’s disapproval hardly compared to the horrors they had witnessed. Homer and Theo married before the war ended.*

After they returned to America, the Canelis moved to the Russian River. They settled in an area named Cazadero, which means “hunting ground” in Spanish. The redwoods served as prey. Homer joined his brother, Thesis, who made a living felling trees that grew as tall as 367 feet and as old as 3,300 years.

The last tree Homer and Theo felled crashed into another redwood, which collapsed and pinned them to the ground. By the time Thesis found them, Homer was dead.

February 9, 1947, was supposed to be Homer and Theo’s last day in Cazadero. They’d saved enough money to move to Berkeley, where Homer was going to study engineering. The couple decided to accompany Thesis on one last logging run. When Thesis finished his work for the day, Homer and Theo stayed behind with the power saw. Just one more tree, he told his brother.

Fourteen hours later, Homer and Theo hadn’t returned to their small, rented cottage. It was raining. The sun had set. Their landlord grew concerned and drove to Thesis’ house, hoping to find the whole family celebrating. He had no such luck.

The last tree Homer and Theo felled crashed into another redwood, which collapsed and pinned them to the ground. By the time Thesis found them, Homer was dead. He was 23 years old. Theo was barely alive. Thesis gathered a group of neighbors to saw her out from under the tree. She was driven to the nearest hospital in Sebastopol, which was at least an hour’s drive, and later transported even further south to San Francisco. She would never walk again. Back in Cazadero, it took six more hours to extricate Homer’s body.

Before I came to the cabin, I found their story in the New York Times archives under the headline “Tree Ends War Romance.” I was recently reminded of that tragedy when another struck. A truck rolled off the road my cabin sits on, landing upright in the creek. It’s a 20-foot drop. By the time I joined the crowd, the only sign of the driver was a thin trail of blood. He’d climbed out of the creek himself and knocked on the first door he saw. Ambulances take too long to get here, so the neighbor drove him to the hospital. It’s an hour away. If he had been a dog, his trip would have been much shorter; there’s a veterinary hospital in every direction, no more than 20 minutes away.

One of my neighbors, the assistant chief of the volunteer fire department, took it upon himself to deal with the mangled car. He asked a friend to clear a path for another neighbor’s tow truck. Everyone watched in awe as the tractor went up and down the hill, taking bay trees and brush with him. By the time the Sonoma County Fire Department and sheriff showed up, it was as if nothing had happened.

That night, I re-read the article. This time, I was less focused on the young couple’s tragic love story than on their remote, tight-knit community. The landlord was friendly enough with his tenants to notice they weren’t home. He knew Homer’s brother, and where to find him. Thesis was able to round up neighbors to race to the scene and help, despite the late hour and pounding rain. Someone drove Theo to the hospital. Others stayed behind, spending hours recovering Homer’s body from beneath the giant redwood.

I wanted to know Theo’s name, which the Times hadn’t bothered to mention. She was only referred to as a “nurse,” his “wife,” and “Mrs. Canelis.” I was hoping to unearth an obituary, but I found something better. There was a living Homer Canelis in Cazadero. This Homer was president of Bohan & Canelis General Engineering, the profession his uncle would have studied, had he survived. Thesis was his father. His mother had been pregnant with him when tragedy befell the family. They decided to name him Homer. He was born on Memorial Day.

The Homer I spoke to was surprised to hear about the Times article, but he knew a bit about his family’s history, and what he didn’t know I later learned from his sister, Karen Baur. Like most people on the creek, they were open and kind. Within half an hour, they’d told me about six generations of their family. Before we hung up, Homer asked how I’d decided to write about his late uncle, and I told him about the recent truck accident.

He already knew about it. His son had been the guy on the tractor.

Filed from a creekside cabin outside an unincorporated hamlet, Alexis Coe's Dispatches From the Russian River is a personal and historical exploration of leaving home and pursuing dreams.


*UPDATE — May 16, 2015: The language in this post has been updated to reflect that Chiang Kai-Shek was allied with the United States during World War II.