You wouldn’t think that having colon cancer and watching your house burn would be fun, but 95-year-old George Peabody, erstwhile El Dorado County historian, has a different idea of fun.
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“Everything, no matter how bad, has a component of fun,”insisted Peabody from his temporary home in Placerville. “People say, ‘Oh, come on, George, getting shot up at Iwo Jima couldn’t have been fun,’ but I say it wasn’t comfortable, but there was some fun in the whole process. If it ain’t fun, then make it fun.”
On July 31, around 3 p.m., the garage of Peabody’s home off Hank’s Exchange caught fire, possibly from an electrical panel. Sequoya Nylander, Peabody’s caregiver, had just finished giving him lunch and as she looked out the windows of the hexagonal house Peabody and his wife Pat built 40 years ago, she saw smoke.
Nylander told Peabody and called 9-1-1 and her mother who advised her to get George out of the house. In his house slippers and his walker, Peabody walked slowly down to the end of the driveway, helped by Nylander, who seated him in a chair. He watched as firefighters from Pioneer, Cal Fire, Diamond Springs and the county quickly arrived and put the fire out.
“It was a great conflagration and quickly spread from the garage to the house. She got me out as the windows were bursting,” said Peabody who told stories to the firefighters after they mopped up. “If that isn’t excitement, I don’t know what is. It’s sad, but it was fun meeting the firefighters.”
Most of the house’s components, like the plumbing and the windows, were salvaged from the Los Angeles County Hospital and the Veterans Administration hospitals, which collapsed in the 1971 6.0 earthquake.
“Patricia worked like a dog alongside me and we built that house together,” said Peabody of his wife of 68 years, Patricia, who died in 2010. “I miss her like my favorite pal; like my arm or leg. She was the unflickering gleam of happiness in my life.”
According to son Geoff, the fire burned under the eaves of the home and the walls and floor of the central room, as well as two small bedroom wings.
“Dad didn’t have any insurance; he spent most of his savings making the property fire-safe, and then it was the house that caught fire,” said Geoff Peabody. Geoff plans to remove the top of the house and rebuild, but money is an issue.
In a twist of fate, the date the house burned, July 31, was the 40th anniversary of the day the Peabodys moved into their new home.
Another issue George Peabody is dealing with is lymphatic and colon cancer. Given less than four months to live about six months ago, doctors sent Peabody home for end-of-life care. Hospice became involved.
Son Geoff said, ” He was supposed to be dead a month ago, but he found the ‘Holy Tamales.'”
“Holy Tamales” is George Peabody’s name for El Tamalero tamales, made locally by the Silva family, which appear to have sustained him for the past two months. “I hadn’t eaten in weeks except for sips of water and medication.” said Peabody, “Then I smelled those tamales cooking.”
Geoff brought home El Tamalero’s tamales because he said they are the best he’s ever eaten. “He smelled them cooking and asked for one bite, just for the flavor,” said Geoff. The next morning, George asked for one bite of tamale for flavor again and then he began to eat.
Now, he has a tamale three times a day, convinced that the Silva family’s prayers blessing the recipients of the tamales is what is helping him. “He’ s up and getting dressed; he’s eating and he’s having fun again,” said Geoff.
He’s built a life having fun as an industrial engineer with Lockheed, raising four sons, with astronomy, researching and writing about El Dorado County history, genealogy, being a member of the Heritage Association and the El Dorado Historical Society, leading historical tours, creating the El Dorado County Seal, writing poetry and engaging with people.
“What fun,” said Peabody.
The books he’s written were able to be saved, which Peabody attributes to the excellent work of the fire departments. “They did a wonderful job of saving anything that looked like it could be of use, including my wallet and ID. Without your ID, you’re no one. It’s terrible.” His many books of painstaking genealogy research are now safely with a relative and his valuable source material is intact.
Today, a bird house sits on the table next to Peabody. It was built for him, in exchange for a Peabody poem, by Michael Drobesh from scrap lumber salvaged from the Herrick Building which is being restored by Sue and Tim Taylor. Peabody points out the chimney made from a brick fired in Placerville in the 1800s, a square nail bird perch and the coloring of the aged wood. “It’s glued together; not a nail in it, except the perch.”
In the 1980s the Herrick Building was the site of Zoe’s Restaurant where George and Patricia went for poetry readings once a month for 16 years. “We were part of California Poets in the Schools and that was a blast, “said Peabody. “Zoe’s had art by local artists on the walls and it was a real community place.”
As a historian, Peabody approves of the work the Taylors are doing. He recites a bit of the poem he wrote about the Hangman’s Bird, as he remembers the opening lines: “Once upon a time, a Hangman’s Bird sat on a square-nail perch screeching, ‘Hang ‘em, hang ‘em until the deed was done…”
Please mail cards or letters for George to: George Peabody, 5020 Lent’s Hill Road, Placerville 95667. Geoff Peabody has opened an account at Wells Fargo Bank, the George W. Peabody Catastrophe Account, to help with George’s medical expenses and rebuilding his home. Identify the account at any Wells Fargo Bank by the account name. His granddaughter has set up a Website, georgewpeabody.com.
Contact Wendy Schultz at 530 344-5069 or [email protected] Follow @wschultzMtDemo on Twitter.