Nick stood on a hill north of our village on that staggering Tuesday afternoon and watched in disbelief as the black smoke curled into the air. This used to be his town. A column of soot and ash rose to the heavens behind Air Academy, his old high school. Another plume rose to the heavens in the hills above where he once lived.
"It just didn't seem possible," he said.
The fire has cooled now. In its wake are a thousand stories of people who tried to help. Some waded into the fire with tools to dig trenches where the fire would eventually die. Others put in endless hours at evacuation centers.
Some, like Nick, who is 23, came back to their hometown to watch and, in doing that, were spurred to do more. So in Denver, where he now lives, he reached out on social media sites. What can I do? What can we do?
He got quick responses from former colleagues at the Comedy Works nightclub in Greenwood Village on the south end of Denver. He worked there for a year or so, a bartender earning some extra cash while studying at Metro State University. Comedy Works sent an e-mail newsletter to its customers, asking for food and water and supplies for the firefighters. For those who were evacuated. And for those who lost everything.
People who enjoy a good laugh got serious. They came in waves, dropping off money and food and socks and underwear and cases and cases of water and baby formula. People who laugh a lot can have big hearts.
Nick offered to fill his aging SUV with the stuff and drive it to his former town. But before that, on that deadly Tuesday, all he could do was watch. He left his Denver apartment and drove south.
"I wasn't exactly sure what I could do," Nick said, "but I have a big SUV and I thought maybe someone could use a ride to get away from the fire."
Roadblocks kept him from going as far as he wanted. So he pulled into the Promenade Shops at Briargate, high on a hill east of Interstate 25, to watch. A few others joined him. Customers began wandering out of the restaurants. Together they stood and stared and gasped. A hundred or more.
"The smoke got thicker and blacker," Nick said. "It looked just horrible. You could see the flames behind the scar, the gravel mine off Centennial, and above Peregrine. And the heavy smoke behind Mountain Shadows and the Garden of the Gods. It got very real. I know those places. I used to hang around there."
When the sky darkened, he could see the orange balls dotting the hillsides.
"I knew those were houses," he said. "And then you could see the flashing lights of fire trucks heading into the hills, into the fire. I thought 'Holy #@&*. Look at what they're doing!'"
Nick wasn't always so concerned with humanity. His father spent so much time at Eagleview Middle School, conferring with the principal about Nick's behavior, at least one teacher thought the father worked at the school.
But that was a decade ago.
And so as the fire raged Nick got involved and gathered stuff that might help people where he once lived and, in a caravan loaded with supplies, he drove from Denver to the Care and Share Food Bank for Southern Colorado facility on the eastern side of Colorado Springs. He and many others unloaded it all and asked if there was more they could do.
"It was a good feeling," he said. "A few friends and I kept saying, 'I hope this is enough. I hope it's enough.'"
Nick wants to be a teacher. He has a year or more left before he'll earn a degree. Two years playing baseball at a Kansas junior college didn't exactly speed up his education process. And he left his bartending job a while back to volunteer at the Denver Boys and Girls Club, where he's now a regular.
"I get to play dodgeball with kids," he said. "I get to see the smiles on their faces."
Nick Tosches is my son.
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