As a Bakersfield Police Department reserve officer, I spent most of the storm riding shotgun with different officers in the south Chester area and around Valley Plaza Mall, where any RVs from out of town were parked, not daring to put their lives at stake driving those breadboxes with skinny tires on the roads.

Highway 99 was closed, anyway, and the only vehicles I and my partners saw on the road were the PG&E service trucks and the telephone workers. Gutsy guys, all of them.

We got a call of a possible business burglary at the coin and gun shop near the frame shop at the northeast corner of South Chester and Ming Avenue.

My partner said he would take the front and that I was to grab the shotgun and take the back, in case burglar(s) were indeed on site and tried to make a speedy departure through the back. We exited the unit and put our helmets on with the plastic face shields and cautiously checked it out. The wind was howling, the sky had disappeared and our visibility was limited to ten feet around us with no ability to see or hear anything but the wind as the sand began pitting our face shields.

It was a false alarm, but if either one of us needed help or if shots had been fired, there was no way I could have heard something at the front if there had been trouble. The sound level was like standing next to a freight train.

There was a Kern County Sheriff’s deputy who was also head of the local National Guard. He risked having his pension with the National Guard pulled because, when he called Sacramento to get authorization to call out the Guard and send troop carrier trucks out to the Canyon. The person he spoke with told him that there was no wind as close as Delano, but that if he felt it was necessary, he could take whatever life-saving methods he felt proper. 

But, if it turned out that taking charge of the trucks and deploying the local National Guard to drive into the Kern River Canyon a mile or so to rescue people was not, in fact, justifiable. The National Guard officer on the other end of the phone told him that he would likely be disciplined and his pension would most likely get pulled and he would be dismissed from the National Guard.

He was willing to take the risk.

He and his men rescued at least 20 people, mostly older, trapped in their cars near the mouth of the canyon.

The deputy called in his people and they took two canvas-topped troop carriers to rescue those stranded and afraid to move to the mouth of the canyon. He had the foresight to put dozens of military blankets in the truck cabs in case the people he and his men would be transporting were cold and needed them. They did.

By the time the two trucks were headed back to town, gusty winds had ripped all of the canvas from the trucks, and the only protection those people had was the blanket each held onto for dear life as the wind and sand whipped their faces and their hands, clasped to the blankets.

This officer had already been on duty around General Beale Road on Highway 58.

He told me, "I found several cars full of people who were stranded. I knocked on the driver's side window of one car to tell them I would take them with me and a gust of wind picked me up and carried me over to the passenger side of the car. I weigh over 200 pounds. I'm not a small man, and that wind picked me up like I was a piece of paper and tossed me around.”

That deputy never sought recognition for what he did in calling out the National Guard. He was quite self-effacing when I went to his house. I haven't met too many real heroes. He was a hero, perhaps the hero of the great dust storm of '77.

Michael Kovacevich is a special projects manager at the Kern County Department of Human Services, a former kindergarten teacher and reserve officer for the Bakersfield Police Department. 

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