Dane Ray Cummings, a driver with Waste Management, was ordered by his boss to cut his shift short and to immediately get out of the area because of a dangerous spreading wildfire that would soon engulf the entire district.
Rather than obeying his bosses order, Cummings decided to check on his elderly customers before leaving the potential danger zone. He reasoned that some of his customers may not be informed or aware of the encroaching wildfire rapidly moving within their Magalia, California, neighborhood, while others may be too frail to actually leave their homes.
One of his customers in particular who might need assistance was 93-year old Margaret Newsum. Although she had a caregiver that would look in on her daily, the elderly woman lived alone, so Cummings wanted to make sure she had successfully evacuated her home.
“I been on that route eight years, and I just picked the people that I knew were older, and I tried to stop . . . and make sure they were getting out,” he said. “She was my last stop. I probably went to 45 or 50 people to see if I could help them.”
Newsum and Cummings had formed a unique friendship through the years. She would often greet Cummings with homemade cookies to thank him for his dedicated diligence in making sure that every scrap of garbage that fell to the ground after he emptied her trash pail was carefully picked up before leaving for his next stop.
When Cummings arrived at Newsum’s home, he realized that the caregiver had left for the day and that Newsum was alone with her cats. She was eating her breakfast and watching the news, just as she always does in the morning, when she saw that she was in grave danger. “I got up as usual, went in and had some oatmeal as usual, and I turned the TV on and then they said there was a fire going into Paradise,” Newsum said.
She went outside to look around for anyone who may be able to help her. That’s when she saw Cummings driving up in his garbage truck. “I went out and was standing on the front porch when this great, big, green monster drove up, and my dear friend was emptying the garbage,” Newsum recalled.
“Why are you still here?” Cummings shouted. Newsum responded that she had no family nearby and no way of leaving home. So, Cummings decided to get her on his truck.
Although the two had known each other for years, they seldom spoke for more then a few minutes at a time, usually small talk as Cummings was making his scheduled rounds. However, as they sat in a long line of traffic trying to flee to safety, Newsum began reminiscing about her life.
Cummings quickly realized he was sitting next to an extremely interesting woman who had lived a full life. He was astonished to find out that Newsum was also a bit of a celebrity in her heyday. Most notably, she was a backup singer for the infamous and legendary Rat Pack.
Newsum recalled the day she interviewed with them. “The Rat Pack, wonderful, wonderful men. The singers did the picking of the backup singers who sang with them. So, the next thing I know, I was in an interviewing room, and here sits Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and Dean Martin. All three of them were sitting there, and they said, ‘We are so thrilled to have you working for us.’”
She also shared her recollections and the nightmares that still haunt her to this day from seeing the attack on Pearl Harbor firsthand. “This Japanese plane came over. He was so low that I could see the pilot.”
After spending nearly 2 hours together, Cummings had just one thing to say. “I wish I’d known her when she was younger. I would’ve married her, you know what I mean? It was the best conversation I’ve had in a truck ever.”
The fire never reached Newsum’s home, but it did solidify a bond beyond a weekly pickup.