Fellow Travelers: I wake up from the semi-hibernation of late December and realize January is well underway. On Friday the 4th, nearing midnight, a 7.5 earth shake rolls under the floorboards and sharpens childhood memories of the 1964 earthquake. Only my brother and I are still here, so I call him and we talk for two hours. I spend the rest of the next night writing.
March 27th, 1964 was an ordinary day, overcast with a trace of snow on the ground. The day is a series of pictures, vivid, 3-D View Master shots:Turnagain – a sprawling series of neighborhoods and dark spruce trees click our old flat-roofed house anchored on its hill above the pond click Clay Products Drive, Chilligan, Telequana – roads that seemed longer and more mysterious than they ever were click –
the trees in our yard, towering into the gray sky. There was a massive spruce, as dark as a cave beneath its lowest branches; my rope swing suspended between two birches; another birch tree leaning to the side, so that with a running start I could scramble half way up it without really trying; a choke cherry tree with tangled branches where we leaned poles and stretched out Visqueen to create rain tents.
Every recalled frame is drenched in color. We hadn’t lived in our house long: dark plum paint, inlet-clay bricks up the sides of the bathtub. I inhale scents of sourdough pancakes, coffee brewing in the percolator, the damp-brandy smell of chewing tobacco, and the the dense swirls of cigar smoke. Home.
Mom: dark glossy hair, red lipstick, plaid shirt tucked into the waist of her pants. Mom cradling our new baby sister and humming Stormy Weather. The quiet unlit house. A clock on the kitchen wall ticking. The rocking chair creaking. Jenn, serious in the way only babies can be, looking at each thing for the first time, memorizing faces, and then wondering what it all means.
My brother, three years older than me, and I played Parcheesi that day, and argued in whispers, because of the baby. We took turns gaping at Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier, through a red plastic View Master. Lars was twelve years old and knew all about film and movies and was unimpressed when I said, “It looks like he’s about to shoot right into our living room.”
Lars was more interested in the body snatchers. When we practiced “duck and cover” at school he told me we were just getting ready. For what, I wanted to know. For the End, of course, or as he liked to put it, “Bend over and kiss your ass goodbye.” Grownups were afraid of the Russians. And the Bomb. But I was more worried about those body snatchers, seed-pod people, and the Triffids – who looked like trees, but weren’t.
We were restless. It was wonderful to have a day off from school, but this Good Friday was too quiet, too long. We decided to head out to the bluff, to check out the cottonwoods there. In the summer, we called those trees the money trees because their leaves were as enormous as dollar bills. It was a good place to hike and feel shipwrecked without really being lost.
Dad, sandy hair ruffled, cigar clamped between teeth, said, “You two are coming to the store with me.” Why did he say that? We hardly ever went to the store with him. But on this day he insisted. Our black and white terrier, Tippy, was as disappointed as we were – he sat at the end of the drive and watched us pull away in the Ford, his head tilted as if puzzled by our sudden departure.
What happened the rest of that early evening seemed ordinary, until it wasn’t ordinary at all. We were in the Safeway store, just off Northern Lights, standing near a low bin of egg cartons. The air hummed with overhead florescent tubes. People chatted in that way that makes it hard to pick out the words. Grocery cart wheels wobbled over the linoleum. Dad had finished his cigar in the car, now he had an unlit stogie between his teeth, and it wobbled up and down when he spoke in that clipped way he had, which meant time to pay attention.
The floor swayed. Dad said, “Tremor.” There was a loud roar, like standing right next to a Flying-Boxcar, with its engines on full-bore. Louder. Then beneath my tingling feet, the concrete floor, coated with linoleum, rose up just the way sea swells would rise up beneath the boat when we traveled over to Seldovia, from Homer. The floor was like a wave of water and it lifted me easily two or three feet up.
Every can, box, and bottle in the store smashed to the ground. People screamed. I could see their mouths opened wide and their eyes bulging, but I couldn’t really hear them, instead I was hearing the end of the world. And the end of the world was the loudest sound I had ever heard. The whole store screeched and clanged. There was a deep grinding and thundering sound. I could hear it trapped in my ribs, traveling up through the soles of my feet, into my brain.
Somehow, I ended up outside. I think Dad carried me. But there I was, standing on asphalt. All the snow and ice was now a muddy slush as the ground continued heaving and rolling. Across Northern Lights I saw telephone poles tilt over and snap back, like those inflated clowns you punch. There were balls of fire next to buildings and smoke in the air. The parking lot was full of people screaming. Five adults were clinging to a metal pole that looked like a flag pole. A woman was shouting, “They’ve dropped the bomb. They’ve dropped the bomb.” Someone else was yelling “JesusJesusJesus,” so loud and fast that it didn’t sound like swearing.
Dad, a World War II fighter pilot, cigar still in place, turned away from me and headed back into the store. Some people had been knocked down and stepped on as all of the holiday shoppers made a run for it. I watched cars, rolling back and forth in the lot like bumper cars, bang into each other and then bounce away. Dad escorted an older woman out of the store. He went back into the store, which was now dark inside. More people screamed. Windows cracked and shards of glass fell to the ground. The earth continued to shake.
Slabs of the partly frozen ground opened and closed, sawing back and forth. The world smelled like diesel and tires on fire, like copper and burnt popcorn. I thought I heard howling. Something exploded. Sparks shot up from electric wires that were flailing back and forth like liquorice whips, and then snapped loose.
It was too big for me, the end of the world. I couldn’t contain it. I wanted to be home, to see Mom and Jenn, to scoop up Tippy and tell him not to worry. The grownups continued to screech and the woman who thought it was the bomb, was now shouting that the world was ending.
Later, I would know that she was right for many people. Some of our very own neighbors, wouldn’t survive the 9.2 earthquake. Others, further away, would be claimed by vast walls of water, or lost in collapsing buildings. The ground would sink and rise, and people had no choice but to sink and rise with it.
We would do everything Dad said, because we knew that whenever things got really bad, that was when Dad became the calmest man on the earth. It didn’t matter if it was a charging grizzly, or one of our dogs nearly drowning in the Kuskokwim River, or our Cessna ground-looping, or the worst kind of news coming by telegram – Dad knew what to do.
We drove back to Turnagain, past columns of dogs marching up Northern Lights Boulevard, as if they were on a quest towards the mountains, past crumpled looking buildings, and gaping chasms, and toppled chimneys. The car bumped along Clay Products Drive. We slowed by a familiar driveway. Our next door neighbors stood in their yard. Mom was running down the road towards us, clinging to something red. It was Jenn, wrapped in a red and pink blanket, peeping over the cover at us. Dad jumped out of the car. He wanted to drive up to our house. Mom yelled, “Turn around here. Turn around. They’re gone. They’re all gone.”
And then we craned forward and saw that Clay Products Drive ended. The very road, that Lars and I were going to take out to the money trees, was gone. Most of the houses along Chilligan were gone, and so were the fences, the trees, and the swing-sets. Only a thick mist of snow hung in the air. Dad bundled Mom and Jenn into the car. We drove over the buckled roads to our Aunt and Uncle’s house, and then Dad returned to our neighborhood to help with the search and rescue.
Before the slow recovery even began; before the store owners put formula and baby supplies by the roadside for people who needed them; before the Guard supplied us with chemical toilets and bottled water; before we crossed the rope that cut off our road with the sign Condemned: enter at your own risk; before the vivid dreams of tower-high waves and bottomless crevasses; before sleeping in jeans, with a flashlight and boots next to my bed; before Tippy found his way home; before the hollow sorrow of knowing that there were children and grownups who would never be found: something reassured me.
My brother kept me from believing the worst. Lars – 8 mm filmmaker, collector of weather statistics, insulators, and Devil’s Club stalks, delivered the best line ever. Lars, who adored Boris Karloff, and knew every bit of dialogue from First Spaceship on Venus, and could make his voice sound just like one of the spooky children from Village of the Damned, spoke in a voice that carried over the wailing and crashing. He counter-acted the woman shrieking about doom, and judgment day, and all of us dying.
Click: I am standing in a parking lot. The earth bucks and shudders. Faces are ashen, mouths distended. Lars stands in a puddle of slush, his arms extended, his head raised towards the darkening sky. Beams filter through the clouds and spotlight his face. He smiles, waits a beat, and then says, “It’s Fantastic!”
I think of people experiencing the devastation of earthquakes, tornadoes, massive storms, tsunamis. I mourn the loss of families, sometimes entire communities. I admire those who survive, who dig-in, shore-up, and tell their stories.