Chapter 4: Shake, Rattle and Roll
Because I couldn't remember what day of the week it had been, I had to consult Google to determine that February 9, 1971 was a Tuesday. At 6:00 A.M. I was probably an hour away from having to get up to get ready for school. My mother was still in bed, as well, while my father was eating breakfast in preparation for going to work on the construction of a section of Interstate 5, where it climbed the southern slopes of the Tehachapi mountains.
My bed was the bottom section of a sturdy old oak “bunk” bed, which seemed to have been around forever. It was certainly the only bed I could remember having up to that point (and indeed for the rest of my childhood). At our old house in San Luis Obispo it was a double-decker because I shared a room with my brother Jack. When Jack was off fighting in Vietnam, we still kept both halves together, even though they could be separated. It was great fun to have such a bed all to myself. Then my parents revealed a trick the bed could do. By some sort of mysterious manipulation, the top half could be lowered so that it covered the lower half, which – being on casters – could then be rolled out from under the top part. That seemed like the most awesome thing in the world to me. With the bottom bunk pulled out, I could lounge about on the top part, and then just roll off the edge onto a second bed inches below. Luxury!
By the time we moved to Lake View Terrace (funny that my first two towns both had three-part names), Jack was back from Vietnam and living on his own. I started out in a room all my own, so there was no need for the upper half of the bed, which I suppose got stored away in the rafters of the capacious garage.
But getting back to that fateful morning. My slumber was destroyed by a dreadful noise and violent shaking. I sat bolt upright. My bed was dancing and sliding across the tile floor on its little metal casters. The far wall was taken up by a large closet with double sliding doors. I watched in stupefaction as the doors slid open, seemingly in welcome to my gamboling bed, which wasted no time in inserting itself as far as it could into the closet.
I had no prior knowledge of what an earthquake could feel like. Perhaps from repeated viewings of “The Wizard of Oz”, my first thought was that we must be experiencing a tornado. Indeed, my dad later said that I was yelling that word repeatedly. According to Wikipedia, the quake lasted only about 12 seconds, and that sounds about right in retrospect. Just enough time for a boy to ride his bed across his room and into a closet. At the time, though, it seemed to last forever. I scrambled out of my runaway bed and ran to my bedroom door. I was met there by my dad, and we went down the hall to check on my mom.
My parents were originally from southern California, and had both been through this sort of thing before. However, my mom's previous experience with the famous Long Beach earthquake of 1933 apparently didn't harden her to them. She seemed at least as freaked out as I was. I was lying on the bed with her, looking for some comfort. I remember her saying, “Oh, boy. I'll bet there are a lot of deadies after that one.” This thought struck terror in my heart. I was afraid to look outside for fear of seeing corpses lying about in the streets. As it was, 65 people died in that morning's quake, about half of 1933's total.
Our house hadn't received much damage. Most was in the form of things thrown off of shelves and out of cupboards. My dad told us that he had been sitting at the dining room table when the lamp over it began swinging back and forth, which he thought was odd. Even odder was when a special dish cupboard in the dining room, which contained my mom's best china, suddenly opened its doors and disgorged its contents onto the floor, smashing them all to atoms. Upon hearing this, my mom shouted, “Why didn't you try to catch them?”, and I think she was serious.
We checked every room. There was an extra bedroom which my mom had converted to a studio for her various arts and crafts projects. Every thing that had lined its wall was piled knee deep on the floor. Upon every new sight of mayhem, my mom kept moaning, “Gone! All gone!”. This did nothing to soothe my rattled nerves. I couldn't understand what she was talking about. Sure, it was a mess, and some things were broken, but it was all still there. I was imaging some sort of portal must have opened up and swallowed some items I wasn't aware of.
Once my parents (or rather, my dad) had quelled my fears about seeing“deadies”, we ventured outside to survey the aftermath. The backyards along our street were separated by six foot high cinder-block walls. Apparently reinforcing rods weren't a required item in such walls in those days, because every wall on the street, starting with the one on the eastern side of our yard, had fallen over. It was very odd to be able look down the row all the way to end of our block. I waved to my friend Edward's parents, who were also out in their backyards in their bathrobes.
I don't know what sort of geological phenomenon was at work on our block, but it seemed like the further west you went up the street, the less damage there was to the houses, so we were very lucky. Perhaps it had something to do with being further up the slope in that direction. As it was, most of the damage was in the form of the aforementioned yard walls and some toppled chimneys. Our chimney was on the north side of our house, whereas all our neighbors had theirs on the east end of their homes.
Our chimney only had some cracks in the mortar, but was structurally sound. Most of the houses further down the hill had lost their chimneys, including Edward's home. One chimney had snapped off rather cleanly and was lying like a bridge between its former house and its neighbor's roof.
Needless to say, school and work were out of the question that day. I don't recall that my school had received any major damage (dammit!), but it was a different story for my dad's work. The section of freeway he was currently helping to construct was particularly hard hit:
It was lucky he hadn't been there yet.
I got dressed and went back outside. I was sitting on the low retaining wall at the bottom of our front yard when a particularly strong after-shock rumbled through. It wasn't a shaking; it felt just like a wave lifting a dock upon which one is sitting. It was quite a revelation that the ground – seemingly so solid – could behave exactly like a liquid.
For the rest of the day, we stayed home and kept up as best we could with what was going on around the San Fernando Valley. News reports were sporadic, since most radio and television stations had been knocked off the air by the quake. There was a bit of a scare because the quake had come close to completely destroying the Van Norman Dam, a few miles from our house. Many thousands of people were evacuated as a precaution, but our community wasn't in the path of the possible deluge.
I remember feeling fairly in touch with what was happening around me, but as the long day was winding down, I came over feeling all funny. I was cold and clammy and shaky. It seems I was suffering from shock. My parents put me to bed and I passed into blissful slumber.
The quake was probably the straw that broke the camel's back and caused my parents to decide to get out of southern California. There were some other crappy things that happened while we were down there, which I will briefly recount in the next chapter.