The earthquake

I live in Southern California. Last night we had a lengthy earthquake, and both of my children were somewhere else. It was a small quake — initially reported as a 5, then downgraded to  4.5 — but still the phone lines were clogged for a few minutes. Because of this realization, I was more afraid after the quake than during.

Naturally, I have an earthquake story.

It was October 17, 1989, and I had just been named the news editor of my college newspaper in Los Altos Hills, which is just south of San Francisco.

I was in a happy bubble as I drove home through the old-fashioned downtown at 5 o’clock. There were mom-and-pop shops with picture windows on both sides of the little streets. Knick knacks, ice cream, records — Los Altos is great for shopping.

Stop signs keep the cars moving slowly through the area, but the tailgating guy behind me was impatient. He would move to the side, as if to see if he could go around me. I remember I thought, ‘I’m a real journalist now. You can’t spoil my mood.’ But I knew he was angry.

At the third stop sign, I felt the car start to idle hard. This wasn’t unusual. Then it bucked a little, and I thought, ‘That guy got out of his car and started jumping on my bumper!’

As I turned around to scowl at him, I heard, ‘Get away from the windows!’ A woman ran out of a store into the street and stopped in front of me, holding her pre-teen daughter protectively under hunched shoulders. That’s the image I hold the strongest. That woman trying to shelter her daughter in panic.

I panicked too, trying to think if I had ever heard something like, turn off the engine or your car will explode; or roll down the windows or they’ll shatter. I thought it was The Big One I’d been advised to handle my whole life, and I couldn’t remember any of the advice. I shut off the engine and rolled down the windows.

I was one block from the intersection at the expressway, and I saw the asphalt there roll like an ocean wave, toppling the red-light signal as it changed to green and flickered out.

I had to drive around the downed signal to head into the mountains going home. That made me cry, but I didn’t understand why. I cried all the way home.

When I got there, I went directly to my phone — stepping over a bookcase, tapes, my little face-down TV — and called my parents. I was surprsied to get an open line. I kept my message brief because I knew the line would clog: I’m OK; I’ll call you tomorrow.

Then I called my paper’s managing editor. I was a journalist after all. ‘Mike, you’ll never guess what happened to me on the way home from your house! I’m heading to the campus.’

Mike argued with me, but I was a real journalist.

Finally he said, ‘Hey.’

‘What?’

‘Take your camera.’

It was a darn good thing he said that.

I interviewed and photographed students sitting on knolls, riding out the aftershocks removed from the danger of buildings. I captured the aisles of the library, piled feet high with books. I got some rubble that had been a chimney.

And then the sun went down.

I had never been in darkness so total. If I hadn’t had that camera, I don’t know how I would have found my car. I made the flash go off and took a step. I went flash-step all the way to my car. I must have been the last one on campus.

As I had expected, the phone was out by the time I got home. The couple whose basement I lived in lent me a lantern. They had a transister radio going upstairs, where they listened in silence as they swept up the remains of all their colored-sand art jars.

We learned it was a 7.1.

School resumed a few days later when the power came back, but on Oct. 18 the dedicated staff met unsummoned in the newsroom. We pulled out manual typewriters to put together a special edition.

Everybody wanted to tell his earthquake story. They probably still do. Me too, apparently.

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9 Responses to “The earthquake”

  1. gunky Says:

    THAT is an awesome story.
    wow.

  2. A smaller earthquake story « Stories O’ Mine Says:

    […] glad she brought it up, because it gives me the opportunity to tell you another earthquake […]

  3. I panicked « Stories O’ Mine Says:

    […] By T. Just as I said about being in a big earthquake, everybody’s got a Sept. 11 experience to share. Mine is […]

  4. Jeremy A. Says:

    Happy 20th anniversary. =D

  5. Jeremy A. Says:

    Okay, maybe its not a “happy” anniversary of today’s date after reviewing this site: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1989_Loma_Prieta_earthquake

  6. How I ended up in journalism « Stories O' Mine Says:

    […] story picks back up with The Earthquake story. After that quake, The Smart Guy, along with many others, suffered from depression. He cut me […]

  7. How I ended up in journalism « Stories O' Mine Says:

    […] story picks back up with The Earthquake story. After that quake, The Smart Guy, along with many others, suffered from depression. He cut me […]

  8. A smaller earthquake story « Stories O' Mine Says:

    […] glad she brought it up, because it gives me the opportunity to tell you another earthquake […]

  9. I panicked « Stories O' Mine Says:

    […] as I said about being in a big earthquake, everybody’s got a Sept. 11 experience to share. Mine is […]

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