Thursday, August 25, 2011


When I left California for Chicago in 1981 I figured my earthquake days were behind me. I’d sweated through a number of minor and yet somehow deeply disturbing temblors in northern California and was looking forward to putting the fine points of the Richter scale behind me.

Earthquakes are a part of the culture of the state, of course, a continuing topic of conversation, speculation, theory and no little dread. Talk of the San Andreas Fault and “the Big One,” as promised by the boys and girls at Cal Tech, is as commonplace as discussions of traffic jams, beach getaways and those characters in Silicon Valley.

The matter of “the first one” is a fairly big deal for an interloper, as I was when I ventured west in 1979 to pursue a newspaper career. The weather was perfect, the setting sublime, and the work-play ratio less intense than I was used to as an East Coast guy.

As a friend of mine said when I complained about adapting to the easygoing lifestyle, “What’s not to like?”

Well, the first earthquake. It is invariably a startling and spooky affair.

Sorting it out, it comes to this: With the first one, you move from the theoretical to the practical in a big hurry. There is no one you can call to make it stop or make it go away. You can’t pour water on it or wait for Doppler radar and Andy the weatherman to tell you the cell is moving east. The waters will not recede.

Most earthquakes last only a few seconds. Indeed, most earthquakes go unnoticed. Until they don’t. Then, everything is wrong. Objects that don’t move start moving. You often get the sense that the building that you are in may fly apart, that the stresses are too great and, worst of all, that it won’t stop. Experts and normal people argue as to whether or not earthquakes make noise (They do, or so I believe. A lot of noise).

My wife Jane, who had her own earthquake experiences living in Los Angeles, talks about the ferocious instinct you feel to go outside, to get outside, even though the experts insist that is absolutely the wrong thing to do.

But that was my instinct last Tuesday, when several million rookies in the eastern United States came up against a stunning 5.8 earthquake that rattled walls, emptied government buildings, schools and offices, challenged assumptions (hey, no earthquakes in this part of the country) and amped up heartbeats from Toronto to South Carolina.

The quake was centered in someplace called Mineral, Va., about 80 miles south of our house. A shaking that felt like an explosion - hello, al Qaeda - rolled into what was unmistakably an earthquake.

Sitting right where I am now, at the computer, I found myself picking up my house keys and my wallet, grabbing the phone, worrying about the barking dog, standing under a wide doorway between the front room and the dining room. I really, really wanted to go outside.

In downtown Washington and all over the East Coast, frightened people trapped in what was for them a singular experience did just that, pouring into streets, clutching cell phones that had gone silent.

They were frightened in a whole new way. And if you have never shared the seismic experience, understand they were scared on merit.

Then it was over. Nobody died. Around here there was damage to the Washington Monument and the National Cathedral, and much more structural damage south, towards the epicenter. Foundations cracked. Some chimneys collapsed, in some cases doing damage to parked cars.

If it ends well, of course, there are always stories. In 1980 my parents came to visit me in Palo Alto, CA., where I was working as a sports columnist. My mother had never been to California and my father hadn’t seen the place since he sailed into Oakland at the end of World War II.

For some reason I was living in a small, one person cabin in Portola Valley, outside Stanford, so I had no room for the folks. I booked them into a two-story Holiday Inn not far from the Stanford University campus.

On the second or third morning of the visit I awoke to find my bedroom moving, books and pictures flying around my little hideaway. Earthquake. Parents.

I jumped into my dependable Datsun and roared across Highway 1 toward the Holiday Inn, expecting the worst. I bounded up the stairs to find the motel room door open. Betty and Joe were sipping coffee, watching the “Today” show. “Big earthquake,” my father intoned, a smile on his face.

Naturally, I had missed the best part. My father had been in the shower when the quake rolled in. The room shook, the cheap prints sailed off the walls and my mother yelled through the bathroom door: “Joe, what are you doing in there?”

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