"May you live in interesting times." Boy Howdy. If there's anything at all my generation of Boomers has done, it's been to live in interesting times. The earthquake in Japan brought back memories of my own earthquake experience.
October 17, 1989
Tempus fugit. Twenty-two years ago. Sometimes it seems as vivid as if it happened yesterday and other times it seems to belong to another lifetime. The house didn't bounce well, in the Santa Cruz mountains. We were just one mile from the epicenter. We survived and rebuilt and eventually I wrote a short story about it. I offer it here for your perusal.
Angels and Other Pedestrians
I had never met an angel before, at least not the Biblical kind with sword and majestic wings, but I did believe. And that afternoon of October 17, 1989, I met one. His name, he told me, was Gus.
The late afternoon sun filtered through the canopy of redwoods, creating a mosaic of golden puddles on the forest floor. I had spent the better part of the day traipsing the Forest of Nisene Marks, storing up enough autumn to carry me through the long, rainy winter that was a mere month away. The crunch of twigs and crackle of leaves that had been shed by the underbrush sent up a tart, tangy fragrance as I walked, and I inhaled appreciatively.
I thought ahead to fires in the fireplace, soup simmering on the stove, and lazy Sunday afternoons curled up on the sofa with spiced cider and a mystery novel at hand, while winter storms raged outside. It was an altogether perfect day, but the absence of birdsong lent a discordant note. The forest was so silent, I almost felt an intruder, and through all the peace, there seemed to be a shadow just out of sight, filling all the sunny spaces with a kind of darkness.
“Foolishness,” I said aloud and thought how strange that the presence of nothing can create as much unease as a real and present danger. I shook off the unwelcome feeling and set out towards home. It was time to meet my daughter where the school bus stopped at the end of our road, and Keri would be a chatterbox, full of junior high school news. I quickened my pace.
A half hour later we were seated at the dining room table, sipping hot chocolate and munching ginger snaps. I had one more bus to meet, one more child to gather up, but Park’s bus wouldn’t arrive until five-thirty. The high school students traveled by public bus, and the end of the line was about seven miles away, giving me just enough time to stop at Glenna’s home on Redwood Lodge Road to pick up some starts for my hillside garden. Glenna had called several friends to help her clear out her overgrowing plants, and Keri declined my invitation to tag along, choosing to stay home and do homework, or more probably, start a series of phone conversations with Nadia and Rachel and all the other chums she had left all of an hour ago.
Living in the country offers many advantages, among them a sense of safety. Our neighborhood was its own little community of six families on a mile-long road that dead-ended at the Wises’ home. Isolated from the larger world, we all watched out for one another, and so I was not concerned about leaving Keri for a bit. She was level-headed, and our neighbors were home. Keri could call Sharon if she needed anything before I returned.
Redwood Lodge Road was three miles north on Old San Jose Road. Glenna’s house, a stone cottage with landscaped flower beds and herb gardens, was about a quarter of a mile down that road. There was also a small swimming pool, nestled among beds of vinca, lantana, and impatiens. These were the plant starts that Glenna had promised me, and I was armed with trowel and cardboard boxes to gather my harvest and haul it home.
We were kids in a sandbox, digging and chattering. We talked of soil amendments, light and shade preferences, water requirements for each prize we captured. Then, eleven miles below the surface of the earth, the ground slipped, and we witnessed a vision of hell. Like a wild horse unleashed, the ground trembled and bucked and leapt. Those of us standing were thrown to the ground, where we rolled helplessly. I was being flung in the direction of the pool, and a bizarre thought raced across my mind, a minor headline in the next day’s paper: “Woman drowns in midst of drought.”
With growing desperation I saw the distance steadily decreasing between me and the pool, and water sloshed over me in waves. Drenched, I finally snagged the metal frame of the diving board with one arm. I hung there, like an inebriated mermaid, flapping alternately over the water and over the ground. Once anchored though, I could look up to see the drama in the skies. The redwoods were swaying crazily, crashing into each other and snapping off large sections of their tops, which crashed to the ground below. And then, twenty seconds later, a lifetime later, the earth quieted.
Spent and bruised, I looked towards the house, but all that remained was a jumble of stone and brick. The garden was strewn with debris, and huge limbs from the redwoods littered the drive. My heart ached to see Glenna’s loss, but Keri dominated my thoughts. When the first aftershock hit two minutes later, I had already decided what I must do.
Park was on the bus, somewhere between Los Gatos High School and Summit Road. I had no way of knowing just where, but I did know that he was not alone. Keri, however, was. I must get to Keri, and as quickly as I could.
My car keys were in my purse, which was across the yard, wedged up against an earthen bank. I moved on shaky legs to retrieve it and then drove as far as I could in the direction of home. Far turned out to be only as far as the main road.
Landslides and downed trees blocked the route. I turned off the engine and sat, trying to suppress the panic that was beginning to overwhelm me. And I prayed.
Leaving the useless car behind, I started out on foot to cover the three miles home.
I had no idea how I would negotiate the mountains of loose dirt, downed power lines, rocks, boulders, and crevices that gaped like so many wounds in the earth. There were perhaps ten or twelve people afoot, their cars abandoned. I recognized a few parents who had also been on their way to meet the bus. Their faces grim and set, they kept moving in small groups, away from me, towards Summit Road. I was the only one who needed to go back. I felt the first cold chills of fear struggle to break through. I spun my head wildly from left to right, looking for something to orient me in this unfamiliar new world. And then, behind my right shoulder, a calm voice said, “I’ll go with you. My name is Gus.”
I turned and saw no one, until I looked down. Gus was short. In his mid-thirties, with curly black hair, he resembled a dark leprechaun. I stared at him. I had no idea where he had come from. He was just suddenly there. He was also carrying a pair of hiking boots. Temporarily speechless, I gawked first at him, then at the boots, then at the mountain ahead and shook my head to clear out the cobwebs. A calm purposefulness took its place.
“I’m going about three miles down this road and then a mile or so uphill on a gravel side road. I don’t know what we’ll find,” I said.
His response was, “I’m ready. You need to get home.”
“We have forty-five minutes until the next aftershock.” I had absolutely no idea where that idea had come from. It seemed as etched in stone, however, as the Ten Commandments. That meant we had forty-five minutes before the earth moved and the landslides began again. The danger was considerable.
And so we set out. Two pilgrims in an unholy land, to use a line from Indiana Jones. Around rocks and boulders, clambering up steep loose dirt that seemed to stretch to the skies, and then slipping back down the other side only to encounter yet another and still another mountain. We talked, or rather I babbled. I told him about my family, about my husband working down in Santa Clara Valley. About my son on the bus somewhere on the highway, and my other son in Santa Cruz. And about Keri, waiting for me - scared, possibly hurt, and I didn’t dare think anything else. Just get home. That was the only goal.
The silence of the morning seemed to belong to another lifetime, replaced by the sounds of falling rocks and clods of dirt, but something else drowned even that out. This was the insistent hissing of propane tanks, ruptured and leaking, sending thousands of gallons of gas into the air. The fumes and the constant hissing now threatened fire.
And then came the first whiffs of smoke. Somewhere up ahead fire had broken out. My side throbbing, I had to stop for a moment and didn’t want to, but Gus provided a reassuring presence, and I rested just a short while. Gus told me he had been traveling and was on his way home to see his father. When I commented on his hiking boots, he just said, “I try to be prepared.”
When finally we reached our driveway, I steeled myself for the final and difficult climb home. The smoke was closing in on three sides, and I could hear the crackling of burning wood up ahead.
At the top of the hill, we saw the fire and a house ablaze, flames reaching through the roof, snapping and crackling. The heat seared our faces as we passed on the left. Guilt spread over me as my first thought was, “It’s not our home.” I said, “That used to be such a nice house.” The words dropped like stones from my lips. We kept walking. There was nothing to be done for the neighbors' home. I prayed they were still in town.
The relief I felt at another’s loss haunted me. But it meant, at least, that Keri was not trapped in a fiery prison. And then we were home. Gus was the first to spot Sharon’s car, driving up the road, Keri in the passenger seat, holding one of our cats. All pain and fatigue forgotten, I sprinted the last bit and held her for all I could.
Sharon had been driving up and down the quarter mile of road that was unblocked by trees and landslides. She couldn’t explain why, anymore than I could explain the aftershock that would come at any minute. And it did. A deep rumble and then the sound of a runaway locomotive, and again the earth trembled. When it subsided, we began to share the news.
Keri’s announcement was, “Mom, I think the garage is crooked.” My daughter has always been the optimist. Actually, when we checked for damage, the garage was the only part still level. The house itself had been moved four feet off its foundation, and the weight of it had collapsed the lower level onto itself. No one in the lower level would have survived. I thanked God that Evan had been in Santa Cruz, not in his room.
“Do you have water? Food?” Gus brought me back into the moment. I hadn’t even thought about what we would eat or drink. The earthquake had destroyed our redwood holding tank and twenty thousand gallons of water had flowed down the hillside, disappearing into crevices and fissures that had rent the earth. The well itself was useless; all the underground plastic pvc pipe had been separated, twisted, and broken. The barn’s tack room, however, produced a prize. From the chaos, an intact bottle of Manischewitz blackberry wine, our remedy for lamb scours. I waved it proudly in the air, and Gus beamed.
“I’m quite familiar with that; after all, I’m Jewish.”
That seemed a logical comment, for some reason. At the house, we had a year’s supply of canned goods. I put up fruit and vegetables each harvest season, and I had hopes that some of the jars would be unbroken. It would be a few days before the roads would be cleared and we could venture into town to get supplies. In the meantime we would make do with what we had.
Neighbors gradually drifted homeward, and we gathered in the open field to tell stories and wait for the rest of our loved ones to come home. Gus said it was time for him to leave. He headed out on one of the back roads with one of the men who believed he could get to Watsonville. And Gus passed out of my life.
There was nothing we could do for the neighbors, but work to keep the fire from spreading to the hillsides, parched after months of drought. We fought the fire without water, using handfuls of dirt, a few shovels, and bare hands. We hurled dirt on the trees and pulled down vines of poison oak as they ignited. We kept at it for hours until the danger was past.
It was night before the rest of the family made it home. From a distance I heard a horn’s insistent bleating, gradually increasing in volume, and when the headlights of John’s car appeared at ten-thirty that night, driving through the field, Park was sitting right next to his father. John had finally gotten to the school, which was being used as a staging area for emergency services, and the first person he had seen was Park. The bus had been exiting the freeway when the earthquake hit. The driver had floored the accelerator, and the bus had cleared the overpass seconds before landslides covered the road.
And then, about eleven-thirty, Evan came through the field on another of the dirt roads that honeycomb the Santa Cruz Mountains, on the pathways that only the locals know. He had made his way home from the Pacific Garden Mall, where he had helped in rescue efforts. He was a hero, but would never speak of his experiences. My heart was full. In that moment I closed my eyes and said my prayer of thanksgiving.
That night we drank wine, ate cheese and crackers, and toasted marshmallows by the smoldering ruins of the Chins’ home, keeping watch over the still sparking embers. We spent the night camped in our own sheep pasture, on mattresses taken from our little travel trailer and bedding rescued from the collapsed house. John had found our ancient Irish Setter, Ralph, hiding in the house, and the old dog spent the night snuggled between the boys. We told stories underneath the stars; it was a beautiful, starry night. And when the aftershocks rocked the earth, we held on to each other and waited for the morning.
In the course of twenty-four hours our lives had been changed forever. We had been reminded that this life and everything in it is temporary, and the only constant is change. It is a difficult lesson to learn and so much is uncertain. But of one thing I am sure: God sends His angels to watch over us and my angel’s name was Gus.