Sunday, January 24, 2010

Alaskan Earthquake -- commentary

The earthquake news coming out of Haiti stirs old memories. It was Good Friday 1964 at 5:36 p.m. My new wife and I were in our second floor, efficiency apartment in a two story, wood frame building at Fifth and G streets in Anchorage, Alaska. I was standing in the middle of the living room putting on my coat to go outside and Pearl was in the kitchen fixing dinner.

The building began to shake and I turned to Pearl, smiled and said, "Feel that? We're having a little earthquake," which was a common occurrence there.

Quickly, the quake turned violent and my thinking took a military twist, being as I was active duty Air Force. I next thought, "How did those Soviet bombers get through our Distant Early Warning system (DEW)?" The DEW line was a series of radar and missile sites built along Alaska’s coast line to guard against Soviet attacks during the cold war.

I grabbed Pearl and tried to hold her in the door way which is supposed to be the safest place in case a building collapses. However, the building was swaying back and forth so violently that I couldn't hold us there. The kitchen cupboards flew open and the contents were spilling out. Tupperware was melting on the hot stove. The curio cabinet had fallen face down, breaking its glass front and the contents.

We soon discovered that the "whole lot a shaken goin on" wasn't Jerry Lee Lewis but rather what would become known as The Great Alaskan Earthquake: the most powerful earthquake ever to be recorded on the North American continent, according to Wikipedia. The shaking went on for five minutes and registered 9.2 on the Richter scale.

When the shaking stopped, we ran down stairs to the street to see the shambles it had left. A block to the east was the year old, eight story J. C. Penny's building. The concrete slabs which formed the exterior had broken loose, smashing cars and leaving the skeleton of the building exposed.

We then walked a block north to Fourth Avenue, the street Bob Hope once described as the only bar in the world with intersections. It was lined with seedy dives that ran wide open 23 hours a day. They closed for cleaning between five and six a.m.

The fault line ran down the middle of this street and the businesses on the north side had disappeared. The marquee of Fourth Avenue Theater was now level with the sidewalk. This destruction of so many "dens of iniquity" did not go unnoticed by the town’s preachers that Easter Sunday. Of course, churches were packed out that Sunday. The “fox hole” Christians had joined the Christmas and Easter crowd for worship.

Since Pearl and I had planned to move that night, we got about our business. We had purchased an old seven by thirty foot trailer house and had parked it in one of the many tin slums around Anchorage occupied mostly by low level, underpaid enlisted military. First we went to a ham radio operator, who lived down the hall, and had him patch a “we’re okay” call through to our parents stateside. Then we put a trash can in the middle of the apartment and threw away most of what little we had. The rest we loaded into the car and moved into our tin shack.

My sister-in-law, a single school teacher, lived on the seventh floor of a fourteen story apartment building. She was in Barrow when the quake hit, but her severely damaged building was now uninhabitable and all the tenants had to move out.

She stayed with us for a few days when she got back in town, and since I was on military leave, I helped her move. The elevator could not be used, so we tied everything that was soft and unbreakable in sheets and dropped them out of the window. Everything else had to be carried down the seven flights of stairs, including a living room couch.

When that task was done, I went back to the base and received a reprimand for not having reported for duty immediately after the quake. I was assigned to a crew to clean out a warehouse that had collapsed on its contents of light bulbs.

Only 131 people were killed in the quake due to the small population of the state and the time of day. People were home from work and school, fortunately, as two very large Anchorage schools were destroyed.

Though many of my friends suffered big losses, I had nothing to lose. Instead, I carried away a lesson which was good to learn early in life: Don't get attached to your belongings. This is one of the few principles shared by both Buddhism and Christianity.

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