Friday, July 16, 2010

Did the Earth Move for You, Too?

For this week's column I was going to write about swimming but rather suddenly, sometime after 5:05 a.m., I changed my mind. That's when I woke up to hear a loud rumbling, which sounded something like a helicopter landing on the roof. The whole house shook. I came sharply awake just as the shaking and the noise stopped. I remember falling back asleep, thinking, "Well, whatever that was, it's over now, but I should remember to find out what happened in the morning." A couple of hours later, when I was up for the day, I checked my computer for news and learned that that rumbling had been an earthquake, 3.6 on the Richter scale. A respectable sized earthquake for a part of the world I had previously -- and erroneously -- believed to be earthquake-free.

This wasn't my first experience of an earthquake. I went to college at UC Berkeley in the mid-'70s and I continued to live in the Bay Area for a couple of years afterward. In January of 1977, I was thinking of moving back to DC, but was still mulling over the pros and cons in my mind. Settling for good back on the east coast would mean having to get used to sweltering summers again, plus the occasional threat of a hurricane, and every now and then in wintertime, the odd blizzard. It was in this undecided state of mind that I found myself up in the wee hours of the morning, restless in my little rented bungalow, and so I switched on the TV to see what was on the late movie. It was "For Whom the Bell Tolls," starring Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman. There's a scene in that movie where the hero spends the night under the stars with the heroine. In the book, this is the scene where they make love for the first time, and then afterward, the heroine declares: "The earth moved." In the Hollywood version of the story, they just kiss passionately for a minute or so, and that's it. The famous line from the book has been cut; it was just too explicit for 1943 when the movie was made. But it was just at that point in my viewing when I was expecting the line to be said, that the earth actually moved! The TV was shaking on its stand. What timing!

While I started out laughing at the irony of it all, a minute later I was in panic. Cracks were appearing in the walls of the house. The windows were rattling so hard I thought any second there'd be flying glass. I had no idea what I was supposed to do, how to protect myself. All three of my housemates, who were native Californians, were away at the time, and I was alone. What if the house collapsed? Should I run outside? Where do you go when the earth itself is unstable under your feet?

After few more minutes the main quake was over. I later found out that it measured 5.3, and when my housemates returned the next day, they shrugged and agreed with each other that 5.3 is nothing. They'd all experienced far bigger ones than that. One had been in L.A. during the 1971 San Fernando quake, a 6.8. Now that was a real earthquake. I also learned from them that during the shaking I should have been looking for a strong table to hide beneath, or I should have braced myself under a doorway. That's what you should do the next time, they told me, and I remember thinking, "Yeah, well, there isn't going to be a next time." That was it. I had finally made my decision about where I would spend the rest of my life, and it would not be in California. The decision that I'd been unable to make for the past few weeks was made, and I began to prepare for the move back to DC -- where earthquakes never happen.

Now jump ahead 33 years, and it's happened. But I'm dedicated to my hometown, Washington, DC come Snowmaggedon, come hurricane, come floods, come 17-year-locusts, and now earthquakes. Still, you can't stop me from playing the Californian for a moment as I say: "Three point six – that's nothing! I've been in a five point three!"

Published on the Cleveland Park Listserv, July 16, 2010.

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