The Quake

Growing up in California, nearly a stones throw from the San Andreas fault line, you come to expect that the ground will be moving under you from time to time. It’s not something you really think of all the time, at least that what I used to think. On occasion you will be at work, the building will shudder a little bit, like someone was jumped behind you and shaking the floor. You pause for a moment, then go back to your work. Or sometimes you are shaken awake from your bed when the world is dark and rumbling, but it’s not coming from the sky, it comes from the ground.

I was 8 years old on October 17th, 1989, when a massive earthquake hit the Central Coast of California. I can’t remember what I had for lunch last week (probably Chipotle, cause it’s the only place I can get carnitas around this flat city), but I remember with searing detail the 15 seconds in which it took place.

I don’t think many people will tell you that you can hear an earthquake, but I distinctly remember hearing this one. Before I was thrown against a wall, from my cousins’ house being so violently shaken from the quakes initial jolt, it was a loud, low rumble. It stopped a gathering of 6-10 year olds from watching a movie (King Kong) and sent us fleeing out of an old wooden house and onto the neighboring lawn screaming (FYI, for those people whose first instinct is to run, unless something is about to fall on you, you’re not getting away from the shaking). Once on the lawn, standing was nearly impossible and the sound of shattering glass and rumbling was all I could hear. Then I heard my 4 year old sister crying, still in the house we had just left, which was still rocking back and forth. After I scooped her up and brought her outside the memory stops.

What my parents, who were just next door at our home, tell me is that they arrived and calmed, or tried to calm us down, while finding a safe space away from the old buildings we lived in. Us being a gathering of cousins who happened to play together all summer, go to school together and not really know anything outside of that. What I did know, is that going back inside the house was not an option.

My family made camp outside in the middle of a pasture across the street from our house. The entire clan slept in tends or a camper, or just outside on mattresses that my aunts and uncles dragged from inside homes that were just collections of broken dishes, glass and littered with what was one time decorations. Riding out the aftershocks as they came and went for days.

Every earthquake since then has been a breeze. 5.5 that lasted a good 20-25 seconds when I was 13 or 14 at 3am? Basic. Small jolts under 3.0 during the work day? Don’t even feel them. In fact, if it’s under 3.5, don’t even worry about telling me about it.

I have a USGS earthquake tracker for email that alerts me to large quakes taking place all over the world, and smaller ones for the regions I have selected. Kind of an obsession I think, I just feel like I need to know sometimes. Especially being so far from my family, in a region that is, well, not shaky  It brings a whole different mindset to a Californian. Being able to hang things like photos above your bed without the fear they may end up crashing down on you in the middle of the night is new. Not wondering which way the windows are designed to shatter if they break while you’re next to them is another. But mostly, I didn’t think I realized that while I lived in CA, I was kind of always on guard, just in case. Here, I watch for snow and check the weather 4 times a day, but at least I know what’s coming. When if the ground does end up shaking here, I hope I haven’t lost the Californian in me and remember what to do.


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