45 Minutes

This past Saturday, as I lay restlessly in bed trying to get some sleep, I felt an earthquake. It was sometime in the 11 PM hour (23:00 for you 24-hour clock lovers.) In response, I got out of bed and headed for the door of my bedroom. Halfway there I stopped, not having felt any aftershocks. Then I grabbed a drink of water and headed back to bed.

I’m getting soft. I’m a native Californian; if an earthquake doesn’t knock something off a shelf it’s usually not worth my consideration. My reaction – to head for my bedroom door – was an overcautious response based on advice I had learned from a very young age. In school we practiced earthquake drills by diving under our desks to avoid any falling debris. If there wasn’t a desk or table, I was told, a doorframe would do in a pinch. I had been just a bit scared this time, and my instinct told me to head for the door.

It has been a long time since I last felt an earthquake. Maybe that made me unaccustomed to something that was rather run-of-the-mill as far as earthquakes go. It was also the first time I felt an earthquake while I was on the second floor of a building. That type of thing can work some psychological voodoo on a person’s state of mind. Of course, it could also be that the epicenter of this particular earthquake was only 47 miles away, probably the closest I’ve ever been to an earthquake’s epicenter.

It brought me back to another earthquake many years ago – in 1989. Known as the Loma Prieta earthquake, its epicenter was, oddly enough, about the same distance from where I live today as last Saturday’s quake. I lived somewhere else back then, so I was much farther away from it, yet it scared me even more than this one did. I was in much the same position – on my bed, but this time I was reading. It was the first time I ever actually felt the earth roll beneath me. That time I went all the way to the door and stood there for a few minutes sussing out the possibility of aftershocks before I felt like it was safe again.

That was the first earthquake that ever scared me. I remember during my childhood an earthquake hit while I was straddling the windowsill of my father’s den (and no, I don’t remember why I was in that position). It may have knocked me out of the window, or at least made me lose my balance, I don’t remember clearly, but I just laughed it off at the time. It was just an earthquake, after all. Loma Prieta was the first quake to make me feel vulnerable, like the falling ceiling tile scenario from school could actually happen.

As scared as I may have been, Loma Prieta was a downright nightmare for the San Francisco Bay area. It was famous for being one of the few major earthquakes to have its initial jolt broadcast on live television, where it interrupted the 1989 World Series. By the time the earthquake subsided, 63 people throughout Northern California had been killed, 3,757 had been injured, and 3,000-12,000 had been left homeless. My trip to the doorframe was small change in comparison. Loma Prieta registered at 6.9 on the Richter Scale. That’s one big quake!

The Bay Area suffered a lot of structural damage. Building facades collapsed, roads fell apart. The image of broken cement with twisted rebar was commonplace on the news. A section of the upper deck on the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge even collapsed. But this was far removed from me. It didn’t really touch my life – except for one part.

The worst disaster of that particular earthquake was the collapse of the two-level Cypress Street Viaduct of Interstate 880 in West Oakland. 42 people died after being crushed under the weight of the upper level. The televised news showed those images so much they became burned into my mind. Broken, undulating concrete roadways. Twisted guardrails and rebar. And most horrifically, dozens of cars smashed down into what looked like nothing more than a four foot tall gap between the levels, if that wide. It left an indelible mark on my memory, one I will never forget.

Section of collapsed Interstate 880. Courtesy Wikipedia

But those were all other people, people I didn’t know. As horrifying as it was, I was detached from it – until I heard my brother-in-law tell us one day how he had traveled over that section of road forty-five minutes before it collapsed. Had my brother-in-law been caught in one or two more big traffic jams that day – and such a thing is a very big possibility in Oakland – he could easily have been among that rubble. His “near escape” is nothing when compared to the cars that found themselves just beyond the end of the collapsed section, but it brought the disaster closer to home than any earthquake before it.

I don’t wish to disrespect the families and friends of anybody who was actually on or near that section of road when it collapsed. My brother-in-law’s anticlimax of a “near miss” is not intended to diminish the actual pain and loss suffered by those people. What it did, though, was to serve as the one example in a fairly boring and uneventful family history of how tenuous fate is. One delay, one stop to have some food along the way, could have put my brother-in-law on that section when it collapsed, and I might have been left with a much more tragic family history than I have now.

John Bradford supposedly said “There but for the grace of God go I” as he watched a group of criminals being led to their executions. Later, at the age of 45 he was executed by Queen Mary. On any given day we may be the spectator or the spectacle, one of millions watching a baseball game as the broadcast suddenly cuts out during an earthquake, or the driver unaware that the roof of the highway he is driving along is about to come crashing down.  I can’t say if my family history will remain boring or if tragedy will strike us at any given moment. All I can do is appreciate each day that comes my way without a tragic story to tell or be told about me.

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