A La California

It was a special day October 17, 1989 for all of us in Central California, the Loma Prietta Earthquake at 17:07 p.m….


I hear myself uttering one of my foxhole prayers, cockeyed, one eye to the trembling ground the other up to the blue skies. The shaking stops. It’s still, more still than ever before. Fully aware of being singled out by dead silence, painful silence, I feel lonely.

I too am busy. My mind concentrates on the games and politics which are common these days between my two ears and the creation of my very own selfish me-me-me world. I am busy with no time to spare and no time to care about anybody, especially here at work. My brain is crammed full with the important stuff, filled with those musts: “I must make money! I must pay bills! I must do grocery shopping after work! I must call friends overseas! I must do laundry! I must invite this one gorgeous brunette! I must make more money! I must buy a newer car! I must buy new clothing! I must, must . . .!”

I look at my watch; it is seven minutes past five, on the 17th of October, in 1989. By six o’clock the posh restaurant where I’m working shall open its doors to the public. “We are fully booked tonight. It is going to be a full house and I am going to make a lot of money tonight. I must hurry. I must do this. I must do this. I must be-e-e-e-e-e re-re-re-re-ready. . .!”

Without any warning the world around me is shaking and so am I. A never before known awareness to every nano-second sets in. I listen to a roaring rumble, a giant caterpillar … an invasion of tanks, heavy equipment rolling toward me. Without thought I jump into the doorway. I see before I feel such, the floor is vibrating, rattling like the hatch-cover above the engine compartment of an old fishing boat.

As if a giant foot is kicking the rock bed beneath, my world shakes. The building cries and aches but holds together. A light fixture, hanging from an in agony creaking hand hewn aged red wood beam, sways uncontrolled. The bottles and glasses on the worn oak shelves at the end of the room are performing their own dance. The huge chandeliers in the dining room are in motion like monkeys swinging on them, but there are no monkeys. I watch a heavy table moving more than a foot.

As suddenly as it started it stops. One step, two, three and I am outside the building. And there it’s again. May the gods have mercy, the plants look windswept but there is not the slightest breeze whatsoever. Flowerpots are knocking against each other as though telling one another “That’s the Big One!”

I hear myself uttering one of my foxhole prayers, cockeyed, one eye to the trembling ground the other up to the blue skies. The shaking stops. It’s still, more still than ever before. Fully aware of being singled out by dead silence, painful silence. I feel lonely. I know it was only an earthquake, but the urge to ask my coworkers “How are you doing? Are you okay? Can I help you? is overwhelming.

Car- and business-alarms put an end to the soundlessness. It is a relief to hear the bells ringing, the horns blowing, the sirens blasting. Police cars and fire-engines are leaving from the nearby station. All other traffic is at a standstill. One coworker has a hand held TV-set. The news is scary: “The Bay Bridge is breaking up, the double decker highway I-80 is flattened out, hundreds are feared death. I pinch myself, look around me and count my blessings. I am. I am alive. I am unharmed. I catch myself saying a silent thank you prayer to the Gods. All of a sudden I feel that I care for my fellow men. The bubble of my me-me-world has burst and my perspective changed a hundred and eighty degrees thanks to the 7.1 (Richter Scale) shaker. An earth moving experience is exactly what it took to readjust my clock and put me back on world time, where I belong with the rest of the human beings. The world around us keeps on shaking as aftershocks travel through.

We, the employees wait an hour at the restaurant. The reception on the small TV set has faded; maybe the receivers battery wore down. The phone does not work. There is no electricity. All the local radio stations are of the air. We gathered from what we heard from the San Francisco station, that the quake was centered at Loma Prietta forty miles north of us. We also know that this was the biggest one since 1906. We also know, the fancy restaurant is not going to open tonight. What was important a little earlier, has no meaning now.

I get into my beat-up Ford Mustang and drive home on empty streets, past the closed gas stations. I am grateful that I have a full tank of gas. Leaving work I had offered some of the coworkers to come by my place if they need anything. At home, in my little cottage, there is no damage at all. I check my supplies and find that I have plenty of firewood for the Franklin stove, a gallon of lamp fill for my oil lamps. My gas stove works too. I have three boxes full of canned food, dry goods and pastas. There is even a bag full of potatoes. Now I am glad I did not have time to stock up the refrigerator, which is useless without electricity.

There are many aftershocks but none as strong as the first, the initial quake. A scared lady-friend stops by. Before her arrival I was thinking to set up camp on the small lawn next to the cottage. I change my mind and invite her to stay with me in my place. She, Janet, moves in, with a few to her important personal belongings, supposedly only until life returns to normal. At her place she has no water, no heat. And what’s far worse she has no food except the two yogurts and a bottle of wine which she brought with her. She shows me her stack of credit cards, now useless until the shops reopen and electricity is turned on again. We get rather comfortable considering the time and the place we are in.
Two friends from work, all-electric-apartment dwellers, show up. The night is cool. We watch the flames in the fire-place-style open Franklin stove and talk about feelings. We share experiences about fear. And we divide the food cooked on the gas-stove like one big family. We all care. We also realize that life is more than chasing the dollar. We come to the conclusion that we all are equally rich, each of us has every day twenty four hours, not more not less. Some of us squander the time, some sell it to the highest bidder, some use every minute, some use little of the available asset, their time. We all agree a life time is a time to live.

by helmut schonwalder