20 Years Ago this afternoon, Matthew Lane and I were chopping down a tree. I think it was an apple tree, and it was scrawny, kind of like the two 6-year-olds hacking away at it with a tiny little ax. It was a hot October day in San Francisco, and we were in Matthew's back yard, which as I recall was a bit overgrown and shrubby, the sort of place where you could build a lot of forts. Something must have been wrong with the tree, because Matthew's mom had said we could chop it down. Neither of us had any upper body strength to speak of, and so it was taking a very long time.
Then the ground started to shake, and we didn't really know what was happening. Matthew dropped the ax and we held onto the tree, which in retrospect was pretty dumb given that it was halfway cut through. Things shook and paused, shook again, a kind of rolling shake that made you feel wobbly-kneed. And then it stopped. I don't think either of us said much, just sort of looked at each other- and then Matthew's mom came flying out of the house, having run down the stairs as the whole house was shaking to check on the silly kids with the ax in the backyard.
I don't really remember what happened next, but the power was out and hte phones were down, and a few minutes later my dad showed up to get me, having walked the two blocks from our house. Back at our house a plant had fallen over, and my dad, who had of course been watching or listening to Game 3 of the World Series (Battle of the Bay!) had spent the earthquake ready to dash out from the doorway of the kitchen and catch the antique light fixture over our stove. Some neighbors had lost chimneys, but on the whole our neighborhood got off without a lot of damage. It is, after all, built on actual ground, unlike the Marina, which is built on landfill and apparently crumbled at the slightest jolt. To this day I don't think you could pay me to live in the Marina. Our neighborhood was also made up of a bunch of old Victorians that had survived the 1906 quake, our house included, and this was just a little bump in comparison.
Julie, our babysitter, came up from the apartment downstairs with a battery-powered tv, and we watched it for awhile and listened to the radio to find out what was going on. Slowly we heard about the chunk of the Bay Bridge that had collapsed, the Cypress Freeway in Oakland that had also collapsed, the many destroyed buildings in the Marina and the fires throughout the city. I don't remember what we ate that night, or what else we did to fill the time, but I do remember being out on the porch with most of the neighborhood, talking to people we hardly knew. I remember how quiet the city was, with no power and no cars driving, nothing but the fairly steady stream of distant sirens. When it got dark you could just barely see the smoke from the fires from our back deck.
Taylor and I both got to go to sleep in Mom and Dad's bed that night, me on Mom's side and him on Dad's with a flashlight between us. I remember Mom and Dad staying outside on the porch until late, and I know I lay awake a long time after Taylor had fallen asleep. I wasn't really scared, but I knew this was the sort of thing I'd remember. The next day in school half the kids weren't there- kept home for fear of aftershocks, or simply too afraid to leave their parents. I was proud of myself for being brave enough to go. A few days later our whole first grade class made a book called Our Earthquake Stories, and my picture of me and Matthew and the apple tree made it onto the cover of the Xeroxed, stapled packet. I still have it somewhere- I find it whenever I clean my room back home.
Earthquakes are horrible and devastating, but I also secretly love them. I don't think I've ever felt so much a part of San Francisco as I did that day, and it was a very fierce, protective feeling. Protective of my glorious city, protective of my house and my family and my pets, of all the things that I was suddenly aware I could lose. I guess you could say in that way it was a pretty formative experience. In any case, today even more than usual I wish I were back home, enjoying what is another October 17th with curiously warm weather. Earthquake Weather- it's not a myth, and that is the only thing about today that gives me pause. As much as I like earthquakes, I don't want another big one.