Su Lum: Slumming

Su Lum
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

March 27, 1964 – Good Friday. It’s 5:36 p.m. and Burt and I have just gotten off work, picked up our 17-month-old daughter Skye at the baby-sitter’s and are about to go into what was then the supermarket in Anchorage, but first Burt needs to call our friend Callie to see what we need to bring to a dinner she is preparing in the 13th-floor apartment of a 14-story building – the L Street Apartments, the highest in the city.

I’m holding Skye on my hip and just as I hear Burt say into the phone, “We sure ARE having an earthquake!” I see the sidewalk rising up to my shoulder and, at the same time, cinderblocks are flying out from the crumbling walls and crashing onto the sidewalk, so we rush – like everyone else – into the parking lot, away from the falling debris.

In the parking lot, the cars are smashing into each other, not from front to back but sideways – smash, smash against each other and the earth is rolling as if it were an alive sea, trees swaying in the distance and the faraway voice of a hysterical woman screaming, “Make it STOP! Make it STOP!”

You might wonder what you’d do it you thought it were the end of the world. That’s definitely what we thought: The planet had gone off its axis and we were all – not just Alaskans – going to die. This was it. And of course you can’t do anything, you can’t think at all – you just wait for it to happen. As we kissed good-bye, I hoped it would be fast. In retrospect, I was glad that I didn’t scream. You never know what you might do at the end. Make an ass of yourself in that ultimate moment (“Make it STOP!”).

What they now call the Great Alaskan Earthquake is now recorded at 9.2 on the Richter Scale, lasting five interminable minutes, the largest United States quake and second only to the May 22, 1960 quake in Chile, which lasted only a few seconds. In the following three months there were 12,000 aftershocks and everyone lost their equilibrium.

The ground was undulating and we were all so paranoid we didn’t trust our own balance. In our dreams the earth would seem to vibrate from miles below us, and we all had “earthquake indicators” hanging in our homes – things like hula dolls or mobiles swinging from the ceilings, so if we thought we felt a shake we’d be able to look at them to see if it were real or imagined. Usually it was real.

Callie made her way down the stairs of 13 floors of the L-Street Apartment, but said she felt like a Bingo ball in the hopper, being bounced from side to side as the building swayed back and forth.

We slowly drove the mile home and found very little damage to our little trailer, where I had spent the evening before washing a ton of diapers in a temperamental washing machine that tried to electrocute me and sucked my arm into the wringer – a fine way to spend your last day on earth.

In Japan, they weren’t so lucky. So many more people and buildings and then that hair-raising tsunami sweeping everything in its path, not to mention the state of the nuclear reactors. My heart goes out to all those people.

Nobody had video cameras during the Alaska quake. It came down to just a few still photographs that ran over and over again, but I can attest that it looked and sounded like the vivid videos of the Japan quake.

Alaska, like Japan, has a lot of earthquakes. We had felt perhaps a dozen of them before the big one and everyone scoffed at mere 6.5s and 7s on the Richter scale, barely enough to make your office desk scuttle across the floor.

But when the real thing comes along it’s a whole different animal, like the difference between a heavy rain and a typhoon, and it humbles you for the rest of your life.