Su Lum: Slumming
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Recent earthquake events have sent what’s left of my mind racing back 46 years to 5:36 p.m. on March 27, 1964, and the onset of The Great Alaskan Earthquake, 9.2 on the Richter scale, lasting almost five minutes, with 12,000 aftershocks in the next three months.
We were, of course, used to earthquakes. Sixes and sevens were routine, rocking our trailer, repositioning office desks at work, and out in the woods it looked as if we were going to lose our 55-gallon oil barrel, which was wobbling perilously on its high, rickety stilts.
The Great Quake was nothing like that. The Great Quake was the end of the world, the planet knocked out of its orbit, certain death for everything on the Earth.
We had moved off the homestead the previous summer and were working for KBYR radio station – Burt as head of the FM division (a shack out back) and I as copywriter. We had picked up our 17-month-old daughter Skye at the baby-sitter and headed over to the Caribou Shopping Center in Spenard, on the outskirts of Anchorage.
Burt was on an outdoor phone talking to our friend Callie, making arrangements for dinner that evening on the 13th floor of the 14-story “L” Street apartments, later featured in some of the more dramatic disaster AP photos. Burt let out a shout and I, holding Skye, looked to see the sidewalk rising up to my shoulder level.
We ran into the parking lot with the sidewalks heaving and cracking and the walls of the cinderblock grocery store behind us popping out and bouncing to the ground. The parking lot was rolling like an asphalt sea, with the cars crashing and banging against each other sideways. Sideways.
There was noise, a kind of loud roar of the quake, plus the screams – “Make it stop! Make it stop!” screamed one – and as far as you could see the whole land was undulating violently.
We kissed good-bye. I hoped death would be fast.
Look at a watch or clock for five minutes. Chile’s latest quake was a minute and a half and seemed to take forever on the video.
I have to report that not everyone thought it was the end of the world. Our tough little friend Bonnie said, “My, that was quite a shake!” and set off with her baby and laundry piled in a wagon, surprised to find the Laundromat inoperable.
Most of us, however, were terrified and would have left for The Outside (Lower 48) if the roads had been passable or the airports open.
I give a lot of credit to our emotional and economic recovery to the media. The daily Anchorage paper missed an issue but came out the next day, including the missed comic pages. The radio stations (hardly anyone had TV back then and there) dropped all programming and went on full earthquake news coverage – not the alarmist kind we have now, but of an encouraging kind. Telling us how everyone in The Outside was saying how brave we were, and telling us which shops were now open and what all was going on downtown, plus running free ads, telling the owners they could pay later if it worked.
A big cloud of black smoke rose over the city and before we could think, “My god, now what?” the radio told us not to worry, just a ship fire. Since it seemed that other people were doing OK, we all came tentatively out of our homes and began to act normal.
We all worked free at KBYR until things turned around.
Enterprising realtors set up temporary sales stands on the edge of Turnagain Arm, a wealthy section of Anchorage that had fallen into the sea, advertising “Ocean view properties.”
With the aftershocks, it seemed the ground never stood still. We walked as if on a moving train and everyone had “earthquake indicators” – hula dolls or delicate Christmas ornaments hanging from the ceiling, so we could determine the real from the imagined.
I thought I’d never feel stable again, but I’ve almost completely forgotten what it was like – until reminded.
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