Lum: Memories of rock and roll
Thursday was the 50th anniversary of the great Alaskan earthquake — 9.4 on the Richter scale, lasting five of the longest minutes of my life.
Earthquakes are so common in Alaska that we hardly paid any attention to them. The first time, we thought someone was purposely shaking our 33-foot house trailer — “Come on, guys, cut it out!” That was probably a 6. During a 7.5 quake, my co-workers and I watched, fascinated, as our desks danced across the floor for maybe a minute. It was an Alaskan thing, like the Northern Lights.
The difference between a piddley little 7 and a five-minute 9.4 earthquake was like the difference between a few feet of high water and Katrina. The 1964 earthquake was so vast, so never-ending, that it was way beyond anything we had thought of as an earthquake. We believed, with utter conviction, that the planet had gone off its axis and that it was the end of the entire world.
Bang. Just like that.
My ex-husband Burt, our 17-month-old daughter Skye and I were in the parking lot of a grocery store in Anchorage when I looked up to see the sidewalk rising to my shoulder. This observation was followed by Burt hanging up the outdoor phone where he’d been talking to our friend Callie, who was preparing the night’s dinner on the 13th floor of a 14-story apartment building. She survived — the dinner and the building did not.
Cinder blocks comprising the walls of the market were tumbling into the parking lot, where cars were whamming against one another sideways (stop and picture that — not head-to-head but sideways), and the earth rolled and undulated as far as you could see.
Five minutes isn’t really enough time to contemplate your last moments on earth, but those five minutes can be an eternity. The night before, I had washed all of Skye’s diapers (this was before disposables) in a wringer washing machine that sucked my arm into the wringer and delivered repeated electrical shocks from the drenched floor.
Was this how I had spent my last night? I could think of more interesting things to do in those final hours.
Mainly, I hoped it would be fast, that Skye would not be scared or hurt. It was a foregone conclusion that we would die — I imagined it would happen by the earth, the earth that had gone off its axis, opening up, swallowing us up and then crushing us to death.
People screamed. One lady kept screaming, “Make it stop; make it stop!” And finally it did stop, or sort of stopped, because the earth still was heaving up burps of aftershocks (12,000 in the next three months) and the ground seemed as solid as moving marshmallows.
Everybody tiptoed tentatively and tacked hanging objects from the ceilings as “earthquake indicators.” If the object started swinging, it wasn’t just your imagination.
Five months later, I arrived in Aspen — terra firma at last — only to be told that we’re sitting directly upon the Castle Creek Fault, a major controlling fault in the United States.
Su Lum is a longtime local who took many years to get used to elevators and escalators. Her column appears every Wednesday in The Aspen Times. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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