The real truth about the California quakes.
NOTE: This essay/story is not to demean the people who have been injured or who have lost their lives in an earthquake. It is only meant to be a semi-fictional monologue reflecting what most Californians feel -- the shrug of the shoulders and the unfanthomable belief that we'll survive this one, too.
When you live in California, earthquakes are always in the back of your mind. Oh, we laugh at Midwesterners who ride bucking broncos for fun yet shake in their cowboy boots at the thought of a ten-second earth tremor. We tell great stories to the Easterners with their tea-saucer eyes about run-away swimming pools and finding our house in someone else’s front yard.
The Texans, however, are the most fun. For them we have skyscraper-rocking-chairs that ripple until all their inhabitants are green with motion sickness. Then once we’ve gotten the Texans' attention, we elaborate about how milkshakes are made in California. Shimmy, shimmy, shake, shake. When the Texans' eyes get bigger than their Stetsons, we cap that oil well by reciting how we're sliding closer to them every single quake.
(Poor Arizona and New Mexico -- Hollywood sure does take over! A couple of jiggles, a slurp, and bye-bye AZ and NM.)
It’s quite common in California houses to store flashlights and extra batteries. Everyone already owns mood-altering candles and backup radios -- of course, I grew up calling them Ghetto Blasters. I don't know what they call them now.
Water is stored in ten-gallon plastic jugs, and most houses have several of them because we don't think it's fashionable to drink out of the tap. Machine water is always preferable. (Of course, down here in Southern California where I live, people carry water wherever they go, anyway. You see, the bigger the bottle of water, the more health conscious a person is, so even a three-hundred-pounder must prove himself hale and hearty by carting around an over-sized water bottle even when he's just crossing the street to get the magazines and letters out of his mailbox.)
Because of our frequent earthquakes, most people practice exiting from their houses and have diagrams of safe places to duck during eathquakes. In elementary schools kids even practice cramming themselves under their desks, hands over their heads to protect themselves from flying globes and teachers.
Unfortunately most of these safe sites (doorways, bathroom floors, benches) often go unused because of the brevity of the typical California shake. Mostly, by the time you're sure it's a real tremor and not just a sonic boom or a speeding motorcyclist, the action's over.
In a recent earthquake of major dimension, my mother only had time to dance with her refrigerator and exercise by ducking flying glassware. She was most relieved, however, by the fact that she knew how to release the electric garage opener. That meant that she and all the other residents could get in their cars and drive around looking for crumbled fireplaces or crashed statues in their neighbors' yards.
However, we all know that earthquakes can be quite disastrous. No one can be safe from the hole that opens up and swallows you. That's why many Californians study mountain climbing and practice scaling cliffs, just in case. Even children are taught how to turn off the gas outlet outside the house, for there can be explosions from broken lines. But mostly those are caused by careless diggers rather than from earthquakes.
However, as I was saying, even though we hoard provisions like the tins of tuna that we’re now afraid to eat due to their excess mercury, and we strap down our glassware along with our toddlers, an earthquake always takes us by surprise since there's no predicting its arrival. Most of us would, of course, prefer that earthquakes would make an appointment so we could schedule them in for more convenient times, but nature doesn't agree, so we go with the flow -- or what they tell us now is really more of a wave.
Despite evidence against it, many of us talk about "earthquake weather". Whenever the Santa Anas strike up the band, the heated dust rattles the windows about the same as it does during a major quake, and when the heat ascends from the ground so fast that the green from the grass rises with it, we say it feels like there’s an earthquake coming. But that happened last month, and all we got were fires. So, it isn't very reliable.
Anyway, you get the idea that earthquakes aren’t that big a deal here, not unless it’s happening at a particular instant, and you’re holding onto the wall, and it’s moving faster than you are.
On December 21st last year, the longest night of the year, by the way, one of our numerous earthquakes did its shimmy, shimmy, shimmy and knocked out all of the electricity. So, when the ground had worn itself out, I checked over all the bones and bumps of my family. All heads had clear eyes, flapping mouths, and volumes louder than the sirens you could faintly hear in the background. The children's only complaint was, of course, that the TV was out.
I checked the water, the gas, and for any structural signs of damage in the house while the kids argued with their mom about staying put. As I toured the house, in the master bedroom my flashlight reflected off the luminous eyes of the cat glaring at me from under the bed. (The dog was with the kids, whimpering like a baby while everyone tried to reassure him.) So much for animals having prior knowledge of quake activity!
In my office, all the computer peripherals were fine. The straps had held them securely. The books in the bookshelf had done some wiggling, but none had fallen. I pushed several volumes back into place.
The kids' rooms were all fine, but Sally’s bunny cage was hanging over the edge of the shelf where she kept it, looking a bit like a teeter-totter. I opened the cage and picked up Mr. Bugs and took him with me. Erik’s model cars, that he’d never strapped down, were still neatly perched on the wall shelves opposite his bed. They didn’t look like they’d moved.
I checked the bathroom next. Disaster! Everything in the glass-doored medicine cabinet had dashed itself against the bathtub. A mirror Dana had kept on the counter had traveled clear across the room. Glass lay everywhere.
I returned to the family. The kids and my wife were all huddled together like we were in the middle of a blizzard.
“Dad, it’s cold in here,” cried Sally. I looked outside, but all I could see were stars. I knew if I opened the door the “chilly” 80 degree weather would convince my daughter otherwise, but heck, fear and cold are synonymous. I handed Sally her Mr. Bugs and started a fire in the fireplace.
We roasted wieners in the flame of the fire. Dana even had some marshmallows. I had a chocolate candy bar I'd been saving for a special treat. I got it out, and we placed it between store-bought chocolate chip cookies. Let me tell you, S’mores never tasted better.
The lights didn’t go on all that night, but we hardly noticed. We pretended we were camping and told MILD ghost stories, most of them about bunnies who were looking for carrots and driving around in racing cars. That night, we snuggled up in sleeping bags, toes to toes. Erik and Sally slept between us, but Dana and I held hands.
Yep, earthquakes happen when you live in California. Occasionally people get hurt, and sometimes they die, but that occurs far less often than fatalities in auto accidents. And, except when I’m talking to out-of-staters -- especially my Texas friends -- the truth is, most earthquakes aren't really that bad.
Note from a reader:
One error I noticed in your essay was scientific in nature: you claim California is moving closer to Texas, but that isn't true; the San Andreas fault moves north and south, so the Western portion of California is moving North toward Seattle. Los Angeles should slip past San Francisco in about 20 million years.
Thanks, Ace. Sometimes I get to exaggerating so wildly, I even get my directions all turned around! (Besides, I just love to tease my Texas friends!)