As I start out let me note that there many more definitive and accurate treatments of the Good Friday earthquake in print. I’m just relating the story from the viewpoint of an almost-eleven year old boy…who was secretly pleased that the initials of this ruined café matched his own.)
One of the bonding elements of the Baby Boomer generation was the assassination of John F. Kennedy; ask that rhetorical question “Where were you when Kennedy was shot” at any gathering of members of that demographic the room usually goes silent as everyone remembers back…or tries to remember given the stage of senility we may be in. I was in the tail end of the b00m and I most definitely remember Mrs. Green bursting into my fifth grade class with “Oh my God the president has been shot!”…but there was an event that is even more firmly fixed in my mind and memory, an event that came four months and four days afterwards which is referred to at various times as the Great Alaskan Earthquake, the Good Friday Earthquake or as we called it – the Big One.
At the time we were living on the corner of McRae Road and Barbara Drive not too far from Woodland Park School. I’m not sure if there is a construction term for the manner in which our home had been constructed; the whole house was like an old colonial home in New England in that there wasn’t a perfect right angle in the whole place, what with all the shifting and the make-due method of construction it was made with. You have to remember that Anchorage only had 40,000 residents when we moved there – and this place was built when the population was even smaller and decent building supplies even harder to come by. I firmly believe that “tacked-together” aspect of the house gave us a good measure of protection during the Big One. I think that it just kind of leaned and squeezed and bounced, absorbing the quake’s tremors like a great big wicker basket while other nicer places with basements made of cement block collapsed because of their rigid nature.
It was in that little house on March 27th 1964 that I rode out the Great Alaskan Earthquake, when one tectonic plate slipped under another near College Fjord north of Prince William Sound and triggered an earthquake that measured 9.2 on the Richter scale that killed 15 people outright and another 106 from the subsequent tsunami hitting the Alaskan coast. However, for my family it started out as a hop, skip and jump down Memory Lane.
At that time my sisters and I still considered ourselves transplanted California people, having moved north just the previous year for what we assumed was a temporary move. I had a California state flag tacked inside my closet door, we’d perk up at references to the Golden State in television and radio broadcasts, and when we all turned out to be better than average swimmers we made sure everyone was informed that such skill was merely the birthright of every native born Californian. However, nothing evoked thoughts of home as much as earthquake
Not that we had ever gone through a truly monumental quake before that time. With the exception of a brief sojourn in San Diego Naval Base in the fall of 1960 my time in California was spent in the Bay Area or points central and north. We had plenty of earthquakes – just no major ones, most of them of the same intensity of the mild quake I experienced during my pre-school years – which my toddler-logic passed off as the effects of a semi falling tipping over on the interstate highway behind our house. A shudder through the ground was a novelty that tickled your tummy rather than a cause for concern.
…which is why I turned and smiled at my Mom when the ground started shaking on the afternoon of March 27th, 1964. It was not quite 5:30 PM and I was capping off the Good Friday holiday by watching an episode of my favorite show, Fireball XL5. A British import produced by Gerry Anderson, XL5 chronicled the adventures of Steve Zodiac and his crew as the stood vigil over our part of the galaxy as members of the World Space Patrol. This episode in particular was a nail biter as it told the story of a mysterious fleet of ships intent on invading Earth.I felt a slight shake in the floor and glanced over to my mother from the TV just as the ships were landing
“Hey Mom – just like home. An earthquake!”
I turned back to the set to find a blank screen. The TV was off. Puzzled, I looked around and saw that the living room lights were still on, and then noticed that the set had become unplugged which puzzled me even more until realized that the house was really shaking at this point and the plug had been pulled out of the socket when the set rattled away from the wall. It was at this point that I went into TARDIS-time with external events happening at a much slower rate than my mind was working.
“Get under the door jamb!” my mom yelled. We had learned during quakes back home that with its double construction a doorframe is much stronger than most parts of a house’s wall. I dove from my perch in front of the TV to the door between the living room and the kitchen.
Not only did the ground continue to rock – it rocked harder.
“Get under the table” my mom yelled. (She’d seen a newspaper article earlier in the year that suggested riding out an earthquake under the kitchen table was the best bet, the tables structure making up in protection what the roof and walls may have lacked)
The top three courses of our chimney collapsed and the bricks fell, which in turn accomplished the following in rapid succession:
- Broke the kitchen window
- Severed the propane line leading to the kitchen stove
- Bent the line so that it now faced into the broken window, spewing propane into the kitchen
I stumbled outside and held myself up by hanging onto the swing set in the front yard. Next to the fence were my little sisters, completely oblivious and laughing as they had the time of their lives trying in vain to stand up but being knocked down at each attempt by the ground shaking. I could hear the ground rumbling and our dogs were barking up a storm…and it was then that I realized I had made the dash outside without the benefit of coat or shoes. After checking with my mom I dashed quickly inside the entry to retrieve both items then went around by the broken kitchen window where I turned off the propane line and leaned a piece of plywood against the wall to keep the wind out until my dad got home.
It was awhile before we got any information about the extent of the earthquake’s damages. Dad had been out camping on a distant FT Richardson training area with his boy scout troop and it was mid-evening before he finally got back after slowly but surely making his way police barriers and damaged roads to get all the boys safely delivered home. A relatively mild “break-up” (Alaskan term for “spring”) meant that the house hadn’t gotten too cold and after making short work of the broken propane line and covering the broken window we found we could stay cozy with a blower-less furnace if we all cuddled together in the front room. A quick search of the house produced a half-dozen large candles and it was good news all around when I found that I had a fully charged battery in my transistor radio…which was quickly followed by the bad news that the speaker was broken and I would have to served as a radioman, passing on pertinent news as it came via sporadic local broadcasts.
Concrete information was hard to come by. We knew that it had been a record quake, measuring at least 9.0 on the Richter scale and it was estimated that about a hundred people had been killed. Kodiak, Valdez, and Seward were all heavily damaged by tsunami, which proceeded to scare the bejabbers out of all of us until Dad explained that the wave would have to make two contrary-to-the-law-of-physics right angle turns to even reach Anchorage at all – and even at that we were far away enough from the ocean to preclude anything reaching us. He told us that we didn’t have anything to worry about….but as I peeked out the curtains at the isolated points of feeble candlelight in the windows of the other dark houses in the neighborhood I wasn’t so sure my dad was right.
(End Part One)