1964: The Big One (Part Two)

Normally I didn’t get up very early on Saturday mornings; other than a half-hour of old Mighty Mouse cartoons on television at 2:30 in the afternoon and spattering of old radio serial episodes on the radio there was no kid-specific entertainment to drag us out of bed. What did eventually get us out of bed was Mom’s wooden spoon as she “encouraged” us to do our chores, but on this Saturday everyone was more subdued than usual, especially as more solid information came in.

The tsunami news had been as bad as we originally heard, and we got our first notice that Anchorage had its own death toll. Local destruction was principally focused at two places: Turnagain Subdivision and the heart of downtown. Both places took a lot of damage for the same reason: They were situated on bluffs fairly close to the inlet, and both areas had a substantial layer of colloidal clay in the strata underneath. As it was later explained to me, the manner in which the particles of clay were suspended was such that during normal conditions it remained solid, but when it received a sharp shock (such as a major quake) the clay would instantly turn into something resembling talcum powder, which allowed the bluff area to move around more drastically than other places.

Situated on the far west side of town at the point where Cook Inlet splits into two arms, Turnagain was the city’s most upscale residential area until the quake. Seventy-five homes were damaged; many of them so far beyond salvage that local banks let owners walk away from mortgages as they left the state to start over in the lower 48. Eventually the destroyed area was converted into a recreation area appropriately dubbed Earthquake Park.

My buddy Zsa-Zsa’s family was in that situation, though their house was located away from the major damage area and wasn’t totally demolished. (Lacking even a drop of Hungarian blood, my friend’s nickname “Zsa-Zsa” came from my youngest sister’s garbled attempts to properly pronounce his last name ‘Bradshaw’.) The house was habitable but it did have this totally b*thin’ crack running lengthwise down one wall of the basement upon which Zsa-Zsa used to base his claim that he came from a “broken home”.

Downtown took a drubbing as well and the media was quickly filled with dramatic photos showing one side of Fourth Avenue sitting several feet below the other. Down at the elementary school level we still didn’t get much hard information (heaven forbid we should read the paper) but the grapevine quickly filled with several interesting stories.

Jeff, Curtis, and a couple of the cooler guys in school said they had gone downtown and thrown rocks at soldiers guarding the area from looters, but that story smelled fishy even to a ten-year old. For starters there were no buses and in those pre-Minnesota By-pass days walking the entire length of Spenard Road would have taken all day. Some of the more elaborate details hurt their credibility as well, such as their account of being chased home at bayonet point with one of the boys getting jabbed in the butt.

The basic account of the collapse of the façade of the new J.C. Penny’s store turned out to be true but again some of the specific details were hard to believe. For example, a sales clerk was supposedly using the rest room when the quake hit, and when the shaking stopped he was trapped sitting on the “throne” in full view four stories up, the bathroom having been located against the wall that fell off.

Government Hill Elementary was rumored to have been completely swallowed up in a crevasse but that also didn’t bear up well under scrutiny.  However, when we finally got a chance to drive past it weeks later I learned that the rumor wasn’t all that far off: half of the school was sheared neatly off where the ground had collapsed underneath the southern part of the building. The second story of West Anchorage High also collapsed though the damage wasn’t as dramatic.

One major reason for the lack of news was the telephone situation. Bear in mind that telecommunications was a drastically different animal than it is now; we had no cell phones, fiber optics or satellite links. Communication was a real concern so after the initial quake authorities asked everyone to limit their phone calls to genuine business or emergency calls – and even then they asked that calls be limited to just a couple of minutes.  A few days after the quake we got through to Grandma and Grandpa who had been distressed by some of information they had been getting.  Most of the news coming out of Alaska ranged from concerned to wildly inaccurate with some passengers arriving at Anchorage International airport (now Ted Stevens International) wearing waders and expecting Anchorage to be knee-deep in water.

As if we weren’t emotionally shaken up enough it was announced that there was a good chance the city’s water supply had been comprised via broken water mains and we were all required to get typhoid shots. Again it was a different time and there wasn’t the controversy about possible side – effects from immunizations so we lined up with what seemed like half the city population to get them after church.   I got my shot and went home sleepy and not so inclined to rejoice when it was announced that school was cancelled for the entire next week…

To be honest I would have stayed close to home even if I wasn’t dozing off and on, or unable to use the phone to plan stuff with my buddies. It was easy to get kind of scared once you got any distance away from home and familiar turf; there were weird cracks in the roads and the continual slight aftershocks accompanied by odd rumbles kept shaking us up periodically. There was one huge mega-puddle by the school that was simultaneously being filled by a small geyser on one end and drained at the other by a particularly deep and scary looking crack in the ground.

It was scary enough to prompt visions of little imps with pitchforks jumping out to chase fifth graders and I gave the place wide berth when walking over to visit my friend Mark the next Friday.  Our plan was to watch an episode of Fireball XL5, both of us hoping that they would air the episode that had been cut short the week before by the quake.

After kicking my boots clean and placing them in the entry way I hopped next to Mark on the couch in front of their television.  As we went through the traditional fifth-grader’s meeting ritual (punching each other on the arm and commenting on the source of flatulence) the XL5 credits started to roll. The topic of conversation then changed from  “whoever smelt it dealt it” to a critique of the show and finally to our individual lack of fear during the earthquake the previous week.

That’s when the Really Big Aftershock hit.

It wasn’t nearly as severe or as long as the Big One itself but it was bigger than the countless other small aftershocks we had already experienced. I only remember that seconds later I was out of the house and across the street in my stocking feet. Mark said he’d never seen me move that fast before; Mark’s mom wondered why we couldn’t move that fast when she called us for dinner or chores. I wondered if I was ever again going to be able to see an entire uninterrupted episode of Fireball XL5, as by the time we got back into the house and settled down the closing credits were running.

By then the sun was starting to set and visions of imps with pitchforks jumping out of cracks in the ground came too easily to mind so I went back , collected my shoes and coat, and walked home

(End Part Two)


Alaska Earthquake March 27, 1964. Wreckage of Government Hill...

Alaska Earthquake March 27, 1964. Wreckage of Government Hill School in Anchorage. The south wing of the building, shown here, collapsed into a graben at the head of the landslide. Slip of the graben block is shown by displacement of the roofline. Photo by W.R. Hansen, 1964. – ID. Alaska Earthquake no. 62 – ake00062 – U.S. Geological Survey – Public domain image

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