Tremors and Dial-tones

Nostalgia rather than fear was the overriding emotion in our home during the March 1964 Earthquake. As we had been living in that howling wilderness otherwise known as Spenard for less than two years we styled ourselves as  temporarily  transplanted Californians rather than locals so the first few tremors brought on smiles and “Hey – just like back home” rather than any expressions of fear. It wasn’t until we lost our television signal (and the closing scenes of the “Invasion” episode of  ‘Fireball XL5)  that I began to feel  any emotional distress.

However things were a little different during today’s quake– I was chatting on the phone with my sister Heather when she stopped for a moment then said: “Oh boy…earthquake!See the hanging lamps? – they’re bouncing all over the place.”

Intestinal Stukas  started churning my insides as I nervously glanced around my own living room,  but I was puzzled to find all our lamps perfectly motionless.

Suddenly the proverbial  lightbulb flashed on  and I made a conclusion of my own:

  • Heather wasn’t asking me to look at the lamps, she was talking to my nephew Zack.
  • My hanging lamps weren’t bouncing around because Heather, Zack and the quake – were 4135 miles away in Sterling Alaska.

For my dad aviation was the best yardstick for measuring the march of progress – he was born into a world with biplanes and lived to see television broadcasts of regular shuttle service to  the International Space Station. For me it’s been phones: 55 years ago a call from Tennessee to Alaska would have been made only under the most dire circumstances, taken the help of at least three operators and would be made using a device that could not be owned by an individual – it  had to be  leased from the phone company.

I’m still getting used to it.

The Big One (Part 3)

April in Alaska was a slightly schizophrenic period of time: The snow was melting faster than the ground mass could absorb the water, creating so much mud that the season is referred to as “break-up”  instead of “spring”. April of 1964 seemed to fit that pattern when the first hints of green appeared and changes started to happen outside as the weather got warmer.

Oddly enough the first big changes were inside our house: When the dust settled from extensive furniture and bookshelf rearrangement I had my own room again…or to be more precise I had an alcove partially blocked off from the rest of the front room.  It was enough for me to have a trace element of privacy and a place to keep some of my things out on display without instant destruction at the hands of my little sisters.

One of the first items I wanted to put on display also happened to be the product of my first lesson in the principle of caveat emptor, or “let the buyer beware”. Like all fifth graders I was powerless to resist the styrene siren call that came from the back of every comic book in the world: The 132 piece Roman Army set. One look at the lavish Russ Heath-rendered battle scene and I was hooked enough to turn a blind eye to the small print which would have alerted me to the fact that

  • The 132 figures included “16 pieces of harmless ammunition” for the 4 working catapults.
  • There were only a half-dozen poses.
  • The figures were one inch-tall flat figures cast in hard styrene plastic instead of the 2 inch full-round soldiers that made up the rest of my collection.

None of which had any bearing on the massive earthquake we’d experience a month earlier, which is in fact  my point. In my fifth-grader’s world we’d all moved on. Never mind we’d just gone through a record breaking quake – more important matters took center stage, like these army men, and comic books.

There were some odd events that I couldn’t help but notice:

Like most growing cities Anchorage had a number of half-rented little strip malls, but within a month of the quake many of those empty storefronts around town began to advertise clearance sales. None of them were established businesses with signage, business cards or normal retail ephemera, just big banners graphically screaming “SALE” or ‘CLEARANCE”. It didn’t bother me that the merchandize was half-heartedly displayed in piles because the prices were great: For example I bought a pair of zippered galoshes for a dollar; a bargain even if the solid color fabric lining the left boot was different from the plaid lining of the right one. It took me a couple of years wearing those mis-matched boots to piece together what was happening with all those  little fly-by-night retail place; they were selling merchandise salvaged from the major stores that had been destroyed during the quake.

There was also the slow decline of the little town of Portage, located at the southern end of Turnagain arm at the junction of Sterling Highway and the access road to Portage glacier. Ground level there had dropped several feet during the quake which meant high tide now flooded the area and all reliable local sources of fresh water were gone. The tides also played havoc with drivers just passing through -. failure to check the tide table could mean a four hour wait parked on replacement bridges that had been constructed above the high water mark.

The roads and bridges were repaired fairly quickly, but the little town never did recover. Being true Alaskans a couple of small businesses tried toughing it out by trucking in potable water, but eventually the residents moved to areas further up the highway to Anchorage. Recovery efforts were made in other areas as well, though as late as the summer of 1978 you could still see the remains of boats that had been tossed like toys when the tsunami hit the small harbor in Seward.

As time passed, the urgency to “quake-proof” buildings and infrastructure was pushed aside by issues like the massive oil reserves found on the North Slope, the Alaska Native Land Claims act, and (for me personally) girls. The Big One was never completely out of my mind though, especially when we’d get another earthquake, be it large or small. I’d always wonder if those efforts to come up with more quake-resistant designs ever came to pass.

I got my answer in 1982 at a Christmas party put on by another officer in my unit at FT Richardson. I found myself in a long conversation with a municipal planner and when I asked him about the status of quake-proofing efforts In Anchorage he looked like a deer in the headlights. I told him that I had gone through the Big One and made an observation about the tremendous growth that had come about in the interim, including growth close to some of the worst-hit areas in 1964.  He stuttered, he stammered then begged off to freshen his drink…and I figured I got my answer.

…and every time a story about seismic activity in Alaska pops up on the Internet, I wonder what the next Big One will do.

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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

1964: The Big One (Part 1)

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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)

CRASH!

The top three courses of our chimney collapsed and the bricks fell, which in turn accomplished the following in rapid succession:

  1. Broke the kitchen window
  2. Severed the propane line leading to the kitchen stove
  3. Bent the line so that it now faced into the broken window, spewing propane into the kitchen

“EVERYONE OUTSIDE!”

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)