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Tarnmoor’s ABCs: Earthquakes

Earthquake Fissure in Road

Earthquake Fissure in Road

I was very impressed by Czeslaw Milosz’s book Milosz’s ABC’s. There, in the form of a brief and alphabetically-ordered personal encyclopedia, was the story of the life of a Nobel Prize winning poet, of the people, places, and things that meant the most to him. Because his origins were so far away (Lithuania and Poland) and so long ago (1920s and 1930s), there were relatively few entries that resonated personally with me. Except it was sad to see so many fascinating people who, unknown today, died during the war under unknown circumstances.

This blog entry is my own humble attempt to imitate a writer whom I have read on and off for thirty years without having sated my curiosity. Consequently, over the next few months, you will see a number of postings under the rubric “Tarnmoor’s ABCs” that will attempt to do for my life what Milosz accomplished for his. I don’t guarantee that I will use up all 26 letters of the alphabet, but I’ll do my best.

If there is any natural phenomenon that frightens me, I would have to say it is earthquakes. During my years in Southern California, I have lived through two big ones: The Sylmar earthquake on February 9, 1971 (Richter 6.6) and the Northridge earthquake of January 17, 1994 (Richter 6.7).

On Friday, we had a small tremor centered on nearby Marina Del Rey. It was only a 3.2, but I acted as if it were just the start of a much bigger shake. Sitting in my library reading Proust, I dropped the book, jumped clear over the hassock and headed to the hallway just outside my bathroom to brace myself for what (perhaps) was to come. It didn’t. In the meantime, Martine peered around the corner and asked what was wrong. Did she feel the quake? Yes, but it was only a tiny one. But there I was, standing in the doorway with my heart racing, preparing myself for the worst.

The origins of my fear go back to 1994, when I used to sleep on an improvised futon in my living room. It was around 4:30 am when the earth began to shake in the darkness of the pre-dawn hours. Lights flashed whenever a nearby transformer exploded. Things were falling down from the walls and shelves, and some of them even rolled to where I was lying in terror as the sounds and smells and shaking had incapacitated me. What happened immediately after, I don’t recall because I actually lost my memory. All I know was that I was picked up by the police several hours later carrying two gallon jugs of purified water on Santa Monica Boulevard with blood flowing down my right leg.

Little by little, my terror subsided, only to be ramped up again with each aftershock. The damage caused by the quake was substantial: some nearby buildings were askew, and my kitchen had to be cleaned up with a shovel.

Ever since then, I do not go to bed without laying out all my clothes for the next day on a chair between the bedroom and the front door. Walking barefoot on broken glass and crockery is not a pleasant experience. So even now, a small temblor is capable of bringing back the terror, for however short a time.