I live in earthquake country, but I don’t have a lot of earthquake stories. Maybe that’s a good thing. Nothing gory, or heartbreaking. Just a lot of dish rattling, and a few pictures bouncing off the walls. The television always has a number of the worst case scenarios, broken wine bottles at stores, collapsed ceiling tiles, and a few chimneys toppled in the neighborhood. Fortunately it is very rare that lives are lost.
I do have one earthquake story that I would like to tell before it is lost forever. For a time I lived in Point Richmond, which is a small residential area in the low hills directly across the bay from San Francisco. Nearly every home has a wonderful view of the evening sunset across the Bay, and the lights of the City.
Many of the homes were built in the early 1900s when the first population boom encouraged lots to be purchased, and individualized homes built. It continues today, with any open lot that has been left. The effect is that there is a range of architectural styles, and age, throughout the neighborhood. Stately Victorians, next to 1950s, next to Post Modern homes.
On one particular street where I walked, there was an older, one story Victorian, facing the setting sun with no houses on the other side of the street. This was a ridge road that led to a popular vista point. Well, popular to the locals who knew how to get through the maze of streets.
On my way walking to the vista point I noticed an older gentleman sitting in a chair, taking in the afternoon sun. He was still there when I came back, so I stopped to say hello. After a few pleasantries, we began talking about the view that he had everyday, and how special it was.
He related that he was ninety-two years old and had been born in this house, so he had seen quite a few remarkable sunsets. I asked him if there was one that stood out in his memory, and he quickly replied that there was one.
He was about eight years old and it was a day after the big quake. Nothing much happened in the neighborhood, some bookshelves fell over, and some dishes broke. It shook for a long time, but the house just flexed a bit. Across the bay the brick buildings had broke, and some fires had started. That evening he stayed up and watched San Francisco burn. It was April 18, 1906.
As horrible as it was to see, the thing that struck him was what he saw the next morning. He got up early and walked across the street to still see some fires burning, and billowing clouds of smoke. There on the grass all around him were some of the ashes that had traveled all the way across the Bay, riding the prevailing winds.
Something caught his eye, it was the front page of one of the City’s newspapers, laying draped on a rose bush. The thing about it was, that the paper was completely burnt a dark black, but the ink was white! It was like a negative, but still very readable. The fact that it stayed in one piece all the way across the Bay, and then was so readable, draped on the bush, was amazing. He tried to pick it up to show his parents, or perhaps save it in some way, but it crumbled in his hand.
All he had was the story of the wind delivering the morning paper, as readable ash. And he told it for eighty years.