Friday, October 17, 2014

October 17th, 1989

It's the 25th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake. For some reason I haven't been much moved to commemorate it this 'big year' even though I have been more in tune with the memory other years.
But it is an important day in Santa Cruz history, so I thought I'd repost something I wrote for another blog I do on memory a few years ago. Five, actually. As for today, I'm just happy and yet still a little pensive about what it means to be among the living...

(In memory of Shawn McCormick and Robin Ortiz)

Every once in awhile, this blog is not about the lapse of memory, but memory, straight up. Today marked the 20th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake, which some people may remember because of the World Series being played at that moment, and others may remember for images of people crushed and trapped on the collapsed Bay Bridge. However, the epicenter happened right here in Santa Cruz County, in the Forest of Nicene Marks, at a spot I have actually hiked to, though even that was a long time ago now.

Most people probably won't remember this earthquake at all, or maybe only vaguely, which perhaps ties in to my usual theme more than I thought. But this earthquake destroyed our downtown, forcing businesses into tents for a couple of years, and was one of those decisive moments in a community's history that marks all who were present forever. I don't mean that everyone was traumatized. I mean that our town changed forever from the kind of town that it had been only the day before. Many people lost property or suffered property damage. Many people left, changed their focus or direction. Some people, luckily only a few, lost their lives that day. However two of those people, very young people just starting their adult lives, died just on the other side of a wall from me. The wall fell the other way. They were in a little attic office, going over the days receipts of the coffee roasting enterprise that they were working in, and the top of the wall collapsed on them and buried them. The report later was that mercifully they had died instantly. But for days, many people stood around that pile of rubble, pleading with authorities to work faster, hoping against hope.

Today I walked down to the observances of the day. I wasn't really sure why I was going, though I had actually skipped going to my high school reunion for that very reason. As I walked down, I was struck by the incredible, almost too incredible vibrancy of the town. It was the last weekend of Open Studios and everywhere were signs advertising where some artist who had opened his or her home to the public could be found. A banner at the high school welcomed bands from around the state to the annual high school band review, which must have happened this morning. I walked past the Civic auditorium, where some sort of conference of jiu jitsu was in progress, and outdoor booths and music were spreading its followers out on to the street. The Pacific Rim Film Festival was in full tilt. And all of these things were bringing people out of their homes and over the mountains to our town, and none of it had anything to do with remembrance of the day at all.

Except it did. It was the sign of the phoenix's rise from the ashes, the town continuing in a new way with its old quirky energy, and no one could be blamed if they didn't make their way to the post office and the town clock to remember what was really only a moment in time. And I myself didn't go to hear the speeches, which was just as well, because some of them couldn't be heard anyway, from the back of the crowd. And there was a crowd, an old timer crowd, you might even say a home town crowd, although for all my years' involvement with the place, it's never really felt like my hometown. It probably never could.

As the speeches ended, the clock tolled the number of the dead from that day in our county. A couple of silver balloons floated into the air. I saw a few people I knew, but no one felt like talking. I walked over afterwards to the chainlink fence that to this day surrounds the site of the store that I worked in and the coffee house that the dead worked in. My eyes teared up. I didn't care about the store, though many still lament it. The store rose again in another location, after all, as did the town. Bigger and better you could even say, unless you didn't quite feel that way about it. And a hole in the ground is just a hole in the ground.

But the dead stay dead. Robin Ortiz and Shawn McCormack have not been part of the rebirth. I was glad to see the signs on the fence, with sweet sentimental comments like "We still miss you, Shawn." "I haven't forgotten you, Robyn." People brought bouquets of flowers to stick in the fence. Silver balloons were tied to the fence and floated above it.

Twenty years is a long time to be gone. A whole lifetime for some. My friends' son was born in a hospital right here in town the day before. Twenty years is an awful lot of living. I can't help but think of all the last twenty years has given me, all I did and failed to do--all I was granted time to do and fail to do.

Earlier this week, in a coincidental recapitulation, a tree fell in my yard. It was exciting, dramatic, but it fell the other way--harmless. The other one, its twin, which was leaning over my house did not fall. The thing to realize, if we can, is that this is not extraordinary luck on my part. We are all, for the moment, living on the right side of that brick wall. We are all, for the moment, living in the shadow of the tree that did not fall. And the only thing to ask, really, is what are we going to do with the time that remains?


  1. I remember. I am glad you did your remembering in the way that was just right for you. Totally connect to the falling tree, too.

  2. Thanks, Kathleen. For some reason, this year it was my dad's birthday that had more resonance with me, as he shared that day before birthday with my friend's son. I am in some sense "used to" the earthquake ritual by now. But to realize that my dad, who died the same year as the earthquake, has been gone for a quarter of a century--well, that struck me with some force.

  3. Your post really rocked me as I could not believe the amount of time passed. I can see the living room of the house in Oklahoma where we watched the World Series earthquake and the Tiananmen Square protests on tv. I understand about your dad. My dad has been gone just a tenth of that time. It's strange I have no recollection of my parents in that house in Oklahoma, although they surely visited us that year. Thank you for this post as alternating memory waves wash over.

  4. Thanks for sharing the "where I was" memory. These historical moments do help us situate ourselves in time in some way, I think, even the difficult ones.

  5. Seana, I hope it is not rude to comment so late. I am slow catching up on the things I want to do, like read your blog, due to too much over-time at work. I think you wrote this with so much sensitivity, it was beautiful to read. I'm so sorry for your losses (your father and your friends). Your final statement strikes so true ... s what are we going to do with the time that remains? -Janet

  6. Janet, no need to apologize--it's never too late to hear from you. Here's wishing your work schedule lightens up a little! And that I see you soon.

  7. Thanks, Seana ... I hope so too on both thoughts.