24 August 2011

Earthquakes I Have Known

The East Coast of the U.S. is abuzz with reports of yesterday’s earthquake, registering 5.8, with an epicenter in Virginia. As my brother helpfully notes, that places the quake directly in the Congressional district of Rep. Eric Cantor, who earlier this year advocated slashing funding for the U.S. Geological Service.

Our father was an expert in earthquake damage, which meant going on site inspections, which meant riding out quite a few aftershocks. When I experienced my first quake, in New York City in 1985, I felt as if I had undergone a rite of passage: at last I could look my dad in the eye.

My first quake was pretty insignificant in itself. Early in the morning, I awoke to a low rumbling sensation. “My, the train is passing early this morning,” I thought, only then remembering that we didn’t live terribly near a railroad or subway and that, in a six-floor walk-up, we were unlikely to feel a passing train in any case. Just as it flashed across my mind that this must be an earthquake, and I’d better hop out of bed and stand in the doorway (a precautionary measure recommended by Dad but more recently disputed by my brother, who lives in San Francisco) — it was over.

More noteworthy was the Northridge Earthquake in January 1994, to which I flew with Dan Rather in order to report for CBS News. As usual, we had been all over the map in the days preceding the quake. We were wrapping up a summit-related tour of Moscow, Prague, and Tbilisi before stopping off in Barcelona — and so we had to scramble to the scene in California, taking several planes and tugging all our winter gear behind us. Los Angeles was a mess, and my room (at the Beverly Wilshire, thank you very much) looked as if the previous occupants had been an especially rowdy rock band. Forget about using the bedside lamp, which lay in pieces on the floor. The housekeeping staff, overwhelmed, hadn’t gotten around to my room.

But the worst of the Northridge quake was over. I didn’t have to worry about waking up — as one friend in L.A. had done — to find the bed moving around the room, and the books and bibelots crashing off the shelves. Marcee was so startled that she forgot that she wore contact lenses: unable to see clearly as she looked around, she reasonably concluded that she must have been blinded in the accident, and began screaming. (She laughed about it when she told me a few days later, in that way Californians have.)

The location chosen for Dan’s standups was a stretch of freeway just outside the city, where an entire section of elevated roadway had fallen. It was terribly dramatic-looking. It was also not the safest place on earth at that moment, and our little Range Rover was parked about four yards from the edge of a dizzying precipice. “Where the Sidewalk Ends,” indeed.

While the crew was setting up, Dan and I took a break. Dan stood outside the car, scanning the horizon, drinking a diet soda, and trying to revive himself — we’d had almost no sleep in the past 48 hours and were still on Moscow time. I sat in the front seat and called the office in New York, using the car phone (because of course we didn’t carry cellphones yet, in those days).

Deep in conversation, I felt a little jiggle. Then another. Jiggle jiggle. The car was shaking. That goofball Rather was having his fun. Such a cut-up. Telling me airplane horror stories every time we flew, just to watch me squirm, and you don’t want to know what he did the first time I crossed the Equator. Now he was trying to scare me into thinking we were in an earthquake.

“Will you knock that off?” I snapped as I hopped out of the car. “I’m on the phone!”

“It ain’t me, chief,” Dan said.

We looked at each other. Then at the devastated freeway. Then at the valley below. Then at each other again. By now the aftershock had ended.

“Sorry,” I muttered, and resumed my phone call.

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