“What on earth is our store doing on TV?” I said pointing accusatorily at the television set on the shelf above the cash register in the antique shop.
“Oh lady, there was a really bad earthquake in California this morning. It’s been on the news all morning,” the proprietor said looking concerned.
I was still staring at the TV trying to make sense of what I saw. The image looked like Main Street but then again it didn’t. The grocery store adjoining our liquor store had collapsed, its brick façade was lying in piles in the middle of the street, the roof had buckled into the building’s center and tall jagged shards of plate glass window were sticking out of the window frames.
In April 1992 there weren’t many cell phones, if any. “Mom, I have to find a pay phone!”
We cut our antiquing day short and drove back to my parent’s home in Oregon. “I’m sure its fine by now, honey” Mom said in the car glancing over at me. “The phone lines are probably just jammed from people calling and overloading the system. And you know how the media makes these things sound worse than they really are.”
“True. But when we get back, if I still can’t reach him, I think I’ll drive home. Actually I’m glad I missed the quake Mom, I hate those things but at least I can help with the clean up.”
A short time later, I had packed up, kissed my parents good bye and was heading south. It would take seven hours of driving to get home and during the trip I got pretty good at spotting payphones in the small towns along Highway 101, finally reaching Jim during one of many stops.
“It was bad, 6.9 on the Richter Scale,” he said wearily. “I’ve had help though; people have been stopping by all day to help me clean up. Let me meet you at home instead of the store. It’s a mess around here and it won’t be easy to get into town anyway. Besides, I haven’t been home to see what that’s like. Hopefully there isn’t too much damage; twenty-five miles can make a lot of difference. I’ll be home as soon as I can.”
Thankfully the catastrophe had mostly spared our house but it was still late that night when we finally relaxed enough to sleep. We were awakened abruptly when the house gave a jolt and began to shake seriously as if it was held in the grasp of an angry giant.
“The china cabinets!” Jim shouted as he ran for the dining room. “Go grab the one in the front room!” We planted our feet and held on until it stopped.
I thought perhaps he’d overacted, especially when he said, “I think I need to get back to the store. No telling what it’s like there.”
“Really? This one didn’t seem that bad to me; probably just an aftershock, don’t you think? Gosh, I’m exhausted from the drive and everything. Let’s just get a good night sleep and head over early tomorrow.”
A lot of our financial security as well as Jim’s professional identity were tied to the liquor store so when I saw the doubt and then resolve in his blue eyes, I said, “Okay, but I’m not staying here by myself.”
We headed south in relative silence. The night seemed to be on guard, listening, astonished at the events that had transpired earlier. The freeway was dark and uncannily quiet and we felt quite alone until, exiting onto the two-lane highway leading to town, a well lit checkpoint blocked our path.
“Sorry, the bridge is closed. We haven’t been able to check out the damage to it yet,” said the Sheriff as he shown his light into the cab of our truck. A barricade blocked the bridge, the last five miles to town and the only way in.
Jim’s voice came through gritted teeth. “Listen, I own a business on Main Street and my folks and my brothers live in town. Please, I have to get over there.”
I can’t remember what else was said but soon we were driving slowly; very slowly over the old arched bridge that has spanned the Eel River since 1911.
“Oh Jim, it looks like some bombed out town in the middle of a war zone!” I said as we drove around debris that had been hastily piled up to allow traffic flow on Main Street. Temporary flood lights deposited pools of harsh white light onto Victorian buildings with gaping holes that once held windows, collapsed porches and roofs and oddly twisted exteriors that had broken open at their seams.
“Hold on,” Jim said as he unlocked the back door into the store room. “Oh wow.” The smell of hard spirits, beer and wine erupted out of the opening door but it wasn’t until he flipped on the light that we understood fully. The shelving had fallen over, cases of liquor and wine previously stacked six feet high looked like they had been tossed haphazardly all over the store room; liquid had oozed out, saturating the cardboard boxes and the floor. The front of the store was worse because of all the broken glass. As if from some irrational tantrum, broken bottles lay everywhere their contents mixed up in a crazy cocktail. The shelving in the wine cooler had collapsed, most of the wine bottles lie broken in the bottom of it and the “walk-in” beer cooler needed a new name.
“Well, I’ve been here before,” Jim quipped, “Let’s get the big stuff and then we’ll have to wash the floor again.” It took us the rest of the night to clean it all up. Still, the store looked like a store when we finished, liquor, wine, beer, soda pop, tobacco, chips and snacks all back on now thinly stocked shelves. We’d be open as usual at 9:00 in the morning.
Something was happening. “Oh no, no, no, no!” I said in disbelief.
There was a low rumbling that rose to a deafening crescendo, the shaking started to gather momentum and it was awful to realize that the earth was moving AGAIN. There was another strong jolt then the floor began to undulate as if some great serpent swimming below a ship was causing it to pitch.
“Susan, get away from the windows!” Jim shouted at me. He was standing behind the cash register holding onto the counter; liquor bottles began to fly off the shelf behind him and over his head. My feet started to move, one then the other, up and down, forward then sideways, I couldn’t seem to get traction. It must have been a comical site like Wiley Coyote whose feet, churning faster and faster still couldn’t manage forward momentum. We grabbed each other in the center of the store and from the look on his face, the frightening sound, and the mad pitching I thought that perhaps we wouldn’t survive.
When it was over and we were still standing, Jim breathed into my ear “What the hell is going on? Let’s get out of here…I just can’t do this again.” In uncharacteristic exasperation, he grabbed the mop from the bucket and threw it into the center of the store.
“My legs feel like jelly. I’m not sure I can walk,” I said. Using Jim for support, we walked outside and he turned numbly and locked the door.
“I better sit down,” I said plopping down hard on the sidewalk curb.
Main Street was completely deserted but then two men tumbled noisily out of the door of a national news service trailer carrying cameras and recording equipment and ran across the street toward us.
“Hey mister, wow, that was something. Can we go inside your store and take some pictures? We’d like to interview you, okay” Jim nodded a little limply and as he unlocked the door one of the reporter said excitedly “What a mess. So how do you feel right now? Will this put you out of business do you think?”
Sitting all alone on the curb, with my head between my legs, grateful for the feel of the cool foggy early morning air, I felt something next to me. Looking over, my eyes met the gaze of an Australian Cattle Dog. Her soft brown questioning eyes watched me as she sat down and my arm instinctively reached around to hug her neck. We sat there in the dark, heads together, a couple of strangers who had both experienced a truly extraordinary event.
(Note) In April 1992, an unusually complex geological region in Northern California experienced three earthquakes from different fault lines. The first earthquake occurred at 11:06 A.M. on April 26th and was ultimately measured to be 7.2 on the Richter scale. The other two measuring 6.0 and 6.5 occurred the next morning at 12:42 A.M. and at 4:18 AM respectively. The U.S Geological Survey reported “thousands” of aftershocks in the weeks that followed.