We were in marching band practice (yes! band geek! complete with band camp!) in a parking lot across the street from campus when suddenly I heard the sound of an eighteen wheeler truck going down the street…only there was no truck on the street. Where was the truck? It was 7:42am in the morning, and the street was empty, save for the occasional sedan.
We heard the sound of the truck above our music, the sound was that loud. It was that loud. It was THAT loud. Our brains alerted us, nary a split second later, that it could NOT have been a truck, and so we stopped marching and lowered our flutes, clarinets, saxophones, trombones, trumpets, and baritones and stood, confounded.
And then the oddest sight: concrete lamp posts waving in the air like dandelion stalks in a strong, yet indecisive breeze.
It was then, as we stood still, watching those lamp posts waving in the air like metronome pendulums, that we saw the cars bobbing up and down, and strangest of all, we felt the earth beneath our feet move.
It was an earthquake, later named the Whittier Narrows earthquake. (Seriously, they should come up with sexier names for these things, like how Hurricanes get named human first names–like Katrina).
I’d lost my earthquake virginity; that was my first big earthquake. Before that day, “earthquake” was a distant and exotic word, like “avalanche” or “famine” or “war,” one that I thought would never walk into my life. Most of all, it was an ABSTRACT term but that day it became a concrete term describing the earth rolling under my feet, in the same unsteady way one feels when walking off a people mover onto solid ground. Or like the deck of a boat, swaying underneath my feet. Odd. Logic-defying.
Immediately, two kids starting screaming and crying. I scoffed at them, but deep inside, if I had been entirely honest with myself, I could identify with the terror of having the earth, something that was supposed to always hold steady, something we’d always known to hold steady, move beneath your feet.
Many kids went home that day crying or in reluctant terror, even though I stuck out the school day in awed silence. Those of us who stayed in school played out our shock in numerous ways, including entertaining stories of where we were when the earthquake hit. One of them, my friend C, kept her eyeliner as she’d applied it that day, a jagged line sprouting from her eyelid; she had been in the middle of putting on her eyeliner when the earthquake hit.
And me? For months afterward, the sound of an eighteen wheeler made me think earthquake. For months afterward, the vibrations on the ground from a passing eighteen wheeler made me think earthquake. Years later, in New York City, I’d feel the subway move beneath my feet and think earthquake.