Well, just two days and again I am putting a comment on the front page; this one from my baby brother Craig, who has a fascinating tale of his experience in the Great Alaska Earthquake. It took forty-six years for me to hear his version of our family’s earth-shattering experience.
These are the recollections of a 9-year-old boy, 46 years after the fact. I’m not saying it’s the gospel truth, but it is as I remember.
I remember it well, I was just 9 years old. We were living in Base Housing outside of Anchorage Alaska. Both Elmendorf AFB and Fort Richardson were situated atop Government Hill, a huge rock that overlooks the city. It was March 27th 1964 My Dad an Air Force Major has just gotten home from work.
My favorite TV show was coming on at 5:30 PM “Fireball XL5” a science fiction puppetry show. (similar to the 2004 movie “Team America”) . I went into the back bedroom and turned on the TV to warm up. Chinook our husky dog was in the back yard atop his dog house as usual but now he was Howling!. I remember asking no one in particular what’s wrong with the dog. The TV set came on to the opening credits and then the screen went horizontal then the beam faded to a blip that went out. I yelled out something’s wrong with the TVeeeee. At point my Mother is a strange voice said “ Come HERE!” I went to the living room of our duplex house and there was Dad in his Air Force blue uniform and my mother, my two sisters, Aldina just turned 7 years old seventeen days earlier, and Nikkiel 5 and a half years old just came in too. I went to Dad and Mom had my sisters at either leg. My parents were braced against the wall between the hall entry to the bedrooms and the front closet. It was 5:35 PM on Good Friday 1964. The world as we knew it was changing. Walls were no longer stable. Floors were no longer motionless. There was a rumble sound from deep within the earth.
Aldina yelled out “What’s happening?” My Mother cried out “The Baby!” My brother Kim, 17 years old went down the hallway and into the bedroom where he found my sister Lennelle just 10-1/2 months old standing in her crib holding on to the slats weaving back and forth to the motion of the earth in a happy dance. He came back with her in one arm, his feet having to walk on the walls of the hall as they greeted him for the floors were an unwalkable sea of waves. He came back to the living room with the baby and as he passed the hallway opening the china cabinet fell into the opening. Blocking the way and shattering dish shards around the way. If he had been two seconds later he would have been injured and the two of them maybe even dead. Just before Kim and Lennelle came into the living room my senses couldn’t take it all in. I remember seeing the bookcases dance and fall, the china cabinet come crashing. My world turned upside down but I don’t remember a single sound. My back was to the wall, my arms around my father’s right leg, his right arm around my shoulder. The visuals all around but it is dead silent.
My recall after the initial horrible crashing sounds is void of noise. The first thing I hear is My mother saying “ is it over???” There was laughter if I recall. My Dad ran to the dining-room where his Berlin lamp was twirling over the set dinner placements, hanging by just one of its three chains. We would have plates to eat on if he prevented the light from crashing to the table. All our dishes were destroyed except for those on the dinner table. He was saying during the earthquake he looked out the front door and saw his beloved 1960 Black Chrysler New Yorker station wagon walking itself out into the middle of the street. He then went and moved the car back to the curb in case emergency vehicles needed to get down the street.
Kim was sent to a neighbors house to check on brother Dane who was babysitting at the time. I remember looking into the little kitchen and being told to not go in there. We were told to be very careful where we walked as there could be broken glass everywhere. All the cabinets and fridge door had opened and closed repeatedly during the quake. There must have been a 6 inch deep layer of crap on the floor. Broken glasses and plates, soup cans with the labels coming off from all the juice and milk on the floor. I thought it was an amusing combination of food on the floor I was seeing, Prunes and Pickles and Beets.
I remember telling my parents we had to go as it almost time for my play. I was in the college production of “Our Town” . I found it peculiar that they laughed and said, “It’s alright. The play won’t be going on after this.” I didn’t quite believe them; after all, the show must go on. But I was only 9 years old, what was I going to do, drive myself there?
Kim came back saying Dane was okay but there were people standing outside all over the neighborhood. That one of their teenage friends said he had been in downtown Anchorage when it happened and that whole blocks had sunk into the ground and the nearby school had fallen off the hill just off the Air Base. The kid was known to exaggerate, so wasn’t quite believed. But he had spoken the truth.
Then an air policeman showed up in blue uniform. My Dad was assigned to the Alaska Air Command and emergency procedures required him to report for duty. If I recall, this was just an hour after the earthquake and as the sun was setting. He left his family for his country. Everything’s a little hazy after that, after all it’s been 46 years. Sleeping bags were gotten, we were all going to sleep in the living room together. Kim was cleaning the kitchen. A Coleman lantern was turned on. Then my Dad telephoned. He said go out and turn off the power and the gas. There had been fires reported from power coming back on and broken light bulbs igniting broken gas mains. Also get his TDY bag (overnight travel bag) out and someone would come pick it up. As I recall around 10 PM a young airman in full combat gear came to get my Dad’s overnight bag. It would be 3 days before we saw Dad again.
That is not the end of the story, however. There are many stories that can be found on the internet. I won’t recount them here. I will say that when you see pictures of 4th Avenue and the banner that hung across the street, now drooped down to street level, notice that it is for the production of “Our Town” . There was a whole subdivision of houses at the bottom of Government Hill that went to the shoreline. The soil had liquefied and Turnagain Arm was never rebuilt. Despite news reports that NORAD and our American Defenses were okay the real story was there were only two aircraft at the air base that were flyable. All the others had cracked wings from the tips repeatedly hitting the tarmac. Our outer radar stations were untouched but information all flowed through Elmendorf AFB and it had lost communications with the outside world. If ever the Russians had wanted to attack that was the time.
On the Wednesday after Good Friday, around mid-morning, I was lying on the couch in the living room. I, like many of our family, had gotten sick with a flu after the quake. As I was lying there, I heard what sounded like construction work under the street. It sounded like they had a diesel generator. Then it sounded like a steam engine. Then I realized it was right under the house and the house was shaking. It was a 7 something aftershock.
There were little fissures in our yard, the ground had split and us kids spent weeks afterwards sticking our little fingers in them to see if they were expanding and would swallow us up.
At some point that week or the week after, Mom and Dad made all us kids go with them to a huge parking lot. There were food lines and we went to get milk. Since they limited it to one per person and we were a family of 8, my folks figured the more of us that went, the more food we could get. If I remember rightly, they only gave food to adults, but that meant Kim and Dane also got food for our family. I remember there being hundreds of people and airmen in combat gear keeping the line moving and other airmen handing out food in the parking lot with the big military trucks that brought the food from the lower 48 parked behind them.
The next year when we were transferred from Alaska and Dad got an assignment to Andrews Air Force Base just outside Washington D.C., we went to New Jersey to visit Uncle Walter and Aunt Bonn. They were all thankful that we were back in the lower 48 and said that they bet we wouldn’t want to live through another earthquake. My mother corrected them; saying we hope to not experience another earthquake, but we want to LIVE through as many of them as we experience.
I viewed the whole experience as merely an interesting part of my life. But the Delayed Stress Syndrome struck me in 1978 when I was watching the movie “Superman” where missiles strike the earth and cause the San Andreas Fault to erupt in an earthquake. Lois Lane’s car is swallowed by the earth and she is killed. I assumed the fetal position in the theatre chair and was shaking uncontrollably. When the scene was over I was drained but back to normal. I have never seen the movie again.
I have lived through 3 killer quakes. None as disastrous as the Good Friday Quake. There is a reason why I won’t live in California or anywhere earthquakes are likely to happen.
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