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From Small Losses Come Fond Memories and Shared Pain

January 24, 1994|JACK SMITH

When the earthquake struck, my wife and I, of course, were in bed. I lay there while the house shook, and shook, and shook. I heard the tinkling of broken glass. I was strangely calm. I felt no increase in heart rate. It was just another earthquake.

"Did you feel that?" I asked my wife.

"Are you kidding?" she said.

She got up, found the power was off and lit a candle. "You shouldn't light candles," I told her. "You might start a fire." She put the candle out and hunted in the dark for a flashlight.

I have read dozens of lists on what to do and what not to do in an earthquake, but I have never prepared. Our daughter-in-law gave us an earthquake kit a few years ago, but all I did was drink the bottle of brandy it contained. I don't know how to turn off the water. I don't know how to turn off the gas.

My wife heard a hissing and went outdoors to find the water heater had a leaking line. I felt quite incompetent. I lay there waiting for the aftershocks.

I have been through so many earthquakes, they no longer scare me. I was a school kid when my first one hit. I think it was in 1926. I was hanging by my knees from a horizontal bar in the schoolyard.

When the Long Beach earthquake struck, in March, 1933, I had just come home from Long Beach Poly High School and was standing in front of the fireplace in the apartment where I lived with my mother and older sister.

My mother was sitting in a rocking chair nearby. When the place began to crack and rumble, I said: "Jesus Christ!" My mother said, "Why, Jack, I didn't know you used that kind of language."

She was more shocked by my profanity than she was by the quake.

Downtown Long Beach was devastated. That was the end of the school year for me. The dome over Poly High had crumbled into the foyer.

When the Tehachapi earthquake came in 1952, I was a reporter at the Herald-Express. Howard Hughes lent us one of his airplanes to fly a crew to Tehachapi, and I was sent. As we landed at the little airport, a huge dark shadow enveloped us. I realized that we had just missed a plane taking off. That was the closest I ever came to getting killed in an earthquake.

When the Whittier quake came in the fall of 1987, my wife and I were traveling in Spain. We had just come to an old hotel after a day's journey to find that we had a telegram from our older son. It said, "DON'T WORRY. YOUR HOUSE IS OK." He didn't say why it might not have been.

These odd experiences, I suspect, have made me rather blase about earthquakes. They're a hazard one lives with in California, the way our ancestors used to live with wild beasts. They go with the territory.

But no earthquake leaves us untouched. Even though we did not suffer any devastating losses, as so many others did last Monday, we did not escape entirely. Our losses were trivial, but there was a poignancy about them. It suggested how profound must have been the despair of those who lost their homes and all their possessions.

Our floors were scattered with fallen objects--glass, pictures, books, almost my entire pharmacopoeia and a few treasures I had forgotten I owned until they lay shattered at my feet.

One was a rose-colored fluted crystal vase (my wife called it cranberry glass) that had been given to me by Claire Windsor, the beautiful silent screen star. I have forgotten the circumstances.

"Your Champlin mug is broken," my wife said from the kitchen.

She held it up. It was a ceramic coffee mug. The handle was broken off. It had a red Harvard shield on one side with the word veritas inscribed on it. On the other side, it said: "In Celebration of Charles Champlin, 47. September 24, 1983."

I have at least a dozen coffee mugs, most of them in celebration of some occasion or another, but for some reason unknown to me, I had almost always drunk my coffee from the Champlin mug. One develops habits for which there are no logical reasons.

Numerous other souvenirs of this or that occasion lay amid the debris on the floor. It was a matter of sweeping up. No great loss. We did not sleep that night in the park. We shed no tears. It was just another earthquake.

But earthquakes take their toll. No matter how trivial one's loss, one somehow feels mistreated by the gods. I will probably never think of Claire Windsor again.

Maybe Chuck Champlin will send me another mug.

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