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Six Months Later, We're Shaken to the Core : Quake: Nightmares from the Jan. 17 tremor haven't faded. Far from it. The terror of that morning has many people reliving past traumas.

July 18, 1994|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There is a man and a Vietnam memory that had almost disappeared. Now it's back.

Once more he hears the whock-whock of helicopter blades and looks down at blood making vile art in the mud. He shouts a thought at a friend. Let's duck this one.

They jump from the chopper anyway. One last time. Gasping, yelling, sweating, running with a hand on the other's shoulder because that always seemed to reduce terror by half.

Thirty years later, he's gasping and sweating again.

Others are reprising sights and smells of the Holocaust. Greasy smoke from Auschwitz-Birkenau chimneys, pink and gray images of babies dead before they had walked.

Some are jerked awake and held sleepless by hearing bombs in the night. From London, 1941. Still more are again seeing the dead, staring faces of assassination. San Salvador, 1980. Or reliving the forced marching that ended with 1 million people starved to death. Cambodia, 1977.

It's this bloody earthquake.

Six months ago, the Earth's innards buckled, at least 57 people died, and all citizens of Los Angeles scored some image they will carry to their deathbeds.

And the pictures aren't even fading.

This shock is loitering too long for too many. In part, the embedded echoes have to do with the polyglot cast of the Valley, a place rich with immigrants and psyches already disfigured by civil horror. In Cambodia, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Cuba and Ireland.

Their lives were threatened once, but became safe. Until Jan. 17. Then, psychologists say, we shook to a fresh, deadly menace that was enough to unlock and spill emotional baggage from the past.

The affliction is called post-traumatic stress disorder.

It means we remember when and suffer again.

We develop the same headaches and depression, anger and impotence. We drink too much and brawl too easily and cry for nothing. We jerk awake at an innocent thud or rattle in the night and sometimes, for no reason, exactly at 4:32 a.m. And we blame everything but the collapsing, rasping, indiscriminate, executioner's energy of a 6.8 earthquake precisely where we live.

Toni Moore, 68, of North Hollywood, the daughter of an importer-exporter, thought she had survived all the suffering that life has for one person. She was born in China and just escaped the Sino-Japanese war in 1936. Three years earlier there had been earthquakes in Japan, then Japanese bombing of Shanghai in 1941 and the Muslim-Hindu uprising in Calcutta in 1946.

"I thought I had learned to cope with all this, you know," she recently told Times writer Jocelyn Stewart. "I thought: 'Well, it's not going to bother me.' "

Wrong. Every aftershock was a repeat. Now she is forgetful, disoriented, fearful.

"See, I have cracks in my ceiling . . . cracks in my bedroom," she said. "That's how I feel. . . . That's what happened inside of me. I've been through an awful lot. I've seen a lot of pain, a lot of illness, buried a lot of people. The quake brings it all back."

The quake also extinguished most of what life has left for the elderly at ground zero.

"How do you, if you're in your 80s, start from scratch?" asks Lynn Bayer, director of the Los Angeles County Area Agency on Aging. "People are experiencing a tremendous sense of loss and an identity crisis."

For they have no years left to re-create what took half a century to build. No fond, private memory was insured against damage or loss. No FEMA settlement can replace honeymoon trinkets of 40 years ago, those first ugly gifts from grandchildren, the college mug, the photograph of you and Eddy at Bastogne.

"Then these people--on the whole, older people who don't do well in coping skills--must hassle with insurance companies and government," explains a therapist with Project Rebound, a FEMA-funded counseling program administered by the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health. "That becomes revictimization . . . and by their own system."

We don't even hide our quiet tremblings.

"I travel a lot, attend many meetings, and always recognize people from Los Angeles," says Ioan Allen of San Francisco, an executive with Dolby Laboratories Inc. "When a truck goes by and a conference room shakes, the ones with the wide eyes looking nervously at each other are from Los Angeles."

*

Yet you needn't have known Nazi Germany or hunkered for weeks at Khe Sahn to be suffering terribly from this latest shattering of Los Angeles.

Southern Californians who thought they'd felt one and felt 'em all, who used earlier quivers as a bragging right for families left behind in Ausable, N.Y., have been silenced by the Biggest One So Far.

Because the small ones just rocked and rolled. They were a D ride. Nobody got hurt. Never been to Sylmar. Who knows where Whittier Narrows is anyway?

But six months ago, the guy you bowled with had his house fall on him, and before they took away the lady next door, she was talking to people who have been dead 15 years. Two inches to the left, and the TV set that jumped on the pillow could have changed your viewing habits forever.

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