Janet Hill Irwin – Elemendorf

I too lived in Alaska on March 27th, 1964. My father was stationed at Elemendorf and we lived on Beech Street across from the Aurora Elementary school. My mother and my two brothers and my sister and I were all home and my father was on the way home in a car. When the quake started the dog had been uncomfortable for a few minutes. We tried to leave through the front door and it got stuck in the door jamb so we lay down on the floor and said probably three decats of the rosary while the floor rose and dropped and the noise was deafening.

After it was over my mother sent me down the street with a Valium for her friend that worked at the little corner store near our house. She had a feeling that the woman was going to need one. I was in 6th grade and terrified to have been sent out and about and I was sure it was not the last of the shaking. The one vivid thing that will never leave my memory was the smell. It was as if the entire planet burped and the smell was one of dirt and natural gas and oil and other unidentifiable odors. I’ve smelled things similar in my garden after tilling but not as pungent as 1964.

When my father got home from work we were already putting the contents of the cabinets that were now on the floor in boxes for the trash and my father began putting the things from the fridge out in the snow bank to keep the fresh.

We were leaving Alaska in less than a month and some of my mother’s treasures were in boxes already. The dishes in the dish washer were untouched. The person who was supposed to empty it that day didn’t get yelled at for neglecting their chores. We had visitors that evening. Families whose husbands worked with him came for the overnight as the men headed back to the F102 hangers. I slept with a three or four year old little girl in my lap that night while sitting on the couch. I bolted out the door several times with that child as I vowed I’d not be caught indoors again during an aftershock.

We all did wonder if the base pool cracked and whether the water drained out or not. My sister and I roamed before we left in some off limits area…we did it all the time…we took the drainage ditch between our housing and Cherry Hill and went to see if we could see large cracks in the planet and we did. There were boards and duct tape across the halls where the floors had cracked in school. We were not too happy to have to cross them on the way to music class.

My younger brother was supposed to make his first Communion that Saturday at the larger Chapel near the base theater but due to some damage we had to go the smaller chapel across the base and they made their first Communion on Easter Sunday and while the class of communicants were dressed in their blue suits and white dresses the rest of us wore whatever we wore. Church clothing wasn’t exactly the order of the day.

Three years ago I went back to Alaska with my husband for our 30th anniversary. I didn’t get to Anchorage but we will next time. I can tell you that as I boarded the first plane I had tears in my eyes. I remembered that fateful day and I also remembered those houses in Turnigan that slid to the sea and the demolished school on Government Hill that I passed to go and get my hair cut off base.

I’m sure that I will not be the only one sitting quietly at the appointed hour next week on the 45 anniversary an it being a Friday will make it to the day. I’ll probably play a CD I have with the Alaska state song on it and sing along and remember being young and facing death and cheating it.

Janet Hill…….now Irwin

One thought on “Janet Hill Irwin – Elemendorf

  1. Hi Janet..I wonder if we might have been in the same 6th grade class at Aurora Elementary school during the earthquake. My memories of school after the quake are very hazy. Our family was financially and emotionally very impacted after the quake. We got to Alaska in September 1961 after driving from a base in Corvallis, OR and drving the entire way on an unpaved Alcan highway with my Dad and Mom. I was not too happy to be in Alaska. My parents divorced up there and I ended up staying and going to West Anchorage High School. We ended up being real Alaska pioneers of sorts! Name at the time was Debbie Janasiewicz!

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