When the Music Stopped Playing
I was 11-1/2 years old at the time the Great Alaskan earthquake struck. We lived in the basement unit at 1505 Orca Street in Anchorage. When the quake struck, Father was working, Mother was cooking dinner in the kitchen at the far end of the house, and the baby was in his high chair close to Mother. I was lying barefoot on Mother’s bed, singing a popular song with the radio. My brothers were outside playing. As usual, our parakeet, “Pretty Boy,” flitted about his cage chattering incessantly.
Unlike the older of my younger brothers, who never realized a quake hit, the noise of the earth’s rumbling and the crashing of dishes alerted me instantly that something was terribly awry. Seconds after the rumbling and violent shaking began, Mother screamed from the kitchen at one end of our basement unit, “Get Out! Get Outside!” The radio crashed to the floor, our dinner flew off the stove, chairs scooted and fell, books and crafts flew into our flight path. I can only imagine what “Pretty Boy” experienced in his cage suspended from a spring in the kitchen.
Spurred by the tone of Mother’s voice, I instantly scrambled off the bed and instantly lost my balance as my feet hit the wobbling tile. I tried to stand again, and fell after one or two steps. Mother came rushing through, clutching the baby, her face tight with tension, screaming even more hysterically, “Get Outside! Now! Run! Run!”
I scrambled and ran, but as the earth continued to shake violently, I once again fell, landing directly in Mother’s path. Mother hurtled over me with the baby in her arms, screaming in a voice raw with fear and despair, “Get Out! Get Out! Get Out!”
As I watched her disappear through the front doorway, suddenly a fierce emotion seized me, and I began to crawl furiously on all fours. By the time I reached the front doorway, the earth’s shaking had stopped. Mother was outside at the top of the stairwell with my 2 younger brothers, looking towards the dark basement, paralyzed with fear and trepidation, her eyes searching. I’ll never forget the look on her face when I finally appeared. If she could have, she would have flown down the stairwell to me, but since she had two other children to consider and one of them was in arms, she stood at the top of the stairs and called to me. Regaining my footing, I ran up the flight of stairs to her. Within an instant, mother was once again the stern mother hen, clucking orders, and instructing us to climb inside the Rambler and wait for her.
We obeyed. As we huddled together, cold and scared in the back of the Rambler, mother ran in search of my brother, Robert, screaming his name throughout the neighborhood as she quickly scoured the streets. Within a few minutes, Mother returned to the 3 of us, empty handed and dejected. Ordering us to stay, she ventured into the basement alone, and returned with our coats, the car keys, and her purse. When she noticed my bare feet, I recall her lecturing me on never going barefooted again and then she fell silent and put the Rambler into gear. As she drove to East Northern Lights Boulevard to fetch our father, dodging asphalt eruptions and asphalt cracks and valleys in the roadway, tears streamed down her face. We remained silent.
Gratefully, our basement unit was relatively undamaged and by nightfall, my brother Robert was returned home, unharmed. Our home became a refuge for three other families and a young man. From that point forward, life for the next several days took on a surrealistic feel.
Altogether, there were 23 of us in that basement refuge. Fortunately, one of the men, Curtis, worked at Fort Richardson, and through him, we had access to military water in large cardboard boxes containing flexible plastic containers with spouts. We supplemented that water with boiled snow treated with Clorox. It was the children’s job to collect snow in pots to melt so we would have water for washing and the toilet. I remember during the next few days that the radio ran day and night-playing only news-there was no time for music.
Early every morning for the next couple of weeks, my Father left together with the other men. I remember they would return long after dark, filthy and exhausted. They would sit down and eat voraciously while the womenfolk doted on them and then, one by one, they would turn into bed, murmuring about the sights they had seen that day. All I knew was that they were volunteering along with other men from the city to help clean up the mess, and to repair broken gas, water, and sewage lines throughout the city.
There were five women and it seems they never slept! If you wanted to find one, you could always find them gathered round the wooden picnic table in the kitchen, sleeping babies in their arms, murmuring together. When the women were not in the kitchen, they were caring for the children and men.
I was the oldest of all the children, so it was my responsibility to keep the younger ones out of the way of the adults, coordinate the many snow-gathering expeditions, and round up the kids for mealtime. By mid-week, our meals consisted of unremarkable government rations that I believe may have come from the military bases.
All the children (there were nine of us not including the two babies) shared a full-sized bed set up in the parlor area. It was comforting to sleep with company, even though we were arranged like so many clothespins, lined up neatly, side by side, our heads at opposite ends of the bed. Most of the children slept well, but I could not for each time I felt a tremor, I would sit up, ready to run again.
Eventually, life began to return to normal. We were all shepherded to one of the undamaged schools in the area to receive our typhoid shots. I remember watching my brother, Robert, the older of my younger brothers, stagger over to the glass windows after receiving his typhoid shot and then fainting to the floor. I thought it was rather comical at the time. In fact, I’m still chuckling at this moment, as I recall how his eyes rolled up into his head and he sank to the floor with an unceremonious sigh.
Eventually, the schools reopened. I attended Fairview Elementary. Twelve blocks away, the Denali school had been rendered unusable, so we shared our school by attending in shifts. Fairview started the day with the early morning shift and Denali took the late shift. During those days, classes and playground times were shortened. Long after I had gone home, Denali students were just beginning the school day.
Permission to play on the school grounds came only after the Denali students had gone home late in the evening. I remember how much my brothers and I loved to ice skate. After the Good Friday earthquake, we rarely had the opportunity to skate at the school playground. Father’s answer to our dilemma was to help us build our own ice rink in the backyard. Although crude, and full of bumps that could send you flying through the air, the rough rink generated many happy memories for the entire neighborhood until the spring thaw.
Interestingly, after the 9.2 earthquake, “Pretty Boy” never flew again, choosing instead to walk about his cage walls and floor or on the floors and tables of our home. If “Pretty Boy” wanted to get down, he jumped, or used drapes for ladders, but he never flew again.
Of course, after school started, everyone began trickling back to their own homes. The radio started playing music once again. Although it was nice to have my own bed back again, I missed having everyone nearby. During a disaster, there is something inexplicably comforting about being able to share in the company of another human being. There is yet an even more inexplicable comfort to experience when the music returns.
by Georgiana (Jana) Llaneza