I was five years old when the big one hit. I’m not sure if it was the first earthquake I’ve ever experienced or if I am just too young to remember any others that had happened before that. This one certainly was memorable. At the time my Mother owned a brown station wagon. The kind with fake wood paneling on the sides and a long trunk. Perfect for trips to the grocery store. On the day of the earthquake we were returning home from one of these trips.
I have one younger sibling and at the time my sister, who is a year and a half younger than me, was still confined to a child seat. Therefore I always had the great status symbol of the front passenger seat. This meant one of two things for me, I got to feel like a big boy, AND I got to be in charge of the radio. I was obsessed with the dial on that radio. I took great pride in being able to tune into a station just right and finding the minimal amount of static for a given channel. There was no bigger reward in the car then when I got a station to come in over the airwaves crystal clear.
Human memory is an unreliable thing. Even in adults. Over time things get warped and twisted and we can never be entirely sure of the details of our past. We have the gist though and so if some of the details seem a bit far fetched please remember that I was 5 years old and that when you’re five everything is more dramatic and pronounced than it really is. Also, the details I remember make for a much better story and because reality is subjective, and this is the reality I remember, it must be real. Or, at least real enough to tell.
We were coming home from the grocery store on the freeway, me in the prized front seat and my sister in the back. Suddenly the radio station that I had tuned into perfectly starting spitting static out of the speakers. I sprang onto the problem immediately and reached for the dial, but before I could our car suddenly swerved to the left. I was jolted and my outstretched hand missed the radio dial. As I fumbled for it again the car swerved to the right and I once again missed my mark. Frustrated at my mothers sudden ineptitude at driving I shouted.
“Mom!!! What are you doing!?!?!?!?!”
“It’s not me mijo!” she replied frightened.
My mom regained control of the car and brought us to the center lane. I’m not sure how long the earthquake actually lasted but I only remember these two swerves, once to the left and once to the right. I am also unsure as to how an earthquake would cause a car to swerve severely back and forth across a freeway. I remember my mother being freaked out and me sitting there annoyed that I had been interrupted from reaching the dial. We made it home and my mother wouldn’t let us go inside. She had been listening to the news the rest of the way home and there were warnings of potential aftershocks. I remember casualty reports and my mother explaining to me that people had died. In my head I imagined a group of people standing in front of a building and as the ground began to shake the building was dislodged from its foundation and came crashing down onto them. Without fully understanding the concept of death I still knew that it was something to be afraid of and sad for. The family across the street had several pets and they were all outside in their driveway surrounded by animals. Too afraid to go back inside lest the roof cave in on them. I ran into the middle of the street for fear that our house would betray me and topple over on top of me. The adults stood around talking to each other and I didn’t pay attention. Grown up conversations were often too difficult to decipher. There is so much we can’t understand until we have a concept for it. People dying didn’t really seem like a big deal to me at the time. I knew I should be worried and sad but only because I saw the grown ups around me worried and sad. Only when we understand the permanence of death can we really appreciate it.
This is where the memory ends. I’m sure my mother was worried about my father and the rest of our family. There were no cell phones then and it must have made events like these much more difficult to deal with when you couldn’t get in touch with the people you care about with the ease that we can today. I don’t remember when we went back inside, or any after shocks, or when my father got home from work, or if it even was a work day. I just remember being annoyed at the swerving car and being sad and afraid of something I didn’t really understand. I could make up those details, it would probably be about as accurate as if I actually remembered them. But I don’t remember them and so only the half fiction of my memory is real enough to tell.
By John Bobst (who also writes at his own website)