I was lying in bed, actually. It was 6 a.m. on February 9, 1971, and I was fast asleep when I awoke to feel my bed gently rocking. I didn’t know a thing about earthquakes, but it seemed pretty clear that that was exactly what was happening.
The recent earthquake in Ridgecrest, California, has opened up a cache of my memories of that quake.
I was a happy transplant from Chicago (where, in February, it was almost certainly bitter cold) to sunny Los Angeles, where I’d begun a job six months earlier in a do-good law office at UCLA Law School.
Just before beginning work in September, I hunted for an apartment near the UCLA campus and wound up renting a furnished apartment in a Southern California-style apartment just across Gayley Avenue from the campus. I wanted a (cheaper) studio apartment, the kind I’d just left in Chicago, but the building manager told me the last studio had been rented moments before. I decided to take a hit budget-wise and stretch my finances, renting a one-bedroom apartment instead.
I loved living at this apartment on Kelton Avenue, a short walk from the campus. Strolling down the path that led to the law school building, I often passed a young man who began to look familiar. He was handsome, resembling a good-looking lawyer I’d known in Chicago, and he always looked deep in thought, sometimes puffing on a pipe as he walked. One Saturday, I spied the same fellow approaching the small outdoor pool on the ground floor of our building, plunging in, but leaving fairly soon instead of chatting with any of the other residents.
There was also a dark green Nash Rambler parked in our building’s small outdoor lot. This car was located directly below my apartment’s terrace. (Another story for another day.) It had a Berkeley car dealer’s name surrounding Michigan license plates, but it also had a parking sticker from UCLA. Interesting!
I later realized who this intriguing fellow was (I’ll call him Marv) when we were introduced at an outdoor reception sponsored by the UCLA Chancellor in October. (Everything in LA seemed to take place outdoors.) I was perusing the cookies on the “cookie table” when a charming woman approached me. “Are you here because you want to be, or would you like to meet some other people?” she asked.
I jumped at the chance to meet others and happily followed her to a group of men standing nearby. She introduced me to her husband, a UCLA math professor, who asked me what I was doing there. When I explained that I was a lawyer working at the law school, he asked where I’d gone to law school. I had to admit that I’d gone to Harvard, and he immediately turned to one of the young men in the group and said “Marv went to Harvard, too.”
I took a good look at Marv, one of several young men standing beside the professor, and he was the handsome fellow I’d seen around my building and on the path between our building and the campus.
Marv called me the next day, and we began dating. It turned out that he was the person who’d rented the last studio apartment in my apartment building, and it was his Nash Rambler that I’d spied in the parking lot.
By February we were still dating and inching toward a more serious arrangement.
As I lay in my bed that shaky morning of February 9th, I suddenly heard someone banging on my door. It was Marv, who had run out of his apartment down the hall and come to rescue me.
I hurried to get dressed and left the apartment post-haste with Marv, who drove off to a coffee shop then located at the intersection of Wilshire and Westwood Boulevards. As we ordered breakfast, I glanced out of a big plate-glass window and stared at a high-rise building looming just across the intersection. I quickly realized that I was terrified, afraid that the building might come crashing down, killing both of us and everyone else in the coffee shop.
Marv tried to reassure me. He’d lived through earthquakes during his five years as a grad student in Berkeley, and he didn’t think a disaster of that kind was likely. He’d simply wanted to leave our apartments on the off chance that our small building might have been damaged. (I later learned that it did suffer some minor damage.)
We left the coffee shop and began driving around Westwood, noticing some shattered windows in a supermarket on Westwood Boulevard but not much else. It turned out that we’d lived through a pretty significant quake, measuring about 6.9. It became known as the Sylmar Quake because its epicenter was about 21 miles north of LA in the town of Sylmar.
The Sylmar Quake caused a lot of damage near its epicenter, but we’d been largely spared in Westwood and most of LA itself. The worst physical damage I observed at UCLA was at the law library, where a great many books had spilled off their shelves onto the floor.
But the quake had a powerful impact on me nevertheless. Most devastating was uneasiness caused by the countless aftershocks that followed the quake itself. Recently, residents of Ridgecrest have reported a similar experience.
I felt the earth move under my feet. It was a rocking motion like that you might feel on a ship at sea. For weeks I continued to feel the earth move, creating a shaky feeling I couldn’t escape.
When Marv proposed marriage a short time later (still another story for still another day), marrying him meant leaving LA and moving to Ann Arbor, where he was on the faculty at the University of Michigan. (His stay at UCLA was for a one-year project only.)
Overall, I had loved the blissful months I’d spent in LA., but I was almost happy about leaving. I adored Marv and wanted to be with him, so that made the move an obvious choice. Plus, a move to leafy-green Ann Arbor sounded like a good way to escape the undulating earth under my feet.
Events during the next few months helped to persuade me. Concerts at Royce Hall on the UCLA campus made me feel uneasy. So did seeing “Company” with George Chakiris and “Knickerbocker Holiday” with Burt Lancaster at theaters in downtown LA. If we were seated in the balcony, I wondered whether it would suddenly collapse. If we were seated on the ground floor, I wondered whether the balcony was going to crash down on top of us.
These unsettling feelings would soon be a part of my past. I married Marv in May, and by the end of July we were driving to Michigan. But our arrival at Ann Arbor was sadly disheartening. I didn’t encounter a leafy-green setting, just a somewhat desolate campus whose abundance of elm trees had all vanished (thanks to Dutch Elm disease), and a town more focused on Saturday-afternoon football games than the heady academic atmosphere I expected.
We needed to find a place to live, and in the midst of hurried apartment-hunting, we pulled in somewhere to escape the heat and humidity of August in Ann Arbor. Inside a sterile Dog ‘n’ Suds, I sobbed, pouring out my disappointment in our new home.
Having stability underfoot just wasn’t worth it.
Marv agreed. We resolved to find another location that would suit both of us. In California, if that was possible. Another college town if need be. Four years later, after a one-year-respite in La Jolla, we finally departed Ann Arbor and set up home elsewhere.
Now, back in California, on my own after Marv’s death, I’ve lived with the prospect of another major earthquake ever since I moved to San Francisco. So far I’ve managed to elude another quake, but that could change at any time, and all of us who have made our homes here know it.
I could live through another Sylmar Quake. Or not live through it at all.
In the meantime, I relish my return to sun-drenched California, and I try to squeeze out every drop of happiness I can, each and every shiny and non-shaky day.