Thursday, January 19, 2012


Third grade - lunch time on a beautiful April day. Earthquake! At the time, Pacific Northwesterners didn't think their beloved, beautiful landscape was subject to quakes of any magnitude. Of course since then, the reality of the dangers of earthquakes not only in California but all along the western coast of the U.S. is well known. Plus the documented "Ring of Fire" of the Pacific Ocean territories is also common fact. The "Ring of Fire" suggests volcanoes but is also the ring of dangerous faults subject to high-magnitude temblors. The quake of 1949 was measured as a VII or VIII on the "Mercalli scale." That was the calculation used prior to the much more accurate "Richter scale" we are more familiar with today. The Mercalli scale is based on what people "feel." The Richter scale uses modern computer computations. So on the Richter scale, the quake in 1949 is said to have measured about 7.1. All this scientific stuff aside, that quake when we were kids scared us half to death.

I reported earlier that I was headed home for lunch with a classmate when the ground started trembling. It felt like we were walking on Jello. What was happening? We started to run but couldn't help looking behind us. We saw kids on the fire escape, bricks flying, everything shaking. We were right in between Keys Garage and the drugstore. (I don't know if the streets were even named then - there were no signs - only landmarks such as "Keyes", the "drugstore", the "Post Office", etc.) The siren calling the volunteer fireman screamed through the air. It didn't take us long to get to Lavina's house where her mother scooted us into her sunny kitchen. The radio was on. The announcer was excitedly reporting about the earthquake. It sounded like Seattle, Tacoma, and Olympia were all in ruins. Of course we didn't try to go back to school. The party telephone lines were jammed and the power was out. So I raced like crazy to my grandparent's house. It was only two miles from the school to Hawley so it wasn't long before my sister and my uncle were delivered home on the school bus. It didn't take long for the guys at Puget Sound Power and Light to get the power back up. Island power outtages were notoriously frequent so they lacked no experience. (Tragically, one time an Island workman was at the top of a pole right off the main Winslow street, re-attaching some wind blown wires and was electrocuted.)

Without the benefit of roving television trucks, cell phone cameras, the internet, and so on, news of the quake took on catastrophic proportions. Relatives and friends from across the country soon were planning rescue trips as if Puget Sound had become part of the ocean. There were eight lives lost, lots of brick buildings and chimneys scattered, plus other damage but essentially, life pretty much resumed as always. The fire escape at Lincoln was repaired, chimneys replaced.

Our school "bomb drills" were expanded to include the possibility of an earthquake. There was no end to the ways we could die at any moment.

Nina, too, recalls the quake of 1949.

"I was in the fifth grade at McDonald School - my class was on the third floor of the old wooden building. When the room began to sway it felt like we were up in a small tree with the wind blowing against it. We swayed back and forth. Our teacher Mrs. Wilson instructed us to get under our desks. They were the old kind which sat on long wooden runners on the floor and were bolted in. The seats folded up. All the books in the back of the room flew out of the bookshelf. The gold fish bowl sailed to the floor, breaking. (Poor fish was lost) The ceiling lights which hung on long wires began to pull loose. One crashed down sending shattered glass across the room. When it was over, we crawled from under our desks and went through the emergency exit door, down the outside, wooden staircase. We were sent home on school buses. I think that the school was made of sturdy wood, saved us that day. It gave just like a tree in the wind. Damage was minimal and no students were injured."

Both McDonald and Lincoln schools were old, wooden structures. The playgrounds were dirt. Maple trees in both provided piles and piles of leaves in the fall for building fort walls - these, unlike the underground ones, were co-ed. Although the boys still took great pleasure knocking down the girls' walls. When the all-Island elementary/junior high school, named by vote as Commodore Bainbridge, was opened, all the Lincoln and McDonald kids were by default, made one big bunch of kids with no longer any geographic reason for competition. The sixth grade was split up into three classes so the competition became which teacher's class was the best. School movies and activities like the all-class spelling bee took place in the library. The "new school" (as it was referred to for years) was all on one level. The hallways seemed to stretch forever. The cafeteria/lunchroom/stage was huge. Everyone mourned the lack of a maple tree for king/queen battles. But the boys had football and baseball fields right up the hill at the high school. We girls had cement where we played jump rope and marked off squares for hopscotch and other games. Plus, there were covered areas for when it rained - which was of course, often!

Only when it snowed were girls allowed to wear trousers of any kind and then only under a skirt or dress. Jeans, T-shirts, shorts, ragged anything were strictly out of bounds as was long hair for boys and super-short hair for girls. It did not occur to us that we were perhaps being held to ridiculous rules. It's just the way it was.

And time marched on.

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