Some events in a person’s life stay with them forever, most of them firsts: first kiss, first touchdown, first car, etc. Other events as so big to us that they just embed themselves in our memory and stay there. There are two times in my life when I really thought I was about to die.
Twenty years ago, the Northridge earthquake struck at 4:30 in the morning. I was in bed, sound asleep, having been up late and out on the town the night before. BJ and I went with some of the people she worked with at CSUN to a comedy show in downtown LA. We had a great time, but came in late.
People asked me if I knew what it was when it hit, after all, I’m a Mississippi boy and I’m more accustomed to tornadoes than earthquakes. But the answer to that is absolutely yes—I knew exactly what it was. And it scared the crap out of me.
The quake, 6.6 or 6.8, depending on the source reporting, lasted for about 40 seconds. We lived on the bottom floor of a two storey apartment complex on campus and I thought it was about to fall in on BJ and I and kill us. We didn’t know what else to do, so we just held on to each other.
For 40 seconds we told each other over and over that we loved the other…and hung on tight to one another.
It’s fortunate it was dark and we couldn’t see anything because I think that would have scared us even more. We’d have seen items flying across the room. The dresser at the end of our bed was on the opposite wall, upside down.
For 40 seconds, I thought I was about to die.
When it stopped, our first thought was to get out. As we exited our bedroom into the long hallway, we discovered we had about a foot and a half which we could walk: the closet doors which lined the hallway had buckled out leaving us that small room to walk. Because we couldn’t see, I felt my way along the wall. When we turned the corner, the hallway door was open so I reached in and grabbed a coat.
Our feet crunched through the living room a small ways to the door. What I couldn’t see then, was that my two bookshelves had emptied all the contents into the living room. Items from the small kitchen that was attached, had found their way to the living room and most of it shattered. We lost all but a couple of pieces of the good china we’d received at our wedding.
I could probably go on for a long time about that night and the following months, but you probably wouldn’t want to read that much. BJ was the highest ranking school official on campus for several hours—we lived there, duh. She dove in to the task of caring for all the students on campus—she wrangled her crew together and put volunteers to work. It was pretty impressive.
A lot of people took really good care of us after that—after all, we’d lost our place to live! My colleagues at Malibu proved that they weren’t “just” colleagues and in fact were extended family by helping us sneak in to our apartment—which had been condemned—and get all of our belongings out and moved to a storage unit. Tom Mason and his wife let us live with them for a while—something I’ll never forget because we were essentially homeless at that time. We lived in a residence hall at the Jewish University on Mulholland after that until CSUN had a new place for us to move in to and return to campus.
I had problems sleeping for about year after that.
Even today, if I feel the house shake, a little chill runs down my spine.