Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Aug. 23,1:51 p.m. EDT

My first sense of it was as a noise. It sounded like my upstairs neighbor’s washing machine had the most unbalanced load ever. The bam-bam-bam noise had a rhythmic quality. But it was louder than ever before. Then I realized I could feel it, too.

As I sat facing my laptop wondering what could make such a noise that the building seemed to be moved by it, I hadn’t accepted that it really was moving.

No. It had to be a garbage truck lumbering down the cobblestone alley, or a low-flying helicopter just overhead.

Then I flashed back onto a time when some kids were playing a noisy game in the alley behind my place. They had found several sets of old metal file cabinets in the alley. So they took out the green drawers and made a few stacks of them, maybe three or four drawers high. Then they started rolling black bowling balls, the big ones with holes that are used in tenpins, at the towers of file cabinets.

The players took turns. When the file drawers tumbled, crash! kaboom! the group cheered. With the racket it made, fortunately, they were playing their whimsical game in daylight hours.

There you have it -- even in a genuine emergency some of us are still able to digress and detach from reality.

After some 15 seconds into yesterday's shaky business it finally dawned on me that maybe it was an earthquake. As I’d never seen/felt one before, I had only movies for a frame of reference.

Suddenly my desire to get out of the old three-story building I was in overwhelmed me. I was on my feet and through the door pretty damn fast for an old goat. When I got close to the alley, I turned around to look back at the building.

Yes, it was moving!

There was dust, or something like it, popping out of its brick walls. The wooden two-story back porch was dancing up and down. It went on for another 30 seconds, or so. I was so focused on watching and trying to make sense of what I was seeing before me, I couldn’t tell if the other buildings on the block were doing the same thing ... it stopped.

Why would it happen to only one building? With my heart still racing, I walked down the alley to investigate.

Instantly, there were others in the alley and on the street. I walked around for about five minutes. If they spoke at all most people said essentially the same thing: "Was your building shaking, too?"

The episode had lasted so long, the better part of a minute, it seemed unlike movie earthquakes. I listened for sirens or other signs of trouble. It was over.

When I went back indoors, I sat back down and checked in on Facebook. I saw posts from other parts of the state, and as far away as New York, all saying the same thing -- “EARTHQUAKE.” It took another five minutes for the wire services to get the story out.

Closer to home, Brad Tucker posted a video on Facebook. It was The Cars’ “Shake It Up.” I laughed and played it. Feeling better immediately, I clicked on “share.”

Then I went back to reading about the hurricane that’s threatening to rearrange the East Coast.

Upon reflection, I thought about the tornado I saw in 1968. It was heading straight for where I was standing, struck still with awe, before it slammed into a huge, low-rise storage building, perhaps a quarter-mile away in an open field.

After a slight pause, to chew up and spit out half of the building, the skittering blue-black funnel turned hard right and here I am to tell the story. That intense scene, 43 years ago, lasted about as long as did yesterday's earthquake.

Didn't go out after dark, but I bet the bars in the Fan were lively. Now I can put another large item on my special list of things I’m glad I’ve seen … but wouldn’t want to see again.

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