by Anne ONeill
I remember most vividly the campfires in the South Park blocks after the earthquake. I have had to work to save this good memory, so I don’t sink into a depression for all the pain and loss. My favorite was a medium sized campfire where the tree branches opened, between the sports facility and PSU library’s gently-arching facade. It was a well-tended fire that radiated a warm glow and flashed small bright flames; built and tended by experienced campers, no doubt. I was grateful to be among them. Also grateful to be in a spot where people genuinely came together.
There was singing each evening just after sundown which came early this late in the winter. Were there University choir students among us? The music made for another kind of glow on the cold ground. They harmonized, soothed and uplifted us. They made us laugh. People clapped, sang along and even danced. It was a comfort and joy, layered on a memory of happy childhood summer camp.
While some sang, others tended three stew pots filled with what neighbors brought from their freezers, still edible. People brought their own plate, bowl, flatware. The singers were fed first. With three pots, we only waited in line for fifteen minutes. At 8 others would return for readings, play scenes, a favorite chapter, a poem. Few had a voice that would carry to the fifth row of the crowd. We had to huddle with strangers to hear and be warm. All was good.
So yes the earthquake could bring happy memories. And there were two other campfires in the South Park Blocks; one in front of the museum where the search and rescue teams started out. The fallen tree branches were used at first. People constantly said we have to use the fallen Elms; their roots were up ended after the violence, or use street trees. And some found saws to cut them in pieces. But that was an awfully lot of green wood.
And the other fire was actually in Directors Park on the other side of the Paramount Hotel, an interruption of the South Park Blocks. MAX users, store clerks and restaurant workers kept those going. Later some brought furniture damaged by the tremors, although actually there was precious little wood in contemporary upholstered, acrylic, metal, and glass furniture. The sealants and coatings stank, and we all worried, only a little, over the chemical vapors of burning them. Damaged store clothing was tried on fires once, but it was so synthetic it merely melted and stank. How we found fuel enough to keep us warm that winter, is mystery to me.
That was it, as far as good times. The worst memories are impossible to quash. What stands out is the quake itself; the inability to calm one’s fears as the tremors went on and on, eight minutes at least. It was like a terrible roller coaster; it just went endlessly on.
Glass broke, and sprinkler systems, smoke alarms and car alarms went off, furniture and office equipment slid and fell, giant elms cracked and tumbled. If time slows down and stands still during moments of wild danger, then eight minutes claimed multiple lifetimes.
I dropped covered and held, the standard advice. I was at the PSU library for only the second visit to continue my research. Even if the shelves didn’t fall over, all their books slide out. My desk was at the end of a row and although the windows spewed glass beyond each aisle, nothing of substance came near me. It was hard to stay put and wait. I kept tipping my head up to see if I could spot someplace safer, as if I would have courage enough to crawl out from exactly where I was, hands gripped into cramps around the leg of the heavy utilitarian desk. Awful is an inadequate word.
When the tremors stopped I rolled over on my side in a ball and rested there for as long as the quake itself. I wasn’t sure if my ears were damaged during the roaring rocking but it seemed quieter once the tremors stopped. Then I heard howls of panic, under layered by soft whimpering. And some cried in pain. I could sense each. But I didn’t want to worry about others yet.
I wanted to go through some yoga relaxation exercise. “Now notice the heel of your right foot, your right, ankle, your knee and thigh.” I was remembering how so many of my gentle yoga sessions had wound down over the last three years. I hoped it would work. Faith and repetition might be all I could count on. I remembered lying in my bed 12 years ago after a car accident that had only taken off my side mirror. Even though I’d been calm enough to drive my car to a garage for an estimate and drive home, once beneath the sheets my whole body shuddered.
I had my own personal body after-shocks intermittently for two weeks after the quake just as the earth had hers. I couldn’t force happy memories to rebalance me yet. I never really have.
I remember the sight of the bloodied and deceased. Years before the quake, I had volunteered and trained to take part in search and rescue. The first time I spotted limbs and clotted dangling hair, under a brick-dusted wall, that set of my tremors again. I let the younger and stronger volunteers do this duty as the days passed. For me it was too wrenching to feel useful.
I was lucky to be assigned to calm the children and wandering office workers. We were strangers, but their tear streaked faces and numbed expressions, somehow made me feel more whole. This kind of helping healed me.
I had food and water enough because I’d cached them. My store of friends was inaccessible, so I made new ones. We all rejoiced when each of our precious infrastructures returned; clean water, electric communication, lights, skeleton transportation, power, and months later gas heat.
But the trust and warmth of our radical dependency that emerged when we needed it, dissipated. We were left anonymous and alone again in our own comfort with closed windows and doors.
And now a decade afterword, when I walk along what should be a familiar street scape, I shudder with imbalance to realize what’s missing. So I prop up my memories of the campfires in the South Parks, trying to turn my heartache into a heart glow. And keep on.