03 May 2009


I attended my first four years of elementary school - first grade through fourth grade - at Roosevelt Elementary. My expectation was, naturally, that I would be there until I went to high school.

Then came the Big Earthquake (if you go to that link, you will just get the Wikipedia about the town itself, but down a bit on the page is the heading "1952 earthquake"). The page says it struck on 21 July, 1952 at 4:52AM, and that would appear to have been a Monday. My memory is that Peter and I shared a bedroom. I am always a little less than rock solid about things that long ago, but I think we slept in iron bedsteads with casters and that the bedroom had a wooden floor. And I have a vague memory of our beds rolling back and forth in the room like the clapper in a bell. But it could all be reconstructed memory.

My father - memory tells me - set out from his and my mother's bedroom down the corridor (towards the back of the house - Peter, is this correct? Facing the front of the house, our bedrooms were on the right side, ours at the back?) to our room - but kept falling down because of the earthquake. By the time he got there, I suppose, the worst was over.

I do not recall being afraid at all. I do recall this being the most fun and exciting thing that had happened to me in a long while.

Our house had an external brick chimney-cum-fireplace, on the driveway side. It was all fallen to bits! The Wikipedia page mentions a water tower coming down. I don't know if they are referring to the one in our neighbourhood, but there certainly was one. This was great! We went over there and the streets were flooded with water from it. And there had been a great clock tower in the middle of highway 99, which ran right down the middle of Bakersfield - as Chester Avenue, the street we lived on - and that was collapsed. A vague sort of memory tells me that it was actually on top of a car but ... well, pretty vague memories.

At 3:42PM on Friday 22 August came a major aftershock. We - at least I - was on a ladder in John and Steven Dewey's back yard - next-door neighbour - picking plums, I think. The earthquake came, the ladder fell - and I believe I didn't fall because by the time I was off the ladder the ground had come up to meet me.

But see note above about memory :-)

My mother told me, about the Friday afternoon shock, that she was in the local supermarket when it happened; that (naturally) shelves full of goods all tumbled down on the floor; that a woman lost her head and began swinging her shopping cart in the air; but that my mother, once the 'quake was over, calmly went to check out.

My mother's behaviour is plausible; a woman swing a steel shopping cart over her head is not. Perhaps I got the story wrong. Or perhaps my mother only meant a little personal carrying basket. Don't know, but these are the things that stick in my head.

But the earthquake made a longer-term difference to me. It changed my school.

They said that there was a crack in the wall of one of the buildings at Roosevelt. I remember - and have no doubt about this memory - talking with my great-Aunt Anna (Lena's sister) years later - when my father and I drove to Bakersfield to start dismantling the house he had partly built behind his office - northern summer of 1961, it might have been. Anna had been principal at one of the schools in Bakersfield. She told me, rather snippily, that the whole idea that Roosevelt had been damaged in the earthquake was nonsense, and that that crack had been there for years before the earthquake!

Whether or no, they closed our school and we went to Castro Lane Elementary.

But Castro Lane already had its own students. So they did it by splitting the day. I think we went in the morning, and the original students of the school went in the afternoon. I don't think I minded much, but Castro Lane was on the edge of town. In autumn and spring - but particularly in autumn - there are dust storms. We were a lot more affected by them at Castro Lane than at Roosevelt.

I was really jealous, though, of the kids from other schools. Some of them - don't know which schools - got to go to school in tents on the courthouse lawn! Imagine that - school in tents! How unbelievably cool!

Somewhere in this time - Peter commented on it but I can't find his comment - our Dad had the idea of moving to Canada.

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