"You have to work hard to offend Christians. By nature, Christians are the most forgiving, understanding, and thoughtful group of people I've ever dealt with. They never assume the worst. They appreciate the importance of having different perspectives. They're slow to anger, quick to forgive, and almost never make rash judgments or act in anything less than a spirit of total love . . . No, wait--I'm thinking of Labrador retrievers!" David Learn, 1998

Monday, March 7, 2011

BEING THERE (1): Long Beach earthquake, 1933

     No, I wasn't there--I wouldn't be born for another decade--but I interviewed people who were. I was freelancing for local newspapers in 1983 and realized we were coming up on the 50th anniversary of the 1933 Long Beach earthquake. So I ferreted out about three dozen people who had survived it and whose stories had never been told. I wrote them up as a feature article and took it to the Long Beach Press-Telegram.
     But the editor I approached pointed to a reporter who had old copies of the newspaper spread before him and said, "He's already working on it." I was too shy to say, "But this is all new stuff!"
     The 50th anniversary edition came out with the same old stories about the dome of Polytechnic High School collapsing and the very same quotes from the very same survivors. The same thing happened again in 1993. In 2003, for the 70th anniversary, I submitted my article at last and the reporter assigned to the story used one paragraph of it. (To his credit, he did let people who hadn't been quoted before tell their firsthand stories.)
     Well, I want to share the stories that weren't told and there is no editor to stop me. So here is my original unpublished version of the 1933 quake.
     You never forget something like that, even when it happened 50 years ago. That dinner you were fixing, in every other way like hundreds of other dinners, that particular conversation--even if you were only talking to a cat outside the window--take on a permanent freeze-frame quality.
      When the Long Beach quake hit, at 5:55 PM on March 10, 1933, most people were doing ordinary things. Jim Sundstrom was in Belmont Shore, telephoning the receptionist at Ideal Laundry to ask if he had had any calls. Carol Winterborn was in the bathtub. Murl Shaver was stocking shelves at Safeway. Bill Siler was sick in bed.
     But every detail of those ordinary events has been frozen by the strobe of the extraordinary event which interrupted them, in some cases forever.
     About 120 people were killed by the earthquake, most of them by falling bricks. The receptionist at Ideal laundry, with whom Jim Sundstrom was talking, was one of them.
     Sundstrom had moved from Pasadena to Long Beach in February and landed a job with the laundry and cleaning business in anticipation of his coming marriage.
     That afternoon he was working late on his route in Belmont Shore and had just called the office to see if there were any last assignments before he quit and went home.
     A young woman name Leona was on the desk and at the very moment Jim was speaking to her the earthquake hit. Each of them dropped the phone to run outside. Jim, unhurt, found the pavement in a state of upheaval. He drove carefully through streets strewn with bricks and rubble from fallen storefronts to the address where the office of Ideal Laundry had been. The building was in ruins.
     Leona had not made it out of the building. Jim and another man cleared the bricks from the doorway and found her lying in the wreckage. Her husband was sitting on the curb across the street, his head in his hands.
     Jim helped carry Leona to his car and drove her to Receiving at Seaside Hospital, itself partially demolished. He thought he had felt a pulse but the harried nurses at the hospital saw how badly her skull was crushed and told him curtly, "Put her body over there!"
     The memory is vivid and the shock of the day still very much with Jim. It isn't easy for him to talk about it.
      Actually centered three miles off Newport Beach, the Long Beach earthquake, as it came to be called, had jolted an area 45 miles along the coast and 15-20 miles inland. Even official reports vary regarding the duration of that first jolt. The Red Cross reported it as 11 seconds, the geodetic survey as 22 seconds and the Long Beach Sun as 50 seconds. It was variously pegged at 4.6 and 6.5 on the Richter Scale.  
     During those seemingly endless seconds the force of the earthquake moved the land between Inglewood and Garden Grove 8 feet north and then 5-1/2 feet south. No wonder a Long Beach woman standing in her kitchen doorway for protection could say, "I really got bruised banging against each side!"

To be continued

Today I am thankful that God designed faces to be able to smile.

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