"I'm going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose."--S.I. Hayakawa

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Acid Test

(We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to bring you this unimportant, utter nonsense. Regular programming will resume shortly. Maybe tomorrow...)

The last time I was supposed to go to Halibut Cove, a few weeks ago, ten foot seas on that end and a snarlin’ sideways blizzard on my end put an end to those plans. Yesterday was much nicer.

Driving down the bluff above Homer at the end of the road. That long, dark bar jutting into the water is the Homer Spit. That is where I will catch the mail boat to Halibut Cove.

When I left my home near Moose Pass, warm sunshine, a cobalt blue sky, and glistening white mountains promised a spectacular early spring day in the valley. The weather changed once I left the mountains, though, and I passed through fog, a misty rain, then scattered snow showers before reaching the end of the road in Homer.

The Stormbird tied up to its home dock in Halibut Cove, taken last summer.

At 2 p.m. sharp, Jay maneuvered the Stormbird away from the dock in the small boat harbor and moved it to the nearby commercial dock where fishing boats unload their catches.

The Stormbird took on a load of lumber and flotation foam for a new float, and a generator for someone else. Most of the homes in Halibut Cove have been built with the assistance of the Stormbird’s freighting service.

Also on board was the twice-weekly mail, a few passengers, and Clem, the patriarch of the Cove.

Clem, patriarch of Halibut Cove.

And, Tuesday’s dessert special from Lucinda, a two-layer Boston cream pie. Two layers of yellow cake, separated with chocolate custard. My absolute favorite dessert. I’m still on my New Year’s diet, so I resisted. Really. I have witnesses. In fact, I left the cabin and went up to the wheelhouse to get away from temptation.

Oh, my!

With the freight onboard, we left the harbor, passing by the rock breakwater and into open water. The steel-hulled vessel rolled through the swells of Kachemak Bay and almost an hour later, entered the protected waters of Halibut Cove. We slowed and passed the unique Saltry restaurant (closed for the winter when the population of the Cove often drops to less than two dozen, and tied up to Clem’s dock where the passengers and the mail off-loaded. I caught a ride on a skiff to my hosts’ dock. Waiting for me there was the electric golf cart so I could transfer my gear to the home I was house-sitting.

Jim and Jan were already gone when I reached their house. They had gone over to Homer that morning with the Stormbird. So, only Gerri was there to greet me when I arrived. She immediately set out to prove why I was really there, and it didn’t have anything at all to do with sitting a house.

I was there to open the door for Gerri. It didn’t matter what door, I was there to open it at her command. Just to make sure I remembered, she paused for a brief greeting, and then went to the front sliding door. I opened it.

She turned around and meowed to come in. I opened the door again. She meowed to go out. I opened the door.

She walked around to the side sliding door and meowed to come in. I opened that door.

Apparently satisfied that I correctly remembered my responsibilities and did not need remedial training, she jumped into her favorite chair, curled up in her bed and slept the rest of the afternoon and evening.

I had passed the acid test.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Day the Earth Broke, Part Two

Waves of seismic energy roiled the surface of the earth in coastal southcentral Alaska on the afternoon of Good Friday, March 27, 1964. Leafless trees lashed violently back and forth. Fourteen-story buildings—the tallest in Anchorage—swayed far enough for water to slosh out of toilets, while at the same time their concrete facades shattered and cracked. Drivers pulled off roads to check for flat tires, then found they couldn’t stand upright on the heaving ground.

Slabs of pre-cast concrete fell off multi-story buildings, crashing to the sidewalks below, flattening cars within their deadly reach. Windows broke, spewing shattered glass in all directions. Steel railroad rails twisted and corkscrewed.

Only a few years old, slabs of the concrete facade ripped loose from the J. C. Penney store and crashed to the sidewalks below. One pedestrian and one person sitting in a vehicle were killed at this site. This photo was taken after much of the debris had been hauled away.

I opened the door of my car, thinking it would be better to sit than try to stand on the bucking, cracking hard-packed snow. As soon as I sat, I knew it was a mistake. If a crevasse opened beneath me, I would have less time to leap to safety. I stood again, hoping this interminable shaking would subside, but every time I thought it was easing, it would roar back to life with renewed energy and my car bounced along with it.

As bad as things were on the surface of the earth, far more malevolent forces were at work beneath it. Along the western coast of Anchorage, from downtown along the northern rim of the city above Ship Creek and the railroads yards, south past Bootlegger’s Cove and West Chester Creek, past the Forest Park golf course and country club, and through the expensive homes of the well-to-do with grand views of Cook Inlet and the mountains across the gray silty waters, past the modern ranch-style homes in the planned subdivisions of Turnagain by the Sea and Susitna View, a little-known transformation was occurring, one that would wreak all kinds of havoc on the city and its residents.

The 14-story McKinley apartment building withstood the quake, but its facade was severely cracked. A mile across town, her sister building suffered strikingly similar damage.

Beneath the office buildings and homes, the ground is wet sandy soil and clay. To geologists and seismologists, it is known as the Bootlegger’s Cove formation. When movement is added to the mix, the sand, clay and water churn in an unstable form called liquefaction. It is not a substance on which buildings and homes and paved streets should be built.

Standing in the parking lot, both hands hanging onto the door handle of my bouncing Studebaker Lark, I wondered about the noises I was hearing from the Turnagain subdivision less than a quarter mile away towards Cook Inlet. Pop. Pop. Pop. On and on the noises sounded. Just like ladyfinger firecrackers, I thought. An inexhaustible supply of tiny firecrackers less than an inch long.

I wasn’t really sure when the shaking stopped. The seismologists tell us the quake lasted up to five minutes. Stunned and terrified, not quite believing that the world had ended and I was still alive. Eventually I realized that my car wasn’t acting like a bucking bronco threatening to toss me into a snowbank. Denny, the engineer, ran back into the station and checked for fires and damage to the equipment. The announcer followed. When they signaled an “all clear,” Donna and I went inside.

If I wasn’t already numb, one look at my desk completed the freezing. Lying across my chair and typewriter was the large four-drawer filing cabinet so jammed with paper files it made my fingers hurt to attempt to slide in another sheet. The top drawer landed on my typewriter keys. Had I lingered to put on my shoes, instead of scooping them up and running for the door, my head would have been mashed between the drawer and the typewriter. That was the crash I’d heard as I stepped away from my desk.

The electricity was out, phones didn’t work. Situated on the outskirts of the city, we had little knowledge of damage elsewhere. Our building was okay, the broadcast tower still stood, and we were alive. And darkness would soon shroud our troubled land.

Donna was frantic. She lived not far away in Susitna subdivision. Her kids were at a neighbor’s. I offered to drive her home to check on them. As I drove out the dirt driveway, station manager Jay screeched around the corner in a cloud of dust and came to a frantic stop beside me. “Lots of damage,” he said. “Streets are really torn up, buildings down.” I explained my mission. He nodded, then stomped the accelerator of his Thunderbird and raced to the station.

Donna guided me to her home near the entrance of the subdivision. I was not familiar with this area, and saw little amiss until we arrived at her cul de sac. Behind her home yawned a steep gulch with trees sticking out at peculiar angles. I didn’t have time to ask her if this was normal, because she bolted from the car and raced to her neighbor’s to find her kids.

Example, on a very small scale, of how the earth's surface buckled and cracked, with some slabs thrust upward and some sunken into a fault.

Back at the station, Denny was frantic about his wife and their newborn child. They lived not far away, in the area where I had heard the ladyfinger firecracker popping. He bolted for his car.

My parents lived a little more than a mile away and I went to check on them. The paved section of KFQD Road was a mess. The pavement was buckled and broken, and I frequently had to pull off the road and circle around chunks of asphalt.

My parents' log cabin, built by themselves. It came through the quake undamaged.

All was well with their log home, except a bottle of my mother’s homemade wine had fallen from a shelf and broken. She was mad as a hornet. It was a bit of much needed comic relief. I swapped my Studebaker Lark for dad’s WWII vintage Willys Jeep. I figured I could get anywhere around town with the Jeep’s high clearance and four-wheel drive.

The family's stalwart Willys Jeep got me around my damaged city without failing.

I still needed to check on my apartment, which was located downtown on the west end of Fifth Avenue. In that ever-faithful old Jeep, the first vehicle my parents bought when they came to Alaska in 1948, I started out for downtown Anchorage, several miles away.

Nightfall was rising up from a severely damaged land.

Beneath the surface of Alaska’s seas, bays, fjords, inlets, and arms, huge masses of land shifted andsank, or thrust upwards, in some places as much as 30 feet.. Massive piles of rock, disturbed by the violence of the earth’s tectonic plates battling for supremacy, cascaded into undersea chasms, displacing water in prodigious amounts.

That water had to go somewhere.

(to be continued)

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Day the Earth Broke

It is said that when disaster strikes, our brains process the information differently than usual. Rather than a fluid, coherent video of occurring events, we see disaster as a series of quick photographic stills. In recalling those images, they are viewed much like the small comic pages of sketched characters that, when the pages are ruffled, seem to be moving.

When disaster intruded into my life on a quiet Friday afternoon in early, early spring, it wasn’t movement I was seeking. Quite the contrary. I wanted everything to hold still.

Good Friday, March 27, 1964, late afternoon.

I had less than a half hour to get the news stories ready for the announcer at KFQD radio to read during the six o’clock news. This was our major newscast for the day, and I was the only one of two reporters working. I’d just returned from my rounds at the Anchorage police station, the courts building, and city hall. Now it was time to check in by phone to the State Troopers office.

I kicked off my high-heeled shoes and rested my feet on the lower bar of the typewriter stand that sat perpendicular to my desk, took the handset off the phone’s cradle and dialed the number. A dispatcher, whose name I have long since forgotten, answered and began to give me details of a fatality. A man had fallen to his death off a railroad trestle far north of Anchorage.

Seventy-five miles away in Prince William Sound, and eighteen miles deep, the earth’s crust had had enough. A massive plate of rock called the Pacific Plate had been pushing against the North American Plate for ten of thousands a year, moving between two and three inches a year. Unable to rise on top of the North American Plate, it was instead forcing its way under it, causing a fault line where the two plates fractured to allow the movement. The crust was compressed, folded, and warped, causing some surface areas to sink and others to be shoved upwards.

At 5:26 p.m., all hell broke loose.

I recall how I was sitting when the building began to shake: holding the phone to my left ear, leaning sideways into the desk, making notes with my right hand. The shaking increased. I glanced across my typewriter at Donna, the woman seated at the desk abutting mine. We exchanged smiles. Just another earthquake. Ho hum.

But this wasn’t just another earthquake. This one wasn’t going to be content knocking jars of strawberry and raspberry jam off the shelves in the grocery store, making a fine mess for the stock boy to clean up. This quake had loftier ambitions. This quake was a killer on the loose.

With rock crushing against rock only eighteen miles deep, the energy released by these forces was the equivalent of detonating a billion TONS of TNT. For long minutes, the earth battled against itself, rupturing along a five hundred mile length, and shaking 50,000 square miles of the crust.

Dennis, the station engineer, the man who kept KFQD on the air, ran out the front door of the station yelling, “My tower! My tower!” Behind him, a massive steel safe over four feet tall rolled across the floor, imprisoning the announcer in the on-air booth. Fortunately, the booth had two entrances, and he ran out the other, also yelling, “Everyone out! Everyone get out!”

The smiles at just-another-earthquake fell off our faces. I reached down, grabbed my shoes, and stumbled to the door. A step out of my chair, I head a loud crashing noise behind me, but didn’t stop to look. Standing up was almost impossible. Outside a number of concrete steps with no handrail stood between me and the snow-covered ground. I managed to get down the steps without assistance, but the woman behind me was aided by Dennis and the announcer.

Once out of the building, I staggered like a drunk across the parking lot to my car where I grabbed the door handle with both hands to keep upright. The tall tower behind the station was swaying horribly. The frozen ground under my feet was a spiderweb of cracks.

Behind me, across KFQD Road in the newest residential subdivision called Turnagain by the Sea, came sounds, sounds like tiny ladyfinger firecrackers exploding. I looked behind me, but a row of birch and cottonwood and spruce trees obscured my sight. I puzzled about those noises, but forgot about them as the shaking increased and increased and increased. I had more immediate things to worry about.

This can’t go on forever, I thought, it’ll stop any second now. It didn’t. It went on and on and on, seeming to slacken just a bit, then roaring back with renewed energy and increasing violence. I watched the ground, thinking it might open and try to swallow me. I needed to be alert and ready to jump to safety.

That’s when the unthinkable invaded my mind. This wasn’t an earthquake. This was the something else much, much worse than an earthquake. This was the end of the earth. I was going to die. No, I thought, no! I’m only 23.

(to be continued)

Friday, March 26, 2010

How I Survived the Titanic

Now that I have your attention, I need to file a Reconciliation memo. You know what that means, right? Reconciliation? It means I’m going to tell you what I really meant to say, just in case you think I didn’t get it right the first time because I was in such a hurry to ram this post through the House.... uh, Google that I didn’t take the time to edit and proofread and all those other things I should have done to do to get it right the first time.

But enough of politics.

So, just to make sure, you do know what reconciliation means, right? Right? You do, don’t you? Really? Say you do or I’ll tickle you until you cry “uncle.” Oops. Politics again. Sorry.

Anyway, here’s the Reconciliation memo:

1. My ship wasn’t really named the RMS Titanic; it was named the Rhapsody of the Seas.

2. It wasn’t owned by the White Star Line; it was owned by Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines.

3. It didn’t sail in April; it sailed in May.

4. It wasn’t crossing the Atlantic; it was sailing the Inside Passage in southeastern Alaska.

5. It wasn’t the largest passenger ship in the world as the Titanic was then, but here are a few comparisons:

Titanic: length: 883 ft; beam: 92 feet; gross tonnage: 46,328; cruising speed: 23 knots; passengers—2223 (3547 maximum capacity)

Rhapsody: length: 915 feet; beam: 105.6 feet; gross tonnage:78,491; cruising speed:22 knots; passenger capacity—2435

5. It didn’t strike an iceberg, but it was sailing right toward the Mother of Icebergs. You think not? Take a look:

The Rhapsody was the biggest ship I’d ever been on, other than the time I wandered around the anchored Queen Mary in Long Beach. It felt like a floating city, and it isn’t even the largest of the cruise ships floating around tourists hot spots these days.

Nonetheless, when I woke up one morning, pulled the drape aside, and saw a rock wall right outside my window, I jumped from bed, as opposed to my usual lollygagging around and usual falling back asleep. I showered in a hurry, dressed, grabbed my cameras (plural), and headed for the top deck. Thank goodness for elevators, because I think the top level was nine decks up.

There was a rock wall on the other side, too. (Don't forget to click on the photos to enlarge them to full screen.

In fact, there were rock walls all around.

I retreated to the buffet restaurant for breakfast. It also had the advantage of being at the bow of the ship, which gave me a terrific view of the narrow, twisting, glacier-carved fjord called Tracy Arm. This massive ship, almost a thousand feet long and over a hundred feet wide, was slithering through the twists and turns easier than threading a needle.

Eventually I went out on deck, and saw our first Titanic moment. Remember that only about a third of an iceberg is above waterline.

Oh, shoot. Let’s just skip the narrative and get right to the photos. This trip was in early May and the lake in front of the twin Sawyer Glaciers at the head of the fjord hadn’t melted yet, so we were able to get only close enough to the see them.

Then, someone spotted a black bear on the mountain. That little black speck is a bear.

This next series of photos shows how far the ship was able to get. It snuggled up between the 3000 foot granite walls and that little rock island and began to turn. I thought it was to give us a better view of the glaciers, but the ship was turning around on the spot! I mean, using bow and stern, and side thrusters, the ship was turning on a dime. A thousand feet long, a hundred feet wide, and it turned around in place. Amazing!

Notice the ice preventing us from getting closer. At this point, the face of the glacier is probably three to five miles distant.

And, a couple more just for fun. Notice the people in the pool and hot tub.

In case you were wondering, I was on deck on in short sleeves and jeans. No hat, no gloves, just two cameras. C'mon. The sun was shining. It was May. Summer in Alaska.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Fourth and Final Day of the Health Care Reform Apocalypse Watch, Because I'm really, really sick of it!

What all the previous stories meant:

The author who saw something he wanted to rewrite was able to do so.

I found and reset the furnace controls mentioned on Day Two.

I learned about CTRL+Z and haven't lost a document since.


There is where we're heading:
Does anyone know if any of those fixes will work on Congress????

The Fourth Horseman of the Health Care Reform Apocalypse: Diminishing of Self Responsibility and Personal Initiative.

The Third Horseman of the Health Care Reform Apocalypse: Trampling Individual Rights.

The Second Horseman of the Health Care Reform Apocalypse: Enron-Style Accounting.

The First Horseman of the Health Care Reform Apocalypse: Usurping State's Rights

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Day Three of the Health Care Reform Apocalypse Watch

I am house-sitting for a friend and have a full page written on my computer, a masterful piece appropriate to New Year's that I intend to e-mail to friends. Then, the owner's car walks across the keyboard and I am staring at a blank screen. I try to rewrite the piece from memory, but it sounds insipid.

Had I known then about CTRL+Z, I could have saved it all.

The Third Horseman of the Health Care Reform Apocalypse Watch: Trouncing Individual Rights

The Second Horseman of the Health Care Reform Apocalypse Watch: Enron-Style Accounting

The First Horseman of the Health Care Reform Apocalypse Watch: Ignoring States' Rights

Tomorrow: The Fourth Horseman

Monday, March 22, 2010

Day Two of the Health Care Reform Apocalypse Watch

Thirty below and the furnace quits. I stumble from bed, remove the front cover of the furnace, look around with a flashlight. The house gets quite cold before I find the reset button.

The First Horseman of the Health Care Apocalypse: Usurping State's Rights

The Second Horseman of the Health Care Apocalypse: Enron-style accounting.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Day One of the Health Care Reform Apocalypse Watch

The author was reading aloud from one of his works. Suddenly, he paused. The silence continued long enough to make the audience notice, and wonder what was wrong.

Then he looked up and said, "This was published eight years ago. I just found something I want to rewrite."

Tomorrow: Day Two of the Health Care Reform Apocalypse Watch.

The first Horseman of the Health Care Apocalypse: Usurping State's Right