Thursday, April 26, 2018

Loma Prieta

 5:10 PM Tuesday, October 17, 1989

When I got out to the street, it was almost dark.  There were many sirens, yet on the street it was quiet as well dressed men and women pushed out of the brass trimmed office doors on to New Montgomery Street. A few emergency lights were burning.  The street was oddly sparkling. I knelt down to try to see what was there. 

“Excuse me! Watch it buddy”, someone shoved me from behind.
I was crouching down in the middle of the street.  It touched it. It was broken glass. The street was covered with broken chards of glass. My steps made an ominous crunching sound as I carefully stepped back to the sidewalk.

The sirens began to become louder and continuous.  As one siren passed another would begin. Where were they headed? Was there a fire?

I felt my jacket pockets. I had my wallet.  I had my little transistor radio. I knew I was wearing some threadbare canvas shoes. I was afraid of stepping on the glass. Near me a woman had taken off her high heels. She was bleeding. 

I looked around for fire, but didn’t see any. All I could smell was tobacco smoke.  The early evening fog was turning to a heavy mist. It felt like rain.  I pulled up the hood on my jacket.

 Behind me, the drug store windows were caved in and people were reaching in and climbing in through windows.

They have batteries.”

I was in a canyon of buildings at the edge of the San Francisco financial district.

5 minutes earlier, I had been sitting at my desk 8 floors above the street.  It was the end of the workday.  I was getting ready to go home. Many people had already left. The World Series was about to begin at Giants Stadium.

When the earthquake started, I heard the familiar rattle of window glass. I had been through many smaller quakes and I knew the sound.  I chortled to myself. My mom would be calling.

“Its ok Mom, it was just a little one”, I would say.

But this quake was not stopping.  I tried to stand up, but could not. My desk chair was wildly rolling about on my linoleum office floor. I kept trying but I could not stand up.
I fell to the floor and crawled and rolled over to a window.  I watched the conjoined brick buildings across the street begin to sway. I could see daylight as the two red brick buildings swayed apart.  That sight from my window triggered the fear.

I saw my own death. In my brief thought, I saw the floor open as I fell, descending 8 stories into a pile of debris.  My mind played that little dramatic film.  I stopped the movie in my mind.  I realized  I had never imagined dying.
When the lights first went out, the emergency lights did not come on.  As I continued to look out the window, I heard my co-workers begin to leave.
“Lets get out! Come on! Lets go.”
“Why is it dark?”

I pulled myself along a wall towards the door. We all wanted to get out. We wanted to get to the stairs, to the dark stairwell, to the street.
“Where is Carol?”  “Where is Jimmy?”
“They are at the baseball game.”
“Watch out on the stairs.” “I can’t see!”  “Doesn’t anybody have a flashlight?”

The stairwell was littered with ceiling tiles and covered with white plaster dust.  No one had a flashlight. There was no yelling. There was no  crying.  There were 8 floors to descend.

No  cell phones.
No pay phones. 
The trains under the bay had all halted. 
When people hit the street they all began to talk about it.  

“There are no buses. I guess I’ll walk home”
“The trollies have stopped.
“I came in on the BART train. How will I get home? They will not be running under the bay.”

I overhead a stranger, “Let’s run over to the bus terminal. Maybe we can get a ride across the bay to Berkeley.”
I began to jog the 10 blocks to the bus terminal.  To my surprise and delight there were busses running.  Long lines snaked out of the building and the busses were quickly loading up.  I jumped on.

My Berkeley bound bus left the terminal and began to slowly move through traffic as it climbed up to the Bay Bridge. We drove up a ramp and onto the bridge and into the bus lane. The bus stopped dead.  As we idled in a mass of vehicles, several passengers closed the bus windows to stop the diesel smoke and noise.  We sat in our orderly rows awaiting movement forward.

I had a seat, many others were standing.

I turned on my little FM transistor radio.  I listened for news with my earphones .  The whole city was dark, but we passengers could see a fierce red glow coming from the Marina District. That was the fire..  The fog over the Marina turned red.  The towering buildings were black. Instead of a setting sun, the Marina glowed. We starred like tourists. Everyone was silent.

My radio spoke. 
“In the East Bay e a portion of the Nimitz free has collapsed. Many cars have been crushed.”

I tried to reassure myself, my calm self said: “I’m on a bus and I’ll be home eventually.”
Suddenly the radio announcer interrupted the disaster litany to say:
“A span of the Bay Bridge has collapsed. Drivers are injured and trapped. ” 

I stood up at my seat and spoke loudly to the strangers on the quiet bus.
“Part of the bridge has collapsed.”
At that moment, we were all sitting far above the city on the Bay Bridge.. Beneath us was water.

A stranger turned to look at me. His face was twisted with disdain.
“Oh you are so stupid!  This bridge would never fall!”
Others muttered their agreement.
Stupid asshole! Shut up!

I sat down, confused.  Was that just a rumor? It sounded real to me.

Suddenly, the driver opened the bus door. The driver got off. We all looked ahead through the driver’s window and saw hundreds of people abandoning their cars and running straight for us and down the on-ramp to get off of the bridge.
I thought, “This is just like a science fiction movie. Everyone is fleeing the monster.”

I left the bus with all of the passengers. I walked along the Embarcadero which borders the San Francisco Bay.  I had been to the ATM that day and had some cash in my pocket. I thought, “maybe I can catch a boat across the bay. I want to go home.”

I walked and ran along to bay to the fisherman’s wharf area. As it turned out, the city had a well functioning evacuation scheme working with multiple ferryboats taking loads of people across the bay. Within 15 minutes, I was on board and headed to Oakland. 

Thousands of people were waiting for the boats.  Grateful to be a big tall man, I moved my way to the front of the confused crowd.  I was bigger than most people. 
“Excuse me.”
Excuse me”
It worked. There was no queuing just polite, huge group. I shuffled my big body through to the boat.

Like tourists, we crowded the stern as the ferry pulled away toward Oakland.
It was now night.
A few lights were on the mostly darkened buildings.  Typically we would all look at the Golden Gate Bridge, but tonight we focused on the fire in the Marina. 

A television inside the Ferry told us what had happened to us:
The TV reports looped continuously

Monday, October 13, 2014
On October 17, 1989, at 5:04 PM a 6.9 magnitude earthquake ripped through the Bay Area. It was 15 chilling seconds …

It was Game 3 of the World Series between the San Francisco Giants and Oakland Athletics. The pre-game show had just begun. When suddenly, something went wrong.

The Bay Area shook for 15 seconds. But it was hours before we realized the huge extent of the damage. Power and phone service was cut for much of the Bay Area. Radio and TV stations were knocked off the air.

On the television, a film clip was played over and over:
"That is the Cypress section of the Nimitz Freeway and you can see, oh my God, look at that, the freeway has just completely collapsed."

“The natural gas lines have ruptured and that is what's caused that fire. The water lines have ruptured. There is no water coming out of the hydrants."

But wait! My wife Sarah would be coming home on the Nimitz. She had to drive through the Cypress section that had just collapsed.  My mind raced.  I had no way to know where she was.  I looked at the TV.   I moved back inside the ferry to see the picture.  I got as close to the TV monitor as I could.  There were now horrible images of flattened cars with trapped motorists being rescued.  I tried to calm my breath.  I had to stay calm. Where was Sarah?

We all stared and watched the television as the ferry made the 45 minute trip across the bay. The images repeated over and over.  My own images repeated over and over. Where was Sarah?

In time, we docked and I walked down the gangplank.  Oakland like San Francisco had lost power.  I knew that the 6-mile walk from the Oakland harbor to our home in Berkeley was a long way.  I also knew that I would be walking through some rough neighborhoods. I was determined to get home to Sarah and the kids. There was no question. I would walk.

I knew the way. It was a straight road home. I again pulled up my hood as if it gave me some special security.  I began to walk as quickly as I could. Police barriers immediately blocked my path. Generators powered huge floodlights. The light showed the steel shell of a 12-story building under construction.  The girders had twisted by the earthquake. The building tilted menacingly over the road. 

I stopped at a pay phone to try and check on my family. Not even a dial tone. It was dead.

I detoured around the barriers and moved back onto the dark streets. I kept heading home. After a few miles, I left the downtown area. I noticed some busses began to pass me. I did not stop to wait. Sitting at a bus stop was not smart. The streetlights flickered but remained out.  Several blocks of run down buildings and bars were part of my gauntlet home.  Just as I had worried, and as if on queue, 3 men came out of a bar.
“Hey you!” “Watcha doin here.”
“Hey come over here.” “Hey, I’m talking to you.”
I said nothing, walked faster.
They laughed.  What fun they were having. They had frightened me.

I marched forward. Minutes later a brightly lit bus pulled up and stopped. I had not even waved at it. The driver opened the doors and commanded me, “Get in the Bus! Right now!”
I did. I was so grateful to be in a warm, safe, city bus.  It was like a great rescue ship.

I had nearly reached home.  I still did not know if everyone was safe.


Tuesday, April 24, 2018

A new friend

I stood at attention in the General’s office. You can imagine the scene. I know I’ve seen movies like this. There were four of us. One armless man, one with no legs, a man in a wheelchair.  And then there was me.  I was 25 years old, in perfect health with no injuries. The other men wore standard issue blue pajamas as required of hospital patients. I was in my class A formal uniform.  The General moved down the line as he pinned medals on each man.  
As he moved from man to man, I felt more and more uncomfortable. I was: no other word for it: Ashamed. Ashamed of being whole and uninjured.

The General announced the words to a small group of assembled people in his office.
“A bronze star”
“A Purple Heart” 
I began to sweat in my heavy dress jacket and precisely tied tie. I had my hat under my arm and I squeezed it close to me for some weird comfort.
The awards continued.

“With valor”
“For courage”
“Bravery in the face of…”

And without any pause,  then there was me.  The General spoke to me directly.

“And last but not least, Specialist 4th class Gorodezky. - Soldier of the Month at Letterman General Hospital.”  He said more, but I did not listen.  I thought:
“How soon will this end and can I get out of here.”  “I’m here in a line with real soldiers. I am in perfect health, all dressed-up in my fancy green uniform.

The General, said: “I see you near your discharge date. I hope you have decided to stay with us.”
I stammered, “Uh,oh, ah,  I’m getting out. I’m going to graduate school.”
The General ended his smile.  
I blushed.

At last we were free from my 2 years in the Army. I was admitted into a doctoral program.  Sarah and I  drove our un-airconditioned Toyota from California to the University of Michigan. It was  a very hot Summer. We were accompanied by our baby Suzanne (1) and Laura (3).  We arrived in Ann Arbor with no place to live. A moving truck was due to arrive with no clear destination.  We had to quickly find a place to live.

Was that me? Was that really  me?   Drive your family ½ way across the country with perhaps $500 in the bank.  We arrived in a new city with no place to live. 

Were Sarah and Mike, insane, irresponsible people?  Where did they find the courage? Was this an adventure. Were we being very stupid?

At the University,  I was ushered in to the housing office to see if Sarah and I could get in to married student housing.  I met a woman alone in her wildly cluttered office. 
There were stacks of papers and file folders, brochures, and forms. 
I told my tale of woe. 
“I’m here for graduate school. I am on the GI Bill. We don’t know where we can live?”

Unmoved, she said:“We have  nothing available. The waiting list has 120 families ahead of you.”
I sat on a folding chair next to the desk. I had long somewhat scraggly hair, a dark full beard and wore my US Army field jacket with my name nicely stenciled on it.
I hung my head. I stared at the floor. I said nothing. I did not get up to leave.

She continued, “OK, so I guess that’s it. We have your address. You have a rented place in, (she consulted my forms)  Hell, Michigan. She paused, “Hell! Is that really a place?”
“Yes it is really a place. We renteda tiny house. It is  on a smelly moss covered lake.”
“Oh Nice!” 
My mind raced. Where could my family live?  I tried to breath slowly to stay calm. The office seemed smaller and I felt unsure.
“Well I guess were are done, Mr. Gorodezky.  We’ll be in touch.”
I didn’t move. I sat their mute. I was there for a good bit of time.  Minutes crawled by.
“Uh, Uh, oh”  She made lots of grunts and sighs with scrambled papers.  She stacked things and fussed with her desk.
“Well, let’s see. Oh! We just received a note that these folks are moving out.” She held up a hand written letter.”
I know you are in jam, so just promise you’ll never tell anyone. I’ll just give this to you. (Thinking: “ and then you will leave.”)

Later, Sarah and I struggled with a pile of moving boxes in the apartment when
Bob charged through our open front door.
He was carried a can of beer and spilling  foam on his red scraggly beard.  He was taller than me, big and very athletic looking.  
He had a  flirtatious smile for Sarah and for me.  
“Hi, I am Bob. I am your new next door neighbor.”
He put his arm around my shoulder and pulled me out our front door and on to the little cement porch.
I resisted him. But he was bigger and stronger.
He had a pressured, slightly manic style of speech. He began:
“Well, let me tell you this one.”
“We applied for Married Student Housing and I lied and told them Mary was pregnant. She wasn’t, so when we moved in, we told them that she lost the baby. So they let us stay.”
My thoughts raced.   “I would never do that.”   “Who is this guy?”
“I just got out of the Army. I went to West Point, then Vietnam, now I am in the Law School here. You are, Mike, right?”His eyes twinkled. Really. His blue eyes twinkled.
He saw my Army jacket on a chair.  
I was uncomfortable with the question. Oh boy, here we go. Vietnam. Down that ugly road.

“Oh, I was drafted. I’ve been out for 2 years. I worked in an Army psych hospital.”  My reply was somewhat of an apology, as I imagined what Bob had experienced.  

Later, inside the apartment, I spoke with Sarah.
“He’s very friendly, but god, he went to West Point. His dad is some Air Force General and his wife’s family is Military too.  We aren’t exactly like two peas in a pod.”

As life will have it’s way, over the next two years, I would remember the pea cliche.

Sarah soon named Bob and me : “FRICK and FRACK”.  

Bob always wanted, sometimes demanded my attention. When we were at home he would often stand in our little courtyard and call out to Sarah.
“Is Mike home?” “Can he come out.”  Sarah’s translation to me: “Bob wants to know if Mikey can come out to play.?”

In the evening after school,  we drank and  smoked dope as we talked, sometimes late into the  night. Mostly Bob talked . He began to tell me his story. Quickly the stories were all about war and combat.  The stories were intimate. They were filled with his pain and fear.
Since I had worked with wounded soldiers, I had heard these stories, but I really had no story. I was always safe.  I worked in a nice hospital.

On occasion, he would drag me out of my apartment like the Army officer he had been.  “OK, we need to run.  You are getting too soft.”  Bob was very fit. I was not.
“Ok let’s go”, he yelled. Literally pulling me by the hand we would run around the snow covered play grounds and parking lots.
He would loudly sing an Army standard:

“I want to live a life of danger. 
I want to be an Airborn Ranger, 

We returned home. I was the person gasping  for breath. Bob looked at me with that frenzy he had.
“Hey I’ve got this great idea. I will get an on campus parking permit and then we can drive to school and park on campus.”
I said, “That’s impossible. Only senior faculty and staff get those permits.”
“Just watch.”
He pulled off his jacket and shirt.
I had noticed the scars on his face beneath his beard. His lips were oddly twisted and scarred as if something had been sewn on askew.  But now, I saw his chest and back.  “Look, I was shot here and here.” His body was covered with scars that glistened with sweat from our run.
Bob: “I’ll claim that I am disabled.”
Me: “You are disabled”
Bob: “I’ll show them my paperwork.” He went into his place and returned with papers.
Me: “It says here you have a 75% psychiatric disability.”
Bob: “They will give me the parking permit. I’ll limp.”

That was a minor adventure for Bob. I always thought of the proper way to do things. Not so with Bob.  I was drawn to him.  He was the impulsive, sometimes brave person that I was not.

We lived the modest lives of relatively poor students. We rarely spent money to go out to restaurants. 
Bob came over one day with another of his ideas.
“Let’s go to the Gandy Dancer next week.” It’s graduation week at the Law School.
Always the voice of reason, I said: “That’s one of the best places in town, you’ll never get a reservation.”
“Just watch me.”
He dialed the telephone. We watched. 
“I need a special reservation for 8 people at 8 pm next Friday. Our guest is Adlai Stevenson, the US Representative to the United Nations. He will speak at our Law School graduation. Ok, I’ll hold.”

“Great. Thank you.”

He turned to us with a bow and a flare of his arms. Voila!!. I cringed, but we went along to dinner.

I was at work when my phone rang. “Mr. Grantham from the FBI is here to see you.”  
I shuddered and was worried as a classicly dressed FBI agent came into my tiny office at the Mental Health Center where I worked.  Special Agent Grantham had called ahead  and told me the FBI wanted to check out Bob for a security clearance.
How exactly should I talk to the FBI?  I knew quite a lot, but was mostly concerned about our drug use.
Should I lie?
Grantham quickly came to the point.
He said, “Do you know of any drug or alcohol use that would jeopardize the security of our country?”  Sigh. I could easily answer that question.  
“No” “Bob is a patriot.”  And that was the truth.  Bob later explained to me that they already knew about his recreational drug use. He had told them.

In time, we both moved away from the apartments. Bob went off to Europe on some assignment and I stayed in school, but we moved into a real house.
I returned home one afternoon. I unlocked the front door and was startled to find Bob seated in our living room.
“God! You scared me. Why are you here? How did you get in?”
“Oh, I guess I sort of broke in. I found a window unlocked and crawled in.”
Bob was out of control with a strained stacatto talk.  He was probably high on something.
  I knew, the kids would be coming home from school and I wanted him to leave.  Nothing subtle was going to work.
“Bob, you’ve got to leave.  We have to go somewhere tonight.” I lied.
“That’s fine, I’ll just stay here. I can sleep on the couch.”
“No Bob, you have to leave.  I want you to leave right now.  You broke into the house.  You can’t do things like that.”
He curled up his big body, flopped on our couch and gave me a child like look of innocence. 
“Really!?” “Aw, come on Mike.”
His plea made me so very sad.  
I went to the door and held It open.I hoped he would leave. He did not.
I tugged on his arm and pushed him out the door.

Fifteen years later, I sat at a long formal dinner table across from a stranger.
Chatting as strangers do, I told him a bit about my past life and somehow mentioned Bob as one of the most interesting men I have ever know.  
“How did you meet him?”
“We had both recently left the Army and but, I was drafted and he was a West Point Graduate.”
 “Tell me his name, you might be surprised. West Point isn’t that big. My son went there.”
I told him the name.

“My God! Of course I know him. He was infamous.  Remember when he testified before congress about the Vietnam Wall Memorial?  “A black gash of shame, Bob called it.”
“Yes, I guess Bob didn’t like that memorial.”
“You know,” the stranger continued, “ he has written a book. You ought to get it.”

The next day, I went down on Connecticut avenue and easily found the book in the military history section.  Yes, Bob had written it.   It was filled with all his front porch stories. 

Sarah and I were both in D.C. for a conference. On a whim, I tried to find Bob with a Virginia phonebook.  There he was. Considerng I had thrown him out of the house some years back, I acted on impulse.
“Hi Bob, It’s Mike.”  He recognized my voice immediately.
“Mike, where are you!”
“Sarah and I are at the Shoreham hotel.”
“OK, wait in the lobby, I’ll meet you in 15 minutes.”

He pulled up at the curb and ran inside. 
“Quick, get in my car and we’ll go have a drink somewhere.”
Sarah and I climbed in the back seat. Bob took off.
He drove fast and talked non-stop. Soon we were on dark country roads. We had no idea where we were headed.
Sarah looked at me in the dark car and we both shrugged and our rolled eyes.

“So where to begin…”, Bob said with some glee.
Sarah and I barely spoke as he tore though Virginia. We  were not sure just where we were headed.