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This Is Only a Test

May 19, 2010

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While that cryptic code above is actually only a test for some technical housekeeping for my blog, it brings to mind one of the less celebrated but personally illuminating moments of the Loma Prieta (CA) Earthquake in 1989.

The obvious part of October 17, 1989, was that the earth shook. Registering 6.9 on the Richter scale, it was a seismic Jihad that I actually heard coming (though I didn’t know what I was hearing at the time) before I felt it. It knocked me down and shook the house I had been building so violently that shingles were zinging off its sides like little square cedar Frisbees.

That evening is also well known for what was supposed to be game 3 of the World Series (Oakland A’s vs. SF Giants). Ever the eternal optimist, I was poised for a great Giant comeback, working outside and listening to the radio when the house started rockin’.  With a less immediate but more haunting perspective, a friend of mine was in Los Angeles (about 350 miles south of the epicenter) watching the Series in a restaurant. He told me the TV just suddenly went blank. As he stared up at the screen wondering what had happened, he noticed an overhead light fixture slowly swaying back and forth. “Uh-oh,” is how he phrased it.

But as the roar of the quake faded off toward San Francisco, and car alarms bellowed, and a neighbor ran down the block moronically shouting “earthquake!”, and the shingles that had once been on the side of the house began to float back to earth, I experienced an unprecedented moment in audio history.

For as long as I could remember, radio broadcasts and TV shows would be randomly interrupted by a resonate, officious, and authoritative voice announcing a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. “This is ONLY a test.” And then we got the high pitched tone for 25 seconds or so, followed immediately by the same calming male voice. “This has been a test of the Emergency Broadcast System…. If this had been an actual emergency, you would have been instructed to tune to one of the broadcast stations in your area.

I didn’t notice when the Giant’s game had gone off the air. I had been preoccupied with watching the house leap around the back yard as if it were an angry dog on a short chain. But I do recall, shortly after the shaking stopped, being suddenly aware of the warning tone on the radio. And then, much to my amazement, that familiar authoritative and officious voice began speaking, “This is the Emergency Broadcast System. This is NOT a test. Please stay tuned.”

Oz had spoken. This was the real deal. After years of testing, the EBS was swinging swiftly and efficiently into motion, probably getting George H.W. Bush out of bed and in front of a mic as we stood gaping at radio. And then….

Nothing.

Nothing but mumbles and murmurs and sighs. Oh my! We heard a couple of guys talking to each other, but in the background, as if they weren’t aware the mic was on. No authoritative voice. No crisp commands. No calming assurances.  Not even a mangled sentence from Papa Bush. Perhaps the EBS command center had been located on one of those unfortunate sections of the Bay Bridge or in downtown Loma Prieta. Finally, one of the announcers finished nibbling on a little piece of cheese and sniffed his way up to the mic. With a complete lack of resolve, he meekly mentioned that the Bay Area had experienced a major earthquake (he must have been related to our neighbor), and then, without any fanfare, we were back to our regularly scheduled news.

Twenty-three years of foreplay, and instead of a magical evening with Glinda, we ended up in a cot with Auntie Em. Our moment with Oz had come and gone, and there wasn’t so much as a little man behind a curtain.

“This is the Emergency Broadcast System. This is an actual emergency. We are either stampeding out of the building, settling into an underground bunker, or boarding a shuttle in advance of an incoming asteroid. Please leave a message after the tone.”

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One Comment leave one →
  1. craiglachman permalink
    May 22, 2010 8:01 pm

    Someday, I’ll have to ask a real geophysicist if what I remember experiencing is possible: that several large pendulum chandeliers hung from 25-foot chains attached to the second floor of a 25 story building would, about 20 minutes later, “feel” the signal generated 300 SM away by a 7.1 magnitude (surface wave) quake and “speak” to me with their ominous sway.

    I remember that day with such clarity. I remember the fear I felt for my family and friends (and even you) and how the uncertainty was what was most disconcerting. But I’ve learned that memory, even a few minutes separated from an event, can itself be uncertain. Memory seems based on a foundation even less solid than that underlying the Marina District.

    It would be comforting to have someone crunch the numbers and say, “yup, that’s possible.”

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