The View from Away: Knock me over like a ton of bricks

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Los Angeles basically has summer all year round. It also has a tectonic map that looks like a shattered glass-topped coffee table, so earthquakes are what California has instead of weather.

I lived through three big ones, dozens I could feel and hundreds I couldn’t. I thought I was done with all that until a couple of weeks ago. I was in the men’s room at Trader Joe’s, and the wall started wobbling. I had a mini stroke immediately, divine retribution for all the bacon cheeseburgers. Then it went away, and I forgot about it until a half-happy, half-scared checkout clerk chirped, “Did you feel the earthquake?”

“How cute,” I thought. “She thinks that was an earthquake.” Because I knew better as a grizzled veteran of 20 years on the Pacific Rim. Then I felt like an idiot. Of course she should be excited and scared. Earthquakes, even small ones, are a very big deal.

Carol and I went through that same naive stage. In 1989 we visited San Francisco. On the way home I realized the bluff we were driving by was the San Andreas Fault: basically, where two continents are jammed together. It was just an ordinary hill, until three days later when it slipped and pulled the rug out from under the whole Bay Area, interrupting the World Series and collapsing freeways.

A couple of years later, I was at a driving range. I looked up and saw the ground rise up, and waves passed under my feet like an ocean of land. It was kind of fun, like surfing, only without the board. And on an ocean made of land. I even thought it was kind of cool when I saw a hill in front of me disappear in a cloud of dust. If this was what all the fuss was about, I thought, Californians were scaredy cats. Especially the waitress who came screaming out of the coffee shop, and my wife, who called and suggested I come home 10 seconds ago. I told her I still had half a bucket of balls. Ever notice how loud spouses can be when they don’t get it?

In fact, I didn’t really get it, not until I was indoors for one, at work a few years later. That’s when it got real. A force that makes solid ground ocean-like doesn’t even notice something as insubstantial as a building, much less anything inside it. Watching a refrigerator levitate really makes you think. I discovered I didn’t want to die in a room of screaming comedy writers.

I also learned how to tell whom you care the most about: live through a big scary earthquake. The first person you check on? That’s it. Want to know who cares about you? Notice who checks on you. Which reminds me, I owe Carol an apology for that driving range conversation.

During the scariest one, we were all in the same bed – at first, anyway. Bobby was a baby. Sometimes we let him sleep in between us. Thank God we did that night. I must have woken up just as the first tremors struck because I was awake when I was airlifted eight, maybe 10 feet across the room. Seriously, we’re not that important.

If I had no other reasons to think of my wife as a hero (there are many), her behavior at that moment would cement her place. Carol must have woken up at the first tremor, but somehow she managed to stay on the bed and to roll over and shield Bobby with her body. There’s a bond between her and her children – between mothers and their children – that I will never understand. I know I don’t have it; some other connection, maybe, but not that one.

One thing that makes a big earthquake big is duration. This one seemed endless. It took forever to get back to them. I crawled, and I still got knocked down a couple of times. I had to pull myself up to get on the bed. For a panicky moment I could see her, but not him, then realized she had cocooned him under her. She wouldn’t move for a long time. I don’t think she could have if she wanted to. That primal quality that she has and I don’t kicked in, and that baby would only get hurt literally over her dead body.

It’s been years since I’ve thought about those few terrifying moments when my illusions of permanence were destroyed. By all rights I should have gotten it the first time, like that Trader Joe’s clerk did, and all the other excited, scared people I saw that day. People in Portland instinctively seem to have a healthier perspective on their place in the cosmic scheme of things. They don’t need to have a house fall on them.

Unlike me.

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Portland resident Mike Langworthy, an attorney, former stand-up comic and longtime television writer, is fascinated by all things Maine. You can reach him at