Who We Were

Sylmar Made Me (Sort Of)

Reflections on My Childhood Home, 41 Years After It Shook Me Silly

Sylmar quake damage

I don’t know when it started or who made up the story, but as kids growing up in the San Fernando Valley, we all lived in fear of the Big One–the massive earthquake on the San Andreas Fault that was going to separate L.A. from the continental U.S. and make Palm Springs beachfront property. In science class, we were shown black-and-white films of earthquakes toppling tall buildings and wreaking havoc on hapless populations. This would be our fate. This is what we should be prepared for (though it didn’t seem like there was really any way to prepare). Mostly, we just accepted the notion that one day it would all be over; that was the way things were. Besides, other places had hurricanes or tornados or ice storms, so it wasn’t like you could escape disaster. It was a matter of picking your poison.

So it wasn’t a mystery to me what was happening that early morning on February 9, 1971. I knew immediately it was an earthquake. I was on the top bunk of a bunk bed in the room I shared with my older sister, and I woke to the sound of screaming. At some point, I realized I was the one who was screaming. But somehow, I felt as if I were observing myself from a third-person point of view. I thought, “This is it. This is the Big One. We are going to get swallowed up by the earth, and we are all going to die.” I was 13.

The bed was locomoting parallel to the wall for what seemed like an eternity. The bookshelves on metal rails lining the opposite wall were flying off their brackets, and the dresser seemed to be walking toward us. A small bookcase at the foot of our bed slammed into the door so hard it sheered the doorknob off.

My family lived in Sylmar on a lower-middle-class block of tract homes somewhere between the Olive View and VA hospitals. It was the kind of neighborhood where some people (including us) had an enormous amount of junk in their driveways and more cars or car carcasses than seemed reasonable for a single-family dwelling.

Our part of town was already multicultural then, although that wasn’t what we called it. There were white folks, Mexicans, Asians, and probably some others. My mother learned to make enchiladas and taquitos from Mrs. Tellez, the lady across the street. She, her husband, and maybe their Chihuahua came from La Paz. My sister and I pretended to be the Beatles with the Japanese-American kids up the street. (It was coolest, of course, to be John. My sister, who is left-handed, always wanted to be Paul. I’m left-handed too, but for some reason I thought George was more interesting. Nobody wanted to be Ringo.) It wasn’t a tight community by any stretch of the imagination, but we knew our closest neighbors and had at least a nodding acquaintance with most everyone else on the block.

The foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains were the ever-present backdrop to our daily dramas. It was a quietly imposing landscape–steep hills outlined against an arching expanse of blue sky, the L.A. basin below, and us gloating above the smog line.

I climbed out of my bunk and my sister jumped out of hers, and we rushed to the door, now knobless, to find we didn’t have a way to get out. We screamed for my parents, who were already trying to open the door, but there were books and furniture blocking the doorway. Eventually, we escaped from the house. My father, mother, brother, sister, and I walked over scads of debris–stuff that had been knocked over or dumped out of cupboards and closets, including broken glass, record albums, clothes, bits of furniture–and we freaked out during each aftershock, thinking the house would collapse on our heads and bury us before we got out. But we did get out, miraculously without a scratch, even in bare feet and pajamas. In hindsight, it felt as if we were all protected somehow by a force field–like we were superheroes with special powers that kept us from harm.

Once outside, we started looking up and down the block to see who else had come out. We checked in with our immediate neighbors, and they were okay. So we looked a little further afield to see who hadn’t come out of their houses. One family down the block had survived the quake but refused to come out of their house, no matter what the rest of us said.

We were lucky to live in single-story houses with more asphalt, lawn, ice plant, and ivy than tall shade trees that could have come crashing down. I stood in the driveway, cold, in my bare feet, looking up the empty street at the foothills. The sky was pink with the sunrise and the air was still. It was quiet–except for the odd whiny howl emanating from dogs around the block. Turns out some of them broke loose from their fenced enclosures and never came back.

The first couple of days after the quake we spent sleeping in our cars in the driveway, too scared by aftershocks to be inside the house. My sister and I lucked out and scored the back of the station wagon. I got pretty hysterical when my dad first went back into the house to survey the damage. But soon we all went in to see what was left. I won’t describe all the dirty details–like what happened to the 25-gallon tropical fish tank (let’s just say: so much for the fish and the carpet) or to the scores of old baby food jars full of nuts and screws and nails that had been stacked to the rafters in the garage–since we’ve all had to clean up an unpleasant mess at some point, right?

We were lucky. Nobody on our block died or was seriously hurt. Things got organized pretty quickly. It wasn’t long before the water trucks showed up in the parking lot of the Alpha Beta grocery store down the street, the Andy Gump portable toilets were brought in, and everyone figured out how to shut off their gas so nobody’s house blew up.

Still, a couple of families on our block took off right after the quake, and we never saw them again. I always figured they must have been from some other part of the country because real Californians just live with earthquakes. You develop a kind of earthquake machismo once you’ve ridden out a largish one. (“That was a 5.5? Big deal.”)

No, it wasn’t the earthquake that drove me out of Sylmar, a place that had one bowling alley and zero movie theaters. If one of your biggest entertainments is climbing fifteen feet up a tree in your front yard to spy on your neighbors, you don’t have to be a genius to know there’s probably a lot more of the world to discover. So, like one of those dogs that saw a broken fence as its lucky break, I bolted after I graduated from high school and didn’t look back. College took me to Berkeley, a job took me to Washington D.C., and frustration took me to New York City.

I didn’t know what was eating at me on the East Coast. I had wonderful friends, interesting work, a great apartment. I didn’t have to bolt my bookcases to the wall, and I could finally put knickknacks on living room shelves without fear of breakage. But at some point I realized the landscape looked puny to me (a weird thought for a provincial in a major city). Everything seemed too close to allow for any real perspective on it. I longed to look out and see an ever-expanding vista-like when you drive down Interstate 5. I guess I was one body in the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, but I needed to do it in California. As it happened, family concerns finally brought me back west, this time to Oakland.

A few weeks ago, during a visit to L.A., I decided on a whim to cruise through Sylmar. Oddly, it hadn’t changed much. My old elementary school looked the same. The Vons we shopped at was still there, and so was the Jack in the Box where I had my first job. (But like everywhere else Jack’s bouncy head is gone. Do kids now even know what a jack-in-the-box is?)

There’s a nice park where the VA Hospital used to be, right at the base of the foothills. As I strolled through the park, overcome by an unexpected nostalgia for that landscape, I realized I’d never really left Sylmar behind. I learned there’s an internal geography that doesn’t leave you–and that earthquakes never keep real Californians from coming home.

Vanessa Whang is the director of programs at the California Council for the Humanities.

*Photo courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey.