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The Riehl World: Waiting for the Big One

By Richard Riehl

When we moved to California, Karen and I we were not alarmed by the occasional rattling of windows and coffee cups and swaying of chandeliers. We grew up in Washington state, where those frequent interruptions were routinely dismissed as, “just another earthquake.”

We didn’t feel the recent Ridgecrest earthquake, nor its 7.1 magnitude aftershock. The epicenter was a safe 200 miles north. But they did remind us of the day Washingtonians stopped scoffing at earth’s faults.

On April 29, 1965 the Puget Sound Earthquake, registering a magnitude 6.7, caused the deaths of seven people and property damage estimates ranging from $13 to $28 million. It cracked the dome of the State Capitol Building in Olympia, near the school where I was doing my student teaching.

It struck at 8:28 AM, while I stood outside a classroom door, waiting for the teacher to end her lesson, so I could enter the room to begin mine.

As I peeked through the door’s small window, I felt the rumbling of what I thought to be heavy trucks passing by. Then, I saw the shock on the teacher’s face as her students leaped to their feet and raced for the door.

The classroom was on the second floor of the building, so I headed for the stairs. By the time I was halfway down, the steps were moving in a wave. Reaching bottom, I ran to the open courtyard. I looked for someplace to hide, before realizing there was no escape from the moving pavement beneath my feet. I looked for cracks.

A shattered window fell from the second story of the library, landing on a teacher’s bald head. I remember seeing blood running down his face.

At the time, my escape down the stairs to the courtyard seemed to be playing out in slow motion. But from later reports of the quake’s duration, I learned it all happened within 15 seconds.

That vivid memory, together with Ridgecrest’s multiple aftershocks, made me a true believer in preparing for California’s predicted Big One. Karen and I have been gathering supplies, as recommended, to last for three days without access to water, food and electricity.

The anxiety of waiting for the arrival of a life-changing event reminds me of the times our family has had to cope with the Big Ones in our lives.

During World War II, two of my mother’s brothers, Uncle Al and Uncle Richard, were held as POW’s, Al by the Japanese, Richard by the Germans. Al had been captured shortly after Pearl Harbor, when his ship, the USS Houston, was attacked and sunk. Two years later, Uncle Richard was taken in the Battle of the Bulge.

I was just a toddler when my two uncles were released at war’s end. Mom never spoke to me about how she handled the stress of having her brothers missing in action for three years. I regret never having asked her.

I was a college freshman on October 25, 1962, sitting in Professor Seidel’s philosophy class, when we learned Russian warships were approaching Cuba, threatening a confrontation that could erupt into a full-scale nuclear war. It was a VERY scary 13 days.

On 9-11 our son Dave was in Afghanistan, working for Mercy Corps, an international aid organization. Time stopped for us on that day, as we waited to hear from him. To our great relief, within a day after the Twin Towers fell, Mercy Corps called to let us know our son was unharmed and on his way home.

Since our move here last year to this Château Lake San Marcos retirement community, we’ve learned a lot about coping with the anxiety over the health threats aging brings. Greetings of, “Good morning, how are you?” are invariably answered, “I’m good, how are you?” regardless of whether the individuals are walking upright, or using a cane, a walker or a wheelchair.

Last week we were entertained by the legendary local San Diego folksinger/songwriter, Steve Poltz. He began performing regularly at the Chateau after his dad and mom, Joe and Wini, moved here. He takes time away from his packed schedule of performances at folk festivals throughout the US and Canada.

Steve performed here that day in his usual fashion, racing around the room, while playing his guitar and singing, making close up eye contact with his fans.

When Wini passed last year, Steve was at his mother’s bedside. In her final hour, she asked him to play her favorite of all his songs, “SHINE ON.” The words express the message Steve personifies in all his shows. Be in the moment.

“Feel the feel. Taste what’s real. Jump in the ocean and bark like a seal. And if you’re going to reach, reach for the sky. Smile at a stranger. Let the tears fly. Celebrate peace. Don’t pick fights. Communicate love. Turn on your light. Shine on.”

Pretty good advice for coping with the inevitable Big Ones in our lives.


The Riehl World