Feb 9, 1971 – 6:00 am and 55 seconds. The ground begins to move.
I was 7-years-old, and fast asleep in my bed, having stayed up past my bed time watching The Wizard of Oz the night before. I awoke to the house moving violently, while the earth was making a terrible groaning noise.
At first I was convinced that – like Dorothy – my home was flying through the sky. I quickly looked out the window to see if things were going by my window, as they had in the movie, but there were no screen doors, or flying rowboats, or angry old women riding a bicycles who turned into the Wicked Witch.
A moment later I could hear my father yelling from the other end of the house, “Earthquake!!”
In the distance I heard a giant explosion – which unbeknownst to me was the $110 Million electrical switching station going up – and then the air raid sirens began to wail overhead, the eerie keening which I had been told time and again meant a nuclear attack.
I wondered: Was an earthquake part of the Russian’s attack? During all the air raid drills in elementary school no-one ever thought to mention California was prone to earthquakes.
I had no idea what to do. I was paralyzed in fear.
So, I simply sat in bed watching things fall off of a 6 foot tall, heavy oak shelf on wheels that my parents called a Chifforobe. Games flew this way and that off the shelves, and books launched across the room – one hitting my nose. My bird cage fell onto my dresser and I heard the sound of shattering ceramic, as my precious collection of figurines from Disneyland took a direct hit.
The shaking got more violent, things were breaking all over the house with terrifying crashes, and the earth began to make a whistling noise to go along with the groaning.
Muffled by sound of the grinding earth and crashing glass I could barely hear my father yelling, “Get under the door!!” and I wondered if my father was stuck under a door and this was making the whole house shake.
There was a tremendous crash in the kitchen, and now things were breaking all over the house. There was more yelling – but I couldn’t tell who it was.
I sat up in bed, positively frozen in terror, watching enormous blue and white Chifforobe buck from side to side, scooting across the room on its wheels, and the water in the goldfish bowl sloshed over the lip. Had my bed and the Chiffarobe been aligned north/south, and not east/west, the giant shelving would have doubtless fallen and crushed me. Instead, I was transfixed as it jumped across the floor.
And then the shaking stopped, just like that.
My father was suddenly in my room yelling at me to get outside – and put on shoes. “Is it war?!” I shouted. “It’s an earthquake! Get out!!” he answered.
I slid my feet into the slippers by my bed, and dashed out the front door, putting on my robe under the oak tree in the front yard, in the gray, predawn light. My brothers were already outside, as they’d been folding papers for their early morning delivery routes when the quake hit.
The air raid sirens continued to wail, and I noticed water running down the street with red hyacinths floating on top. I found out later it was from the neighbor’s pool.
Then the air raid sirens stopped just as suddenly as the earthquake did, and as their echos died away I could hear the sounds of fire truck and police car sirens coming to life all over the Valley. In moments there more emergency sirens screaming than I had ever heard at once.
The whole neighborhood was in the street – everyone nervously talking and agreeing it was about the most frightening thing ANY of us had ever dealt with. We shivered in the damp, none of us quite knowing what to do, when the earth began to heave again.
The panic set in people’s eyes right away – a few threw their arms out to steady themselves, while some yelled and others screamed.
The aftershock ended just as suddenly as the quake did, and there was some uneasy laughter mixed in with the tears and prayers.
The aftershocks were a form of torture: You knew they were coming, but not when. And even though they weren’t as strong as the original quake they were only degrees of magnitude smaller. In short: It didn’t FEEL like a smaller quake, and there were hundreds that happened that day and for weeks to follow.
The neighbors who’d barely spoken to one another for years began to earnestly compare notes and trade stories about what they were doing when the quake hit. A portable transistor radio appeared and we gathered around to listen to KGIL, and Sweet Dick Wittington, who was on the air when it hit. Reports were that the damage was severe in the San Fernando Valley. As the sun rose, the gathered parents collectively agreed that school was not going to happen that day.
When it seemed the worst of the shaking was over, people began to cautiously reenter their homes to asses the damage.
The inside of our house was a hot mess. The living room looked as if someone had swept my mother’s precious nick-knacks off of the shelves where they had been carefully placed. A white ceramic bust of a nearly featureless woman she’d haggled for at the Simi Swap Meet lay in pieces, halfway across the room from where it had been perched on atop a two-tiered coffee table.
The kitchen counters and floor were strewn with broken dishes and crockery, topped with shattered glasses and mugs. But, the worst of it was an unsecured 8-foot-tall metal pantry shelf unit that had fallen over on to the stove, denting it mightily, and creating an unholy mess. Besides ruining hundreds of dollars in dry goods, a giant bottle of cooking oil broke, along with a 3-pound jar of peanut butter and a 2 pound jar of honey, which then mixed with my mother’s entire spice collection, 5 pounds each of flour and sugar and coated the burners on the gas stove, which never worked right ever after.
Somehow we still had electricity and running water. We turned on the television to find out the extent of the damage. A terrified male news anchor provided us with the grim information, in between panic attacks every time an aftershock hit.
It took only 12 seconds, but that was all the time the Sylmar Quake needed to kill 64 people, leave more than 2,500 hurt, and cause more than half-a-billion dollars in damage. The 6.6 quake left thousands of homes in danger of being washed away should the cracking Van Norman dam not hold. The Veteran’s Administration Hospital was a complete loss, and the unreinforced concrete wings built in 1926 collapsed, killing 44.
My father got a call from the nursing home where his Aunt Margaret lived – the facility was being evacuated because it was downstream of the Van Norman dam, and my father had to come get her NOW! My father got in his car and drove toward the failing dam to rescue my great-aunt.
The morning wore on as we waited for the return of my father. My mother began the laborious process of cleaning the kitchen and the stove, while my brothers and I wandered around in shock. We numbly cleaned up our rooms, each of us discovering treasures that were dear that were forever broken. My eldest brother went for a walk and returned with the news that the liquor store had every bottle in the store broken, and all the windows were broken at the corner grocery store. We heard there would be no school for at least 2 weeks.
My father finally returned home, along with a white haired lady in a wheel chair who stared at us with blank eyes. My father wheeled Aunt Margaret into the living room, which we had cleared of glass and ceramic fragments.
All the while the aftershocks hit, and when they did one of my brothers would race to the nearest doorway, bracing himself for the worst. The man on the television said we shouldn’t drink any water from the faucet: The only water we could drink had to be boiled or bottled. Bottled water wasn’t so much of a thing in 1971.
The phone rang again, and my father answered it. He listened for a moment and then handed it to my mother with a strange look on his face. My mother took the phone, and I remember her saying, “Today?! I just assumed…” she trailed off. “We’ll get there as soon as we can.”
She turned to me after she hung up the phone, “You need to get ready. They’re doing the Mattel shoot today, after all.”
I had completely forgotten about the photo-shoot I was booked to do that afternoon – but the clients clearly hadn’t. In fact, they were in a state of high dudgeon that I hadn’t showed, thus the call.
We drove through the San Fernando Valley and over Cahuenga Pass into Hollywood. The streets on the way were deserted, there was broken glass on the sidewalks and there were toppled walls and chimneys everywhere across the Valley.
Hollywood hadn’t taken nearly the hit Saugus, Newhall, Sylmar and the Valley had, because the fault line was far enough away. The windows were intact at the location, and the crew had done a good job cleaning up inside
The client’s nerves were stretched as thin as they would go, and I remember every time an aftershock happened there were several of them who freaked right the hell out. One client refused to stay inside, and would dart in and out of the building to check up on the photo-shoot of Mattel’s newest toy line. He demanded from a distance that the show must go on, and expected a little girl to do what he couldn’t.
I put on the red shirt and apron they had for me, and we set up the shot as the ground continued to heave and pitch. A make up man applied pancake and lipstick, and wisely waited for the aftershocks to end before quickly swiping at my eyelashes with the mascara wand. A hair stylist used a curling iron on my hair and cemented it with hairspray. The lights above us all shivered as the building moved.
The toy line was called Imaginings: It was Mattel’s first shot at educational toys, and the toy I was modeling for was called Lively Lines. The idea was to draw a picture with special markers on special paper, and then drop water on it to create a watercolor painting. The problem was the markers and the paper were expensive, and no kid could recreate the picture on the box, because it was done by a professional artist.
During the shoot I was instructed to hold a several different pictures, and pretend I’d done each one myself. We were working in the days before Photoshop, so that drop of water you see quivering at the end of the eye dropper is very real. I also remember the very real director very really threatening me NOT to let that very real water drip on the artist-painted picture, lest I ruin it. A feat that is so easy for ANY 7-year-old to do – especially while the earth below is doing its best Bronco Billy impression and the lights above are swaying and creaking.
I was forced to wait out the temblors without complaint and then turn on my apple pie smile when they were done. The Director was determined to get that cover shot TODAY!! and all he wanted to do was get on a plane and get the hell back to New York.
The photographer was a sweetheart, trying so hard to make it easier on me, engaging me, and talking me through the worst of it. But, it was utterly terrifying being forced to smile while aftershocks are happening and adults around you are freaking out.
Finally the shoot ended, and we wearily made our way home, me shaking in the passenger seat from the exhaustion born of fear, and feeling miffed that I hadn’t gotten to take any swag. Why – they had hundreds of sheets of paper and dozens of pens, and I hadn’t gotten to take any! It never occurred to me they were proprietary and Mattel wouldn’t want the competition seeing the product before it came to market.
There was no hot water at home to wash the heavy pancake make-up off, or to wash out the stiff hairspray that kept the curls in my pony-tail nearly bulletproof. The water heater went to meet it’s maker during the quake, so I sat shivering in a tub of tan colored room temperature water, feeling the grit and dirt that had settled on bottom of the tub. It was glorious when my mother rinsed me off with water she had warmed on the stove. But, I could still feel the grit on my skin as she rubbed me down with a towel.
I went to bed accompanied by the aftershocks that would last until the following month.
The Imaginings line was released that November, just in time for Christmas and toy lust. Ultimately, the marketing folks at Mattel went with a very serious face on the box: You can see a little girl creating a masterpiece, carefully holding the picture, eyedropper in hand, lost in thought. I’m certain the straight-to-the-camera smiling shots taken that afternoon had a distinctive Crazy-Eyes look from the fear – which is just perfect for selling toys.
It’s been nearly 50 years since the earthquake – and back then animals had greater protection in Hollywood than children did. Will you be shocked to hear that a half a century hasn’t changed the dynamics much, and that Lassie still gets treated better than Timmy?
Imagine!! Why – it just shakes me up.