I was 19 years old when the city fell silent. I had lived my entire life amid the sound of traffic—tires whining on dry pavement, engines accelerating from a dead start, brake pads grinding metal on metal, trucks rattling over potholes and expansion joints, and rarely someone pushed beyond endurance to use their horn. In LA in the ‘60s, flipping off the guy in the next car was less aggressive than using your horn.
The freeway interchange that collapsed in the San Fernando Earthquake. Photo attribute: MyDifferentDrum on flickr.
LA might have been called the city of angels. In reality it was the city of engines. Their sound insinuated my dreams. The ground trembled slightly beneath their weight. The sky thickened with their exhaust. I had grown up living in the continuous presence of automobiles, every hour, every day. It was a presence as familiar as my heartbeat, and equally ignored, until it stopped.
It was 1971…muscle cars thundered down Van Nuys Boulevard and Bob’s Big Boy was fined for making hamburgers from horse meat.
I didn’t live in LA proper but the Valley, the San Fernando Valley, where adolescent girls spoke an English dialect called Val Speak. Every sentence began with “OhMyGod!,” three words hurried into a single breathless rush. The greatest good was called “tubular” after the shape of a wave hollowed by an offshore breeze. Frank Zappa made fun of us. He could afford to. He came from Lancaster, a fly blown town on the edge of the desert where the wind herded tumble weeds down the main street. I came from Van Nuys where we didn’t lock our front doors at night and no one spoke Spanish. We were living in a surreal dream of unremittingly white security. Later I realized that the dream ended precisely at 6:00 am on February 9.
Armageddon & LA
It was 1971, the era when gas was still $0.21 a gallon, muscle cars thundered down Van Nuys Boulevard, and Bob’s Big Boy was fined for making hamburgers from horse meat. At 6:00 am I was still in bed, a college boy living at home, when the earth moved. More than moved, it began lurching like a drunken sailor. The house creaked and groaned and popped arthritically. The light fixture suspended above my bed, a glass globe hung several feet from the wall, began to swing, gathering momentum. There was a basso profundo rumble from somewhere far away like the earth clearing its throat of phlegm. I was tossed side to side in my bed. It seemed like the bed accelerated rapidly in one direction but only a few inches before it stopped abruptly and began accelerating in the opposite direction. I felt like a rope toy in the jaws of a big dog. I spread my arms to keep from being thrown to the floor. The glass globe was describing wide circles above my bed. Inside the house I could hear crockery falling. I thought of getting out of bed and leaping through the window but I was utterly naked. Finding something in my closet to wear while the earth was doing a demented hornpipe seemed too challenging. A conversation with the neighbors start naked was even less attractive. The glass globe was thrown violently against the wall and shattered, showering my bed with shards of glass.
The earthquake lasted only 60 seconds. Afterwards 65 people were dead, $505 million dollars of property was damaged, and glass littered my bedroom floor. But it wasn’t the earthquake itself that was most remarkable.
The earthquake not only collapsed hospitals and bridges, it weakened an earthen dam that withheld 10,000 acre feet of water poised like the apocalypse above the San Fernando Valley. If the Van Norman Dam failed that water would seek the lowest point—the Sepulveda Catch Basin. We lived directly in front of the Catch Basin.
My choice was mandatory attendance at the Burbank Foursquare Church where they spoke in tongues or a horrible death in a Biblical flood.
Predictably, they evacuated the Valley: 80,000 people along a six-mile swath of potential destruction. My family left to stay with my paternal grandparents in Burbank. Given the choice of mandatory attendance at the Burbank Foursquare Church where they spoke in tongues and threatened to roll in the aisles or dying horribly and alone in a Biblical flood, I chose to continue classes, sneak past the police roadblocks, and return home each night.
We lived within sight—and sound—of the San Diego Freeway. It wasn’t the most desirable location but my parents had bought commercial real estate, a set of four single family, low income rentals, and lived in one while managing the rest. Real estate was their means of financing an interest in boats they couldn’t otherwise afford. I grew up remodeling houses and living near the freeway.
When the authorities evacuated the flood plain they also closed the San Diego Freeway. Police cordoned the area with roadblocks. The city was dark, without electricity. Police cars on patrol continually broadcast a warning that looters would be shot on site. It was the only sound in a city of empty streets.
An Architecture of Sound
Before then I hadn’t realized how a city is an architecture of sound as much as concrete, bricks and mortar. Sound creates a topography that can be felt if not seen. During the bustle of daylight it burgeons, growing large and complex like some gothic architecture of crooked alleys and spiked towers. At night it contracts into subtlety and murmurs and isolated alarms. But it’s never silent. Even in the dead hours of the night there is a background of sound like an archetypal cat purring. It colors and shapes the cityscape.
In the silence that descended after the earthquake the city collapsed. The horizon contracted. Sound drained away like water seeping into the dry soil, utterly absorbed. Only a dry husk remained.
I’ve experienced one other similar profound silence, in the days after September 11, 2001 when the sky was empty and no plane flew overhead, none except military aircraft looking for an enemy.
Had the Van Norman damn failed, I later learned that a wall of water 10 feet tall would have swept across the valley floor studded with the shattered remnants of innumerable frame houses and the broken bodies of people too foolish to evacuate.