[Fires in California make me think of earthquakes and landslides in California. Others think “disaster preparedness.” And talk about the kits we all should have — the “go bags.” I thought about disaster kits in 2003. Here’s how I put it together then. There are some things that should not be “left behind.”]
something went BUMP!
How that bump made us jump!
— The Cat in the Hat
ABOUT QUARTER TO NINE this serene Sunday morning, as I was sitting down and wondering what to write about, the house bumped me. One BUMP with the sound of “Thump!” as if a giant’s fist had given the floor a little love tap. And then… nothing. No rattle of plates and shuddering of books in the shelves. No rising hiss of gas lines pulled open. None of the sounds of panicked birds. Just one BUMP with a thump and then everything goes back to “Condition California Normal.”
Everything except me.
When you’ve recently had a number of homes 400 yards from you just wake up one morning and decided to take a slide down their hill, you tend to become just a wee bit oversensitive to your environment. That solid BUMP had me out of my chair and moving toward the front door with dedication. Once second, I’m sitting. Next second, I’m standing in the middle of the intersection looking up and down the streets. I’m
paying special attention as to whether or not I can see any tall trees swaying on this windless morning. Nope. Nothing. But the birds agreed with me since they had, for once, shut up.
I also found myself standing in the intersection in my pajamas with bare feet. A neighbor dressed in a robe and boxer shorts came out on his third-floor balcony, wallet and keys in his hand.
“You feel that?” I asked.
“Oh, yeah. I see you did too.”
“Maybe,” I said, “we should get dressed.”
A new Lexus came up the steep hill behind me heading for the road down from the summit. It stopped for a moment. An old couple was inside. He was driving. She looked resigned and was holding a irritated looking cat.
“You feel that?” he asked.
“Am I standing in the middle of the street in my PJs?”
“We’re going downtown and then out to the valley for the day. Can’t be too careful.”
“Well, that’s true enough. Just don’t linger on the canyon road. You got rock slide zones on both sides.”
“We’re not going through the canyon. We’re going up to Newport along the coast.”
“Well, get through those parts that run along the cliffs quickly.”
“You got that right. Anyway, I’ve got water, food, and shovels in the trunk. You can’t be too careful. These days you can’t be too careful.”
His wife was beginning to roll her eyes and their cat continued to squirm.
“Or too prepared,” I said with a slight edge of sarcasm in my voice.
“No, you can’t,” he said, and gunned the shiny tan Lexus up the hill and out of sight. They were pretty old and frail. I hoped that, if anything happened, they’d be able to get out of their car and to the shovels and water in the trunk.
I looked up at my neighbor on his balcony high above the street and thought about the ten or fifteen seconds it would take to fall on top of me if we had another more serious BUMP, which was due in Southern California…. oh, just about any day now.
My neighbor shrugged. “What you gonna do?” he said in the manner of those who, faced with their continuing powerlessness, have nothing at all to say.
“I don’t know about you,” I answered, “but I’m getting dressed.”
“There’s a thought.”
I went back inside and got dressed thinking, “Now what does one wear to a truly stunning natural disaster?” This thought revealed to me that I had not a smidgen of an idea about what to wear or what to do at all. Not a single brain cell in my over-furnished brain had been tasked with determining how to survive the most likely disaster in my little world.
Like millions of others on this shaky slab of the planet, I just woke up every day, took a breath, had some coffee and ran my “I’m okay and I’m okay” tape in the background and got on with “havin’ a good one.” Like millions of others in this state which is, like all states, just a state of mind, I “had the experience but missed the meaning.” Like millions of others, I had — in my heart — scoffed at the old man in the Lexus who had, probably for the hundredth time, pushed to wife and the cat into the car and driven to the valley with his various survival supplies rattling in the trunk. Unlike millions of others, I stood in my bedroom and, not for the first time, realized that I was an unreconstructed fool. Worse still, I was a fool that laughed at the wise. Worse yet, I had no plan for a disaster that was not an if, but a when; a bad day that only lacked a date certain.
I had no plan even though I’d seen, at first hand, the man-made disaster of 9/11 kill thousands in seconds and render a great city helpless and floundering for weeks and months after. But then I thought, as my neighbor said, “What you gonna do?”
Which was when I remembered Mandel’s car.
Tom Mandel was the first good friend that I made during the stone age of online communications in the 1980s. He was my first ‘cyberbuddy’ in the days before we had such a wet word for it. I met him through the Well conferences (about which the less said the better these days), and he grew to be a real friend in the real world. We even co-authored a book together. He was a good, complex, secretive, and brilliant man. And he died young of a bad disease.
Tom had lived in Palo Alto and been alive during the Loma Prieta earthquake that hit the Bay Area on October 17, 1989. Nothing much happened to him or his home on that day, but people driving in the wrong section of Cypress structure on the Nimitz freeway were not so lucky. Large portions of this concrete overpass pancaked down and reduced a number of cars and 42 of their occupants to flattened slabs of metal. bone and flesh. Others, somewhat luckier, were trapped in their crushed cars until rescue.
After Tom died, his widow — a woman he loved and married in his final weeks — was going through various things and came to his car. He hadn’t used it for some months. When she began to clean it out she noticed first that the front seats had been rigged so that they could flatten backwards. Then she noticed that the back seat had been rigged so it would pop out easily enabling you to crawl into the trunk. Opening the trunk she found blankets, a number of military issue MREs, containers of water, a folding shovel, a long crow bar, two hundred feet of rope with knots tied in it every two feet, and three small but powerful hydraulic jacks. It would seem that, although he was not a man given to planning the future, Tom was at least prepared for being trapped in a collapsed structure after an earthquake. He could have gotten out of that one. It was the cancer that he couldn’t escape, but in the end there’s always something for each of us that we can’t escape.
Then there are those that we can. If we plan.
Experienced sailors, having seen the lethal caprice of the sea and survived it, have a habit of packing a “Go-Bag.” People who advise about emergencies also advise you to have one. These bags are supposed to contain all sorts of items handy in a survival situation: radios, batteries, flashlights, first-aid kits, ropes, knives, and so on. All the items deemed necessary to get by and keep going if the world around you is, suddenly, transformed to one state or another of, well, rubble.
I can understand, finally, the wisdom of that and, after this morning’s BUMP, I’ve finally gotten the message clearly enough to begin to assemble my own Go-Bag along with a few other items in the trunk of my car. I don’t know if I’m going to go as far as the hydraulic jacks, but the folding shovel and the blanket seem to be a good bet.
In order to do my Go-Bag right, I’ve made a list of all the practical things I’ll need to assemble or buy, with an eye towards practicality and portability. But as I look at it now, I can see there are some essential things that I’ll need for survival that I’ve left out. If you’ve ever made such a survival list, I’ll bet you’ve left out some of the same things. None of the sites or agencies that talk about Go-Bags include them either. I’m going back in to add them even if it means I have to throw some ‘sensible’ things out. The new additions include:
A collection of photographs of my daughter in a small album. It stops at age 11.
A card she once made for me for a long-ago father’s day.
Pictures of my wife and stepson.
A long letter of advice from my father that he wrote to me when I was too young to know how valuable it was.
A photograph of myself and my two brothers in our Sunday School best posing with my mom and dad on some long ago summer afternoon.
A sheet of paper with a hand-written haiku made for me by my first love.
A slim King James Bible owned and bearing the initials of my paternal Grandfather, that old reprobate.
A page from a notebook containing idle doodles and a few self-portraits of my daughter that she did, off hand, while being bored at my apartment in New York five years back.
Tom Mandel’s Marine dog-tags.
A small oval tin given to me by my wife Sheryl containing a very small picture of her and two silver hearts that make a soft rattling sound when you shake it.
That’s the list and I’ve now got them all in a small, sealed canvas bag next to my front door. I’ll buy the “important” survival supplies this afternoon at the mall, but for right now I think I can say that the BUMP made me jump enough to survive. My real Go-Bag is full and I think, at last, that I’m finally good to go.