As the years roll by, I tend to try to pretend it's not my birthday. Another day closer to the ultimate reward. But since my doctors tell me I'll live to be a hundred (I'm not sure that isn't a curse), I thought that rather than simply comment about birthdays, I'd play the game “where were you on (fill in the date or event)?” I have been around a long time, so I thought I'd just put down those events during my tenure on earth that are so vivid that I can picture exactly where I was and what I was doing at the time. Some are very personal, others were felt and remembered only by relatives and friends, and some were major events that all Americans and the world shared in. But for each of them, I still have that vivid memory.
I'm listing those events below. I'm sure I'll think of others as I ponder. But for now, I'm curious to hear from you. What events hit you so hard that you remember specifically where you were and what you were doing when the news was announced? Many of your memories will be entirely different from mine because you are much younger and don't suffer from “old folks memory.” On the other hand, I'm sure that there are some we all shared in common.
The very first event that I remember with that kind of clarity rather than just a vague memory is the Tehachapi earthquake of 1952. I was sound asleep when I was suddenly awakened by a sharp jolt and the movement of my bed across the floor. Still somewhat groggy, I told my dad to quit shaking my bed, and went back to sleep. Of course my dad was with my mom in their bedroom, holding on for dear life. When I finally got up, my bed had moved completely from one side of the room to the other end. I stepped over the books, stuffed toys and knicknacks which had been knocked off shelves and went into the living room. Everything was pretty messy there, but the big surprise was the huge crack in the ceiling that ran from the dining room, through the living room, and out to the entryway.
We lived in the LA suburb of Downey, which is almost sixty miles from the epicenter in Tehachapi (the Wolf Fault, actually). But buildings were knocked down in Bakersfield, downtown LA, and even as far out as Long Beach (which had suffered its own devastating quake in 1933). Fast forward to two years ago. My younger daughter had been begging me to get out of San Francisco and move nearer to her in Caliente and to my older daughter in Simi Valley. I was ready to leave anyway, so we started the search, and here I am. But I almost wasn't. I asked her to be a little more specific about where Caliente is. She said she lived right at the edge of the Sequoia National Forest, but that the place she was hoping I would take was about three miles farther down the mountain as the crow flies. OK so far. Isolated, and the property has three and a half glorious acres.
Then she made the mistake of telling me about nearby towns. Bakersfield is about an hour away. Tehachapi is about fifty-five minutes away. Lake Isabella is about thirty minutes away. “Whoa, say what? Tehachapi is about how far?” Well, it's actually eighteen miles away, but the Wolf Fault is even closer. It takes about fifty-five minutes to get to Tehachapi on winding mountain roads, but it takes the shock of a major earthquake about half a second to cover the same distance. So here I am, almost on top of the location that is my first clear memory. I managed to be living in San Francisco during both of the big quakes in Los Angeles. I managed to be living in Los Angeles during both of San Francisco's big quakes. But now I live practically on the site of the great Tehachapi quake, and the geologists say we're overdue. Hmmmmph.
There were many small and big events in the years following, and I have memories of most of them. But the next event where I remember precisely where I was and what I was doing was the Cuban Missile Crisis. My best friend and I were living in a dorm near the UC Berkeley campus. The only TV in the house was in the attic room of one of the other students. So when we weren't in class, all the dorm residents were huddled in that one small room, waiting to see what would happen. Out of the blue, about six months ago, I got an e-mail about our Cal 46th anniversary class reunion and our 50th anniversary Big Game Week (against Stanford). It was from the guy who rented that attic room. He asked the usual “do you remember when . . .” questions. And I replied, “I'll never forget it.”
The next event came just over a year later. The news had just been announced that John F. Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. I had been in class when the news was flashed to TV, but I wasn't anywhere near one. My buddy and I were meeting to grab a quick burger between classes, and the best place to meet was on the steps of Sproul Hall (the spot where most of the free speech demonstrations took place and where I had a student part-time job in the admissions office). He looked terrible, and there were tears in his eyes. He had already heard the news. I asked what was wrong, and he told me the president had been shot. It still didn't register with me. There had been a lot of demonstrations against University of California president Clark Kerr, but I couldn't believe anyone would shoot him.
My friend said “No, President Kennedy.” I had cut my political teeth at age 16 working on the Kennedy campaign. I was in shock. Classes were canceled, as were all the Big Game Week festivities. I spent the rest of the day at chapel or back in my dorm room, mourning. It seemed to me that for the first and only time in my memory, all the churches in Berkeley were open for those who were seeking spiritual relief, even though it was not a Sunday. The only very specific memory that I have of what transpired next was when Walter Cronkite came on to make an announcement. His voice was choked up, he removed his glasses, and told us the president was dead. The weather turned gloomy, and stayed that way for a full week.
The next four are easy. August 25, 1968—my wedding at Christ Lutheran Church in Downey. Followed by March 3, 1970, the birth of our first baby (Laura) at Kaiser Foundation Hospital in Hayward, California. Then May 19, 1972 , the birth of our son (Christopher) and October 7, 1976, the birth of our younger daughter (Andrea). Both of the latter babies were born at Kaiser Foundation in Panorama City, California. The latter two memories are very similar. In those days, husbands in the labor and delivery rooms were rare and highly optional. I remember the expectant father's waiting room. There's a reason I went to law school and not medical school. But Laura's birth remains a little more vivid. The elevators weren't working at the hospital, and OB-GYN was on the fourth floor. I partially carried and partially dragged my poor, very pregnant wife up three flights of stairs. I remember the stairwell better than I remember the waiting room
I remember the after-grad ceremony from law school better than I do the ceremony itself because it was a wild affair held at the Sheraton Universal Hotel in Universal City. Just a few week earlier, Johnny Carson had made one of his frequent cracks about the goings-on at the hotel, which he regularly called “The Sheraton Unique.” I also remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I found out I had passed the Bar Exam. I was mowing the lawn on the day before Thanksgiving, 1977. The pass rate was so low that the examiners had taken extra time to grade, then re-grade the tests. My wife told me that I had a phone call from one of my classmates. She worked at a law office, so she had access to public Bar records. I said hi, then she excitedly announced: “Congratulations, Larry, you're a lawyer!” I also remember swearing-in day because it was held at the Los Angeles Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, four days before Christmas. The Pavilion is located in direct line-of-sight with the downtown Los Angeles Superior Court, and I couldn't wait to walk down that street and have my first case.
The next memory is another earthquake, but it's a very odd memory. On January 17, 1994, Northridge (in Los Angeles's San Fernando Valley) was hit by a devastating earthquake. My older daughter lived in Northridge. But she and her husband were safe visiting with me in San Francisco. It was early in the day, and I watched the news as the magnitude of the damage became more apparent. I had hesitated to wake them up, but I finally did so. I told her to stay calm, it's only “things” and you're safe here with me. But she still looked like she was in shock. I tried to reassure her, but then she blurted out that Andrea, my younger daughter, was house-sitting for her. Now we were all in a panic. The famous picture of the four-story apartment house that pancacked down to the basement was next door to her apartment. Her apartment was literally at ground zero, and my baby was inside.
They decided to pack up and head home, and I spent the rest of the day trying to locate Andrea. A friend of mine called, and after hearing the tone of my voice, immediately headed to my place. That's what good friends do. I finally was able to get through to my son who was living near the UCLA campus in Westwood at the time while working on his BA. He told me that the freeways between Westwood and Northridge were down. So I told him his little sister might be trapped in a collapsed or badly-damaged apartment. He got on his motorcycle and headed for Northridge over the back roads through the Sepulveda Pass. Some hours later, he called to say there was no sign of her at the apartment (which was badly damaged, but not destroyed). He then headed to his mom's house in Simi Valley. Andrea had also taken back roads to Simi Valley and was safe, but even Simi Valley took some of the hit. The fireplace had moved five inches away from the living room wall.
The next event I'll always remember was 9-11, and it had eery similarities for me as the Northridge quake. I woke up early for some reason, and turned on the TV while the coffee brewed. My first thought was “why are they showing a disaster movie on a news channel?” The first tower had already been hit. As I listened and realized this wasn't a movie, I heard them saying that a second plane had just hit the other tower. Nobody was yet sure what was happening, and it took some time before there was universal agreement that this was an intentional terrorist attack. Then we started hearing about Flight 93 out of Newark. That also didn't register with me at first.
Then I remembered. My son was supposed to be in New York City for one of his regular meetings with his company's east coast reps and the Defense Department (among other things, he is an expert cryptographer). He had become used to the trip, and had learned that it was frequently easier to fly out of Newark than JFK. He was scheduled to be returning to Berkeley that morning. Panic! I tried calling him multiple times on his cellphone, with no response. More panic! Finally, out of desperation, I called his home phone to leave a message pleading with him to call me as soon as he got home (thinking, "if he gets home").
In the end, it all turned out well. He picked up the phone. He had neglected to tell me that he had quit his job the week before to start his own consulting business. He had left his cellphone upstairs in his bedroom and didn't hear it ringing. He was downstairs watching the same scenes of horror that I was watching. Only he knew where I was.
I was stuck in my apartment in San Francisco recovering from surgery during Ronald Reagan's funeral. It was very frustrating for me, since the final burial service was held at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley. I had worked on and voted in favor of setting aside the land for the library when I was a Simi Valley planning commissioner, and I adored Ronald Reagan. But I was stuck in San Francisco, a town that voted against Reagan by astounding margins. I watched it all on TV, and probably had a better view of it than my daughter Laura who lives in Simi Valley and actually attended the event.
Oddly, I also remember exactly where I was when the news was announced that Barack Obama had been elected President. My office was located just inside the front doors of the Westfield San Francisco Centre on Market Street. There was a lot of cheering and noise-making that I could hear even inside. Figuring it was another typical San Francisco demonstration or riot, I poked my nose outside to see what was going on. It was a huge and enthusiastic crowd, largely young and black, shouting “we won, we won.”