The Earthquake and the Tin Palace

We used to have a joke about the Tin Palace, which was on a post and pier foundation which seemed rickety at best and derelict in the extreme sometimes. We’d say that the house was held up by rings of dancing termites, which inevitably sent guests scattering for the yard for some reason. Really the posts and piers weren’t in such bad shape, all things considered, and I don’t think there was even all that much dry rot, let alone a single termite; I never actually saw one while we lived there although there were plenty of other things going bump in the house, like the frog in the shower[1. Remind me to tell you that story sometime.]. Whenever there was an earthquake, of course, we’d say that the termites must have put on some hoppin’ jazz and were going to it.

This I guess was kind of a cover for the concern about what would happen in an major earthquake, which is that the house would probably collapse like a house of cards and jump right off the pierblocks like a swimmer making a bid for Olympic gold. Curiously enough, though, the Tin Palace has been through a number of earthquakes of not insignificant size and it’s still standing and is still structurally sound, so I guess there’s something to be said for rings of dancing termites and post and pier foundations. I note that some local houses which are supposedly much more solid haven’t fared as well, which tells you something about dubious construction techniques, I guess; sometimes they hold together better than you might expect.

Anyway, one day I was sitting out on the side porch, because it was a clear and warmish day and it was a nice day for being outside. Actually, I was perching on the railing, which was reasonably wide, and reading a book. I’d like to say that I can remember what it was, but I can’t, so I’ll say it was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland although I suspect that wasn’t it. As I recall, it was early in the morning, and my father was still upstairs doing early morning things, like reading in bed and drinking his coffee while he attempted to wake up. It must have been a weekend day, or maybe even the summer, and probably he was gearing up for some sort of exhausting activity which I was masterminding.

Mr. Bell was sitting on the other railing, waiting for me to finish whatever it was which I was so intent upon and do something more interesting. He’d learned at this point that it could be a long wait. If he was lucky, we’d walk to Jughandle or Caspar Beach and he could follow us there and sit upright on the sand at the high tide mark with his tail curled up around him and a look of extreme distaste, blended with boredom, on his face. If he wasn’t, we were off to the river, and he didn’t much fancy the car, so he’d have to stay at home and glare pointedly when we returned.

Right around the time that my father drifted downstairs for another cup of coffee, the earth started shaking. I’ve been in a fair number of earthquakes in my day, but I remember this one in particular because the shaking was long and it was rolling, sort of like the Earth was a ship pitching on the high seas or like we were being rattled over one of those foot massager things with the little beads. I’m used to being shaken like a defective Etch-A-Sketch, but rolling is a bit unusual in this neck of the woods.

I was hurled right off that railing, about 14 feet up, like a sack of potatoes, and tumbled head over heels into the nasturtiums next to the porch. Likewise, the book ended up somewhere deep in the foliage. The way my father tells it, he hit the bottom of the stairs, looked out, saw me get jerked off the railing like a fish on a hook, and then realized that the entire house was rippling. Books crashed out of the shelves and pictures slammed right off the walls and the Earth rolled and rolled and rolled and didn’t stop, like a horse with a fly on its flank with a shuddering muscle that keeps twitching even after the fly has flitted off to greener pastures.

In the nasturtiums, I lay and felt the ground wriggling around underneath me and watched the vines bob and dance. It was sort of like being thrown inside a giant green barrel; the nasturtiums were so high that I disappeared entirely in them. When the shaking was over, my father bolted out and I was entirely invisible and somewhat bemused as he peered high and low for me, reasoning that I couldn’t have been thrown that far from the railing because I was a reasonably solid person.

Eventually I rose, like the creature from the black lagoon, and the Earth spent the next few hours fussing and grumbling to itself until finally it simmered down and everything tapered back to normal. Not very much damage was sustained, so it wasn’t a terribly memorable earthquake for most people; I just remember that moment of flight, sailing against the pure blue sky before I slammed back to Earth in a shower of petals and crushed leaves emitting that tangy scent nasturtiums have, and when I surfaced, Mr. Bell clung to the other railing and stared stonily at me as if to say ‘you know this is all your fault.’