Safety Instructions from a Hotel Guidebook, Phuket, 2007

Do not panic.
Rise above yourself.
Proceed to higher ground.
Move at a brisk but moderate pace.
Faster than that.
We suggest you reconsider the importance of that particular piece of baggage.
Take only what you can carry.
We regret that dinner reservations may not be honored tonight.
It is advisable, from this point on, only to look forward.
Avoid succumbing to illusions of chaos.
There is nothing to see behind you.
Do not consider yourself an evacuee, unless you intend to become one.
Property can be replaced.
Bags can be reclaimed.
Hotel bills can still be charged to a major credit card.

Ten miles of rough road separate the ghost town of Bodie from the paved highway. Swift-moving clouds add to the particularly scenic melancholy. In a group of people, Bodie is charming, even a little mysterious; but when you stand alone in the shade of a crumbling house, you feel the severed edge of civilization. Bodie’s allure runs deeper than the harpsichord in the schoolroom or the bleached swatches in the window of the general store. Bodie embodies the hope that no matter how brutal our present, the past was infinitely worse.

Rubberneckers

By Simon J. Green

Rants

Train Wreck

Two senior citizens, women with a slow drawl to their aging voices, I watched as they scrabbled for information. They were desperate for it. The pair strained their ears, they were actually standing in their seats, trying to find the best angle to capture the snatches of detail. A train conductor was the one speaking, his voice being carried intermittently on the air and around the train’s door. I was interested, not in the story of the injured boy on the train track, but why these two women, completely unrelated to the whole scenario, were so desperate for information.

Rubberneckers. The train wreck you can’t look away from. The gaggle that gathers around an incident, all without shame, barefaced curiosity seekers apparently anonymous among their brothers and sisters. You see it all the time. Should a police car pull up to the curb and the blue shirts inside get out, you’re guaranteed at least one curtain will open and its owner peer outside. People love to stick their noses in. The train station I was at with the old women wringing their hands to find out what was going on, that was a non-event. I don’t know what happened, but two ambulance officers, a St John’s officer and two members of the police were poking around the train line on the other side of the station. Two young girls who seemed to know the boy were sobbing and consoling one another, “He’ll be alright, he’ll be OK,” while a policeman interviewed them. Another took photos. I bet you’re dying to know what happened. I’m sorry, but I can’t tell you. I didn’t find out. I looked though, snuck a peek. You’d do the same. You might be like the fellow who walked over to the other side of the station and looked over, right above the officers doing their work. He just strolled up, hands in his pockets, and looked over the edge.

I thought it was kind of rude.

I saw another incident involving a much larger gathering. Swanston Street in Melbourne, and a large crowd, about thirty or forty regular people crowded around the side of the road. This bulge of humans meant I had to walk around them to continue travelling. Unfortunately, the friends I was with detached and went to join the group. I sighed and sat down on a park bench nearby, waiting, watching as every person in that horde tried their hardest to get a better view. Like the pulsing swarm of punters at a music gig, squeezing and pushing to get to the front row. The main event here on Swanston Street was an act of violence, the aftermath, the punters hoping to get a little glimpse of the tension. At a gig you hope to get a guitar pick or drumstick to take as a souvenir. The gathering of rubberneckers were hoping for a mental photograph of the pool of blood, a broken jaw or a mashed in face. I know what happened in this scenario. Are you dying to find out? There was blood. There was a broken jaw. The police were involved. Tantalising, isn’t it? As a consequence, we were late to where we were going.

Why do people have such a macabre hunger for these sorts of events? Don’t they feel weird about it, standing over an injured boy or an arrested vagrant, staring down at them with no pretence? It’s clear they are there out of interest. I feel rude. Making it obvious I’m having a good hard look makes me uncomfortable. It seems like none of my business. The police are there, the ambulance officers are there, someone’s being treated or arrested, they’re probably a little embarrassed, or will be when they look back on it. I don’t imagine I’m helping that situation much by standing not but two feet away, staring like an open mouthed idiot. Maybe it’s just me.

Whatever the reason, all these people want the information. They want to go home and tell their friends the story that sparked up their otherwise average day. They want to store away the moment to bring out again at a party, when the conversation turns to recounts of similar stories. It’s really a purely selfish interest, a crowd of spectators without a sport.

We could have stemmed the disaster.
Paused the planet with both palms
and handed out the vaccines in time.

We could have preserved the rolling hills
and erased the tracks in the sky. We could
have brought back the Everlasting Shimmering Blue.

But everyone was out bowling.

We could have seen the signs,
deciphered the vociferous dolphins’ warnings,
proved String Theory was really an extremely tiny
Hebrew named Carl on an infinitesimal Nordic Track.

We could have realized Dark Matter was the culmination
of too many shattered goals and that when we die we will
become Super Colliders on our way to shake hands with
the architects of the universes- and incidentally, the makers
of the best damn cup of Java this side of Coffee Bean.

However, we were too busy learning the art of Feng Shui.

There was a moment where we could have become
transcendent, gained the accumulated knowledge
of The Library of Alexandria, The Gnostic Scrolls,
the truth about Roanoke and The Lost Colony of 1587.
Or at the very least-the secret to why, even though
in our life time the general population has tripled, 
it is still extremely hard to get a date in Southern California.

But we chose instead to blog.

We could have been smarter.
But we watched COPS.
We could have been leaner.
But we filled our temples with wax and gum.
We could have been stronger.
But we were Lactose intolerant.
We could have been calmer.
But we were stuck in traffic.
We could have been cleaner.
But the polls were fixed.
We could have been happier.
But then we wouldn’t be a poet.
We could have been warmer.
But it wasn’t hip.
We could have been nicer.
But we inherited money.
We could have been a star.
But Los Angeles wrecked us.
We could have been grateful.
But we were too jaded.
We could have been honest.
But it was too much fun to destroy someone.
We could have been decent.
But we killed the Indians.
We could have been fair.
But we killed the Mexicans.
We could have been colorblind.
But we killed the Blacks.
We could have had vision.
But we killed the Japanese.
We could have been beautiful.
But we killed the homosexuals.
We could have saved Jesus.
But he looked so damn cool, crucified on our Mantel Piece.

The recent Times Square bombing attempt reminded me to revisit our disaster preparedness plan. My partner Bryan and I live in New York City and first created ours in 2005, the year beginning with George W. Bush’s second term, North Korea claiming nuclear weapons, Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking — and Katrina.  Survival was the big theme. So we downloaded a template off the web, opened a bottle of pinot noir, and ordered in dinner to create it. Looking now for that file on my MacBook Air (an update since the iMac then), I considered how much has changed for us in five years. Bryan and I have both switched jobs twice, we have three more nieces and nephews, we have cycled through a dozen housekeepers, the Chinese restaurant from which we ordered that night has closed (a victim of the credit crunch) and our two-bedroom apartment’s value has doubled — and halved. Updating our emergency plan, five areas revealed how else life can move on.

Tsunami!

By Don Mitchell

Memoir

I wrote this some time ago and had no thought of posting it, but because the tsunami that hit the Samoas has been in the news and in my thoughts today, I offer this as a first-person tsunami account.

On Monday, May 23, 1960, in Hilo, Hawai’i, I was nearly killed through my own foolishness, and then, not an hour later, I began rescuing people who were already dead. I was 16.

I heard about a great earthquake in Chile on the way back from doing archaeology at a refuge cave in the Ka’u Desert. When I got to town I went to Civil Defense headquarters, where I was an amateur radio operator. There was nothing much between us and Chile, but we thought that the South Pacific would give us clues about what Chile might be sending our way, since the shock, spreading in a great arc, would pass through there first. We got crackling reassuring reports: Tahiti, nothing; Christmas Island (now Kiribati), six inches. We knew that if anything was coming, it would arrive around one in the morning.

A friend and I left the radios and went down to the shore to watch for the tsunami. Nobody told us not to. The first wave was small, nothing more than a rapid high tide, not even as frightening as a tidal bore. It wasn’t recognizable as a wave at all, but it triggered the automatic warning sirens, which began low moaning and then wailing. A few minutes later the second one arrived. It washed a foot or two higher.

By then it was after one AM, and when instead of moving water we realized we were looking at the deep lumpy black of the bay’s floor, we were transfixed. The ocean was being sucked out. We stood and watched. We scrambled a little higher on the embankment so we could see better out into the bay. We waited.

Even now I don’t know why we waited. Maybe we wanted to be cool and have something to brag about later, when we’d trade stories with the other kids about how close we’d come to the wave. All I remember from that time – it couldn’t have been more than 30 seconds – is the feeling that I had to stay there and see what was going to happen.

The next thing I saw was a wall of water that seemed to jump up from nowhere, coming at us. I knew that tsunami could do sixty miles per hour near shore, but I had never thought about what that meant, about how much time I’d have to react.

We started running up the embankment, heading inland. But I realized we’d be taken from the rear if we did, so I shouted “Bridge, bridge” and we turned and ran along the embankment and out over the Wailuku River, onto a metal landing-mat bridge that had replaced the concrete one destroyed in the 1946 tsunami. We ran towards the high ground on the other end of the bridge and we didn’t make it there. The wave hit when we were half way across, surging under and through the bridge, coming up around our knees. I grabbed the metal railing and screamed, because I believed I was about to die.

Our town was built in a crescent. Because we were at one of the tips, I could see the wave hump up and slam into downtown. The noise was tremendous. The power plant blew up and the lights went out.

The bridge bucked and heaved but it held. Even now I can hear the metal creaking and groaning, and I can feel salt water splashing my face. After maybe twenty seconds, the rushing sea dropped below the bridge deck, and we let go and ran to the other side. Some men who had been watching cursed us for crazy kids. “You real stupid, play with da wave like dat,” one yelled angrily, and the others hugged us, slapped us on the back, kept asking us if we were all right. An old Japanese man pointed his finger at us and then out towards the bay, and said, “Lucky you folks no die, you know? No can forget dis. Lucky you no die.”

We crossed another bridge upstream and went to our cars. I drove home and said to my parents, who were on the porch looking, wondering what had happened, “It’s bad, it’s bad. I think it’s all gone. I’m gonna try to rescue people.” I didn’t tell them about the bridge until much later.

I went into my father’s shop, got an axe and a crow bar, and drove back downtown where other kids had already gathered at Civil Defense. Somebody passed out red hard hats. We put them on, drove to where the worst destruction was, and began.

In the early-hours bravado we called ourselves the Rescue Squad. By dawn we knew there was no hope, there could be no one left for us to rescue. Everybody we found was dead. We kept at it for four days anyway, but never found anybody alive.

It’s only after earthquakes and building collapses that survivors last for days. A tsunami either mangles and crushes you in your house or pins you down just long enough to drown you. It’s in and out in a couple of minutes at most, but that’s enough time to kill you if you can’t get free. If you’re swept cleanly away, if you’re sucked back out to sea on flotsam or jetsam, you might survive to be found later, maybe clinging to a door, or hanging over a dresser drawer. The shock waves will have rushed on, the sea will have calmed itself, and you’re likely to be rescued from gentle swells.

We found our friend Ken Nakamoto’s mother in the first couple of hours, in a collapsed house. We wouldn’t have seen her at all except that her leg was sticking out from what had been her porch. When we heaved the porch up and got her out she was pale, even peaceful, in her nightgown. There was a little blood on her leg but she was otherwise unmarked. She had almost gotten out into the street, where maybe she could have caught something and survived.

Where’s Kenzo? we asked each other, even though we’d already poked under the house enough to be sure nobody else was there. We said this looking around as if any minute he’d come out from his room and help us with his mom. His room was smashed and his mother dead and we had her body, and we didn’t know where he was, but we started saying those things to each other anyway as if we had dropped by and were waiting for him to come home from school.

She had been drowned, not crushed; so strange to realize it: drowned, but here, inland. The sea was back where it belonged, two hundred yards away. Mrs. Nakamoto’s was the first newly-dead body I’d ever seen. It was the first one I’d ever touched, and she was cold the way everybody said bodies were, and she was smooth, too. The cool smoothness of her arms and legs has stayed with me. The sudden movement of her foot in my grasp as her body sagged when we lifted her has never left me, nor has the feeling of fear that it would slip from my hand and I would drop her, and she would be hurt.

Somebody, the police or maybe Civil Defense, had organized the little open-air buses and their drivers, pressing them into service as ambulances and hearses. The buses were called sampans and even then I caught the irony. Sampan was the name for fishing boats that left the Wailoa River every night, motored past the end of the breakwater, where the tiger sharks were, and on to open sea. Sampans stayed out all night, returning at dawn with their catch.

We lifted Mrs. Nakamoto’s body into a sampan. We laid her out on the floor on her back, because it seemed wrong to put her in face-down. But that meant we had to look at her. The driver, an old Filipino man, headed for the morgue at the hospital. All of us had been born at that hospital, which was a couple of miles out of town. I can’t remember who started it, but suddenly we were making fun of the driver, who was shaking with fear of Mrs. Nakamoto’s dead body. He didn’t deserve this from us, but we didn’t deserve to be sitting on leatherette bus seats around the body of our friend’s mother in her nightgown. We were in an open bus before dawn with a dead body we’d found, and we didn’t know how to behave.

We looked at each other, grinned, and teased him. “Shake-shake,” we called to him, “Hey, Shake-shake, baim’bai we go back downtown for get moah dead folks.” He laughed a high-pitched old man Filipino laugh, and kept on driving, shaking. I was trembling myself; we all were. We agreed it was from the cold.

When we were about halfway to the hospital, we fell silent. I felt around under the seat and found a rolled-up mat, and tried to cover Mrs. Nakamoto with it. Opened the long way it wouldn’t sit properly on her, so I turned it and covered her chest and face with it. I think we all felt better after that.

At the morgue one of the orderlies looked at us, shook his head, and said, “You folks only kids. No good you do dis.” That gave us some strength, and with it pride, which is probably what he meant it to do. We were a Rescue Squad, and had to get back to it. We’d taken our catch up the hill, and unloaded it. Experienced, blooded, we got in Shake-Shake’s sampan and went out for more.

Our high school graduation had to be postponed because there were students who were dead, there were students whose parents were dead, and the Hilo Civic Auditorium where the graduation was to be had been seriously damaged, though not destroyed. We had our graduation two weeks late in the high school gym. I sat on the gym floor in my crepe gown and tasseled hat and my fragrant maile lei. Some of the other Rescue Squad kids were there, and Kenzo was too. We avoided him when school resumed, and he avoided us too. We understood that this was the best thing.

The Guidance Counselor wrote a letter to the paper praising us, and criticizing Civil Defense for having made boys do the work of men. But we had no complaint. We wanted to sit together at graduation, but it had to be alphabetic. I felt a sense of completion afterwards, a feeling that today I’d call closure, but I didn’t know the word then. It was important to have that graduation. I think the town saw it as a sign of recovery, of hope, maybe even an affirmation: our seniors graduate no matter what.

In Hilo there’s an official tsunami memorial, but the unofficial one means more to me. It’s the town’s pedestal clock, green metal pillar and a big white face, which was ripped from its base and washed half a mile up the Wailoa River. It stopped at 1:03, hands almost together, and it’s been left that way, cracked glass and all. They put it back on its stand, near the sampan landing, about half a mile from where we found Mrs. Nakamoto.

Every time I go home I drive down to that clock, and I stay with it for a few minutes. I know the passers-by think I’m just another Mainland tourist, because that’s what I look like now. They see a middle aged bald white guy looking at their clock – just standing, looking, not saying anything, not even taking a picture. It doesn’t bother me that they can’t know what I’m thinking about, that they can’t know what I’m remembering.

I never walk out on the bridge where I screamed and was nearly swept away.