Brushes with death
I've had four.
When I was about three years old, I got a really severe case of flu. These days, it seems like flu usually is sort of like a really bad cold. When I was a kid, it usually caused vomiting. In my case, it was so severe and long lasting that I couldn't keep anything down, even water. As a result, I got severely dehydrated.
I was a sick little puppy. I had to be put into the hospital and had intravenous fluids for three days. Were it not for modern medicine, I probably would have died. As it was, I recovered completely.
When I was in third grade, my parents sold our home in NE Portland, Oregon, and purchased an empty lot in another part of the city. We moved a trailer house onto it, and lived in it for two years while we built a house there. Now when people say "We built our home" they usually mean that they hired a contractor. But we built our house; my grandfather who was a foreman for a large construction company came up on weekends to help, and my dad and older brother spent all their spare time, and friends of my parents came over to help. My uncle, who drove a cement mixer, poured most of our concrete for us. The basement was built, we floored it over, put up the frame of the house, covered it over with trusses, framed the entire thing with plywood, but didn't yet have any of the internal partitions up. And I helped, too, as much as a third grader can.
Then a freak typhoon named Frieda hit on October 12, 1962. Forever after, in the Northwest, it was known as the Columbus Day Storm. (A large rotary storm in the Atlantic is called a hurricane, in the Pacific it's called a typhoon [from the Japanese taifun] and in the Indian ocean it's called a cyclone. But it's the same thing.)
They talk about the thousand year storm, the storm which is so severe that it only happens once per millenium. Frieda was it. Like in the Atlantic, rotary storms at that latitude tend to go west, so that they would naturally hit Japan or Indonesia or the Phillipines or the coast of Asia. Just as Florida gets hit several times per year, but France gets hit once every few decades. So it was for Oregon.
Now you may have heard that there are a lot of trees in Oregon; big trees. And it's true. They're called Douglas Fir trees, and there's only one kind of tree that gets taller (Sequoias). A dense stand of fir trees support each other; and high wind blows over the top.
But for the last hundred years the white man has been cutting down the trees -- but leaving a few of them, because they're pretty. And they stand alone, or in small groups. They're all over the place. Especially in the cities.
And the windstorm hit, with 100 mile per hour winds. It crossed onto the land in northern California, settled into the Willamette valley, and headed north. Portland got hit square.
Trees toppled by the thousands. Roads were blocked, trees fell on houses, power lines were down; the area was crippled.
Our problem, though, wasn't trees -- at least not initially. Our problem was that the roof of the house was a moderately good approximation of a wing.
The wind picked it up and carried it about a hundred feet, then dropped it on the ground. And we had to tear it completely apart, to salvage as much of the lumber as we could, and put it back up again. It set us back months. Fortunately, the S&L was very understanding.
Shortly after the house blew down, my parents began to worry that it might tip over the trailer, too. So we walked next door and spent the night with our neighbors. I remember walking with my mom, her hand tightly clasping mine. She held onto me so tight it hurt. Of course, she was worried about losing her grip. My dad carried my younger sister, and my older brother, who ws in 8th grade, walked with us.
We weren't the only ones staying there that night. Because of the trees down on the road, it was blocked. A lot of people who knew our neighbors had become trapped, and stopped there, too. I was, perhaps, too young to understand the tragedy of it. To a little kid, it was just exciting.
Then we had to stay with my other uncle for a couple of weeks, until power had been restored to our part of the city.
It was weeks before things were back to normal.
We, in the Northwest, secure among our trees, used to make jokes about how stupid the people in California were to live on top of a major earthquake fault. And then Mt. St. Helens woke up after a short nap, and we all found out we were living in the middle of one of the most active ranges of volcanos on earth.
It turns out that Mt. St. Helens tends to wake up about every 110 years.
I saw the "big one", May 18. I woke that morning to my clock radio going off, but instead of the usual news, they were talking about the eruption. We all knew it was coming; the mountain had been clearing its throat intermittently for weeks. But when it finally happened, what it did caught everyone by surprise.
I lived near Portland, Oregon at the time. It's only about forty miles from Mt. St. Helens, and you can see it easily on a clear day. I drove up to a place in Portland called Council Crest, the highest point in the city, where the view would be expected to be particularly spectacular.
You could see it, alright. There were hundreds of people up there, but no-one was saying a word. It was far enough away from the mountain so that you couldn't hear the eruption; there was nothing keeping people from talking -- except that there was nothing to say. It was and is the most mind-boggling thing I've ever seen in my life. I kept thinking to myself "That must be what a nuclear explosion is like." It was a humbling experience.
You've all see the pictures, so I don't need to describe it. The wind was blowing to the east, away from us, so we had a clear view and none of the ash fell on us.
A few weeks later, during a much smaller eruption, the wind was blowing towards us and we got about an eighth of an inch of ash. It's a real pain. It's pulverized rock, very fine, almost like talcum powder. The only problem is that it contains a fair percentage of powdered quartz, which is the hardest substance to occur commonly on earth. (Everything harder is a gemstone.) The stuff is so fine that it goes right through a normal air filter, and gets into your cylinders and erodes the rings. I didn't move my car for weeks, until there had been several rain storms to settle the stuff. (Eventually it joined the soil; that's how soil is built in that part of the country.) Even walking around in it when it was fresh, you had to wear a face mask.
The wind blows that direction about 20% of the time there.
If on May 8 the wind had been blowing the same way it was the day we got dusted, Portland would have been buried 8 feet deep in ash, and most of the people in the city would have died, upwards of a million all told. Not immediately, but because of thirst. It would have fouled the city's reservoirs and the water system would have failed, and with 8 feet of fluffy ash all over everything there would have been no way to evacuate the city. And there is no way that helicopters could have brought in enough water to keep everyone alive; water is bulky and heavy.
There's a small joke associated with this event. A few years previous I had been living with a guy who was a member of the Sierra Club. At the time there was a controversy about the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, because the Forest Service was trying to decide how much of it to develop for logging, and how much to try to preserve as roadless wilderness. You can imagine how the Sierra Club felt about that.
They began a letter writing campaign. My roommate had a copy of the report the Forest Service generated, and because of government regulation they were required to reproduce every letter they received. It was prety obvious to the casual observer that there had been an organized letter writing campaign, because so many of the letters, though hand-written, were word-for-word identical.
The joke is that Nature made the whole discussion moot. Most of the area they were debating was laid waste by the blast.
A few years after that, something much smaller and more personal happened. I was the passenger in a car which was totalled at 60 miles per hour. It was the fourth car in a five car pileup. The driver and I both walked away from the wreck, but that's because we had been wearing our seatbelts. Had I not been wearing mine, I would have gone through the windshield of the car and probably would have been killed.
Anyone who doesn't wear seatbelts is a fool. I always wear mine, even if I'm just moving the car six feet in a parking lot.
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