In 1906, on April 18th, an earthquake destroyed San Francisco. It rolled from deep underground, from some hidden fault line beneath the earth or the sea and shook the foundations of the city to its core. Buildings snapped in two from the force, crumbling upon themselves, as great fissures broke beneath them. Fire took the rest, blazing through the rubble, easy kindling, leaping from ruined home to ruined home, leaving nothing but ash in its wake. To stop the flames the city fathers used dynamite, destroying buildings in the fire’s path to try and diminish potential fuel sources. There was no water to drench the fire—the earthquake had made sure of that, bursting the subterranean plumbing system into useless puddles. The ground liquefied and the few unravaged structures sank into the mire, leaving the city a smoking, steaming ruin. In 1906 the city of San Francisco, the great hub of the American West, was broken, buried and burned by forces it could not see, by forces it could not control.
One hundred years later, when I was nine, my parents and I emerged from the trains below the city to a parade across the Embarcadero. A fleet of ancient firetrucks refurbished to shiny red rolled along the street, their wheels rubbery against the asphalt. A group of old timey wagons followed, drawn by teams of horses. They moved through the city, a relic of the 1900’s in the shadow of high-rise skyscrapers. Inside the trucks and wagons, men with sideburns and handlebar moustaches waved through the century, the spitting image of history book and keystone cops. Music filled the air, pumped through a decidedly modern set of speakers Wordless and jazzy it rose above the crowd’s cheers and murmurs, above the creaking wagons and the ring of brass bells, to leave an echo as it and the parade faded away around a corner and back into the past.
Suddenly a reporter was in front of us, holding out a microphone emblazed with the orange lettering of a minor radio station. “Hi folks,” he said, his transatlantic, an affectation for the day. “What did you think of the parade?”
“What was it for?” my mother asked.
The reporter chuckled, taken aback, “Today’s the 100th anniversary of the Earthquake,” he informed us.
I knew about the earthquake from school, of course. Every child in the suburbs of San Francisco is taught about the Earthquake as a warning, as an easy way to say be prepared. “I thought it was so cool,” I said, my voice high pitched and loud, unusable for radio, “The trucks and the horses and all those uniforms. It’s just great. It’s not why we came but I’m glad we could see it.” “Oh, why did you come into the city today?” asked the reporter.
There was a short pause, I knew the answer, but not how to explain it or what it meant. It was just a fact to me, like the carnage of 1906, a thing that I knew happened, but something I couldn’t process or understand.
Finally, my father broke the silence, “Doctor’s appointment,” he said bluntly. “I got nose cancer.”
In the end, he lost just a little over half his nose, mostly on the left side. The nostril was split open and scarred, becoming a deep unseemly purple. At first it didn’t seem like much to me, just another one of those things I associated with having an older dad. He was retired, he was able to take me to school every day, and now he was missing the right side of his nose. They tried to make him a prosthetic covering. With a little bit of adhesive, it could attach to the affected area, and you’d never know he was missing anything, except they got the color wrong, a shade too pink against his tanned skin. It looked like he was wearing scar tissue over scar tissue. It bothered him, this glaring imperfection at the dead center of his face. People’s eyes were drawn to it, glancing once, subtly glancing again, too uncomfortable to ask. I didn’t notice at first. He was still my dad. He could still do all the things he used to do; it didn’t matter that there was a little less of him, he was still the same, give or take a nostril.
Every morning he would walk into school with me. Sometimes we’d sit on the little metal benches, frozen in the morning air, our breath visible before us. His large frame and my small one huddled against each other. Other times we’d go into my classroom, where the teacher would chat with us, and we’d politely listen, neither of us big talkers. I was a nervous kid, and having his calm stable presence helped prepare me for the day.
One morning he pulled up in his battered truck, and we parked, leaving the engine running for heat. Before we could leave, he started bleeding. Gushes of red ran from the ruined side of his nose, streaming down his chin and his chest, staining first his beard and then his shirt. He motioned for me to hand him a tissue, but it was no use, like trying to stop a fire with dynamite, the damage was too much and the cure too little and too late. The blood kept coming and coming. How much blood can one body have? Piles of red tissues stacked on the truck’s floor. I sobbed. You’re not supposed to see your father bleed.
Finally, it stopped, the blood subsided, and my father groaned, more from annoyance than pain. He turned to me, shivering in the passenger seat, even though the heater was still blasting, “I think you’ll have to go into school by yourself today.”
That was worse than the blood, that he was too sick, or too embarrassed of his sickness to come with me. So, I walked in alone.
I cried in class and my teacher let me leave during a spelling test.
For the next five years he would grow sicker, slowly. Not sick in the way of cheap melodrama, but sick in the slow wearing down of a body too strained by itself. It would ebb and flow, but sometimes when I closed my eyes at night, I couldn’t get the red, dripping blood out of my head.
The confluence of the Williamson River and Spring Creek is breathtaking. The water is blue. Not the reflected blue of the Ocean, which is really just the sky, or the hazy blue of a sluggish river or murky lake. This was darting, swirling, electric blue, rippling and dancing underneath the bridge, the occasional wave of white foam splashing into existence for a moment and then quickly dissipating. Though the water below me looks this way, though I know it is a bright, vibrant blue, all I can see is dull, red blood cascading away in torrents and eddies.
Along the banks of the Williamson sits an old lumber camp, now a logging museum, ancient trucks and saws parked forever by the river’s edge. There are fire engines too, and wagons, safeguards against forest fires, safeguards against profit burning to kindling. I’ve seen these engines before, or their brothers, rolling down city streets, old things given new purpose for a day.
There is also a rest stop on the banks of the Williamson. A sea of grass and pines and picnic tables tucked just off highway 97. Our RV sits there, all plastic and vinyl seating. My father sits next to it on the curb of the parking lot, too low for him to get up on his own. One hand rests on our dog’s head, the other is clutching a lit cigarette, it’s smoke rising into the Oregon sky.He has just had a stroke.
My mother and I took him to the closest hospital, Sky Lakes Medical Center, in Klamath Falls. It was the biggest building in town, four stories tall. It was late summer, and the grass had been freshly mowed, tended by some unseen gardener. Inside the hospital it was antiseptic, sterile and chemical. It also smelled like vomit, sour, sickly sweet.
He lay in bed, tubes hooked to his body, his eyes unfocused and wandering. His usually well-kept hair was wet and stringy, matted into bristles by strands of sweat. Instead of the shorts and Hawaiian shirt he had begun the morning in, a pale, thin dressing gown now hung to his large frame. It too was damp. When he spoke, his voice, already gravelly, was so low and raspy I had to lean over to hear.
A doctor, all tight smiles and pursed lips asked him, “So how long have you been smoking?”
My father tried to speak. “Fift,” he says.
“Fifteen?” said the doctor. “That’s not too bad actually.”
My father breathed in deeply and spoke as clearly as he could. “Fifty.”
“Oh,” said the doctor.
Sky Lakes Medical Center is not a small hospital by any means, but it is a relatively rural one, more used to sprained ankles and car accidents than brain hemorrhages. Different doctors came and went, hovering around his bed, their white coats flapping out behind them, looking disconcertedly like angel wings. They could lessen the swelling and try to prevent further complications. But other than that, there was nothing they could do to repair the damage. So, they arranged an airlift, three hundred miles north to Portland.
The doctors hovering above his bed, were replaced with paramedics hovering under it, lifting his prone body from the hospital bed to a travelling gurney. He groaned and muttered, protesting their less than gentle hands. When he was settled the paramedics stepped back a few feet, giving us as much privacy as possible in the cramped space.
My mother leaned forward and kissed his forehead, as I reached out and took a limp, clammy hand.
“I love you buddy,” he said. “I’ll be alright.” I didn’t know if he was talking to me or to himself. And then the paramedics took him.
My mother and I stood in the 4th floor waiting room and stared out the full glass window looking down upon the town and the surrounding valley. The sun was setting, a deep radiant orange and we could see the ambulance leave, sirens quiet. It drove, first along the hospital road, and then down the hill past the Blockbuster, whose own days were marked, and on to the highway, where it vanished from sight into the glare of the golden sun.
My mother put her hand on my shoulder, “If he has to go,” she said, tears in her eyes. “At least it’s after a good camping trip.”
I stood there for a moment, and looked at the sky, at the dark clouds rolling past the sunset. Thunder was coming, and lighting and fire with it. I didn’t know if I’d ever see my father again, if that “I love you buddy,” would be the last thing I’d hear. I wished I could see the airfield, I wished I could see the helicopter taking off. I wished I could go up to Portland, like my mother would have to. But no. I had school starting soon, and once again, I would have to go alone.
I feared that my father would die. That I would never see him again and this moment, in a hospital, in a town I’d never heard of, would be our last together. That the ambulance would disappear from sight and he would disappear from my life. Another ghost, another relic, like fire trucks rusting on the shore or wagons rumbling over paved roads, a memorialization of a vanished past.
But I also feared that he would live. I hate to say it, even now, but part of me just wanted it to be over. I wanted to close my eyes and not see blood. I wanted to imagine the man from my youth and not a half-nosed husk of that former self. I wanted my father, a man who stay silent because he didn’t talk, not because he couldn’t. I feared that he would survive that he would recover and relapse, recover and relapse. That the cycle that had begun when I was nine would keep continuing, him becoming sick again and again and again until, finally, there was no recovery. Until the pain and the heartache, the endurance of a thousand little ailments was too much, and he would be gone, for forever, and not just to Portland.
And of the two options, I prayed for that. I prayed he would survive even if it meant a long recovery and more and more chances for pain. I prayed for that even though I didn’t know what or who I was praying to. I prayed for that, even though it would mean a complicated life, never sure when you’re on stable ground.
After the great Earthquake of 1906, roughly 80 percent of San Francisco was destroyed. Some people fled the city, to Oakland or farther still to Los Angles but others stayed, first in shanty towns and rows of relief houses, but then in more permanent abodes. Slowly they rebuilt San Francisco, clearing the rubble and the ash so they could lay new foundations, until the city on the bay rose higher and larger than before, towering into the fog.
The faults are still there though. They have not gone away, though they may stay silent for decades or centuries. They lie dormant beneath the city, beneath the surrounding suburbs, beneath the lazy Pacific, rolling to the shore. At any moment, any of these faults could tense and release and an earthquake could topple the city again. It almost did in 1989, crashing parts of the Bay Bridge down to the water below, leveling onramps, and shaking the TransAmerica pyramid, wobbling it back and forth across the skyline.
How do we rebuild on broken ground? How do we rebuild when the same thing can keep happening over and over? I dream of the earthquake sometimes, the shuddering of permeance, the city crumbling to ruin only to be rebuilt again brick by brick, row house by row house until it is destroyed again, the earth itself is trying shake the city from its back. The ground we stand upon will shake, and all the structures we cling to will liquefy, sinking first into water and then into blood.
But these are not our choices. We must rebuild where we live and where we can. My father is gone now, but that does not mean the shaking has stopped, for we cannot see the fault lines that run beneath us. All we know is that an earthquake is coming. It is always coming.
Dean Engle (he/his) is a writer and educator from the Bay Area. He has been published by Transfer, Toyon, ideaFest, Brushfire, and Great Lakes Review. In his spare time he makes soup and overwaters house plants. More info can be found at engledean.weebly.com.