My Western friends got a good laugh out of the shattered nerves in Washington—and all along the eastern seaboard, as far as I can tell—after last week’s earthquake. Just as my New England/Midwestern friends are amused by Washington’s paralysis when it snows, the Californians of my acquaintance were quick to remind me that temblors are a routine occurrence where they reside, and that 5.8 on the Richter scale is not exactly the stuff of nightmares.

Having lived in Los Angeles once upon a time, I take their point. Earthquakes of various shapes and sizes are not just recurrent affairs out there but the stuff of everyday life. Californians are perpetually aware of, and commendably vigilant about, the possibility/probability that the Big One will strike one day. Back then my alluring wife worked at Architectural Digest, which was located in a very tall building across Wilshire Boulevard from the La Brea Tar Pits. I used to comfort her with the notion that, when the Big One struck, she and her colleagues would be hurled out the windows into the goo—to be discovered, analyzed, perhaps even publicly displayed centuries hence by paleontologists.

In defense of Washington, however, I should point out that, having lived through a handful of earthquakes in my time, I deem last Tuesday’s seismic event not trivial. I happened to be eating lunch in a restaurant with a friend, and the violent shaking of the building, accompanied by the usual implosive sounds, was not easily ignored. We were located, moreover, roughly six blocks from the White House. My immediate diagnosis, based on experience, was an earthquake. But the vast majority of Washingtonians (I would guess) have no such experience, and in the midst of the war on terror, a loud booming sound, accompanied by unprecedented rocking and rolling, is a legitimate cause for fear.

Which, along with confusion, is the standard human reaction to earthquakes. I was impressed a year ago when the Washington area experienced a very minor temblor—a precursor to this latest event?—an hour or two before dawn. Where I live (Fairfax County, Virginia), it manifested itself as a mild vibration, which woke me up. But I am so jaded by the symptoms—so Californian, in a sense—that my initial thought was “minor earthquake,” and I drifted back to sleep.

Not fear but embarrassment, I confess, was my dominant sensation the first time I experienced an earthquake. And the setting was similarly unlikely: the Villanova University campus, on the Main Line outside Philadelphia, at 3 a.m. EST on February 28, 1973.

Before going to bed I had realized, with some regret, that I had no clean clothes to wear—a familiar predicament for many college seniors—and, being paradoxically fastidious about such things, decided that I would have to do something that I never did and still dislike: go to sleep without any clothes on. There was time, after all, for a quick visit to the laundry the next morning before classes.

Suddenly it was the middle of the night, and I was rudely awakened by the sound of a rushing train. This was not especially unusual—two lines crossed the Villanova campus—but commuter trains didn’t usually pass through at three in the morning, and the locomotive sound was considerably louder than usual. Indeed, it sounded as if the Philadelphia & Western were about to crash through my (ground floor) window.

Just as my semicomatose brain had processed these impressions, the building began to shake—and I guessed that the danger was not from a runaway train but from the boiler in the basement. The old radiator under my window used to make all the standard creaking and popping sounds familiar to consumers of steam heat; but they were nothing like this. For a moment I perceived that the boiler, in the iron-cold Pennsylvania winter, had finally reached the limit of its aged endurance, and my quaint Victorian Gothic dormitory was about to blow up.

But of course, coupled with this frightening prospect was the equally disconcerting realization that I would have to spring from my bed, dash down the corridor, and fly out the door completely naked. My mind, now operating at a slightly faster speed, entertained a series of urgent questions: Was my life worth the momentary delay to pull on (dirty) clothes and avoid embarrassment? How cold was it outside? And most poignant of all: Why, in God’s name, had I chosen this, of all nights, to sleep in the nude?

To which, I must report, I never arrived at a satisfactory answer, since at that moment the shaking subsided, the noise diminished, and along with everybody else from Trenton to -Baltimore, I thankfully concluded that I had just survived the Great Philadelphia Earthquake of 1973.

Next Page