Tuesday, April 18, 2006


April 18, 1906

It happened early in the morning and it lasted two minutes and twenty seconds, as I heard everyone say afterward. My father was sports editor of one of the San Francisco papers. There was a racetrack near our bungalow and stables where my father kept a horse. He said that the night before had been a sultry one and the horses were restless, neighing and stamping in their stalls, becoming increasingly nervous and panicky. The earthquake started with a deep rumbling and the convulsions of the earth started afterward, so that the earth became a sea which rocked our house in a most tumultuous manner. There was a large windmill and water tank in back of the house and I can remember the splashing of the water from the tank on the top of our roof. My father took my brothers from their beds and rushed to the front door, where my mother stood with my sister, whom she had snatched from beside me. I was left in a big brass bed, which rolled back and forth on a polished floor. Whether I realized what was happening I do not know, but I do know that the whole event was confused in my mind with something which might have occurred a few nights earlier, my mother fainting on the floor of my room on her way to the bathroom, and my father carrying her back to bed. The illness of my usually strong and cheerful mother and the earthquake were both part of the world's tragedy to me.

When the earth settled, the house was a shambles, dishes broken all over the floor, books out of their bookcases, chandeliers down, chimneys fallen, the house cracked from roof to ground. But there was no fire in Oakland. The flames and cloud bank of smoke could be seen across the bay and all the next day the refugees poured over by ferry and boat. Idora Park and the racetrack made camping grounds for them. All the neighbors joined my mother in serving the homeless. Every stitch of available clothes was given away. All the day following the disaster there were more tremblings of the earth and there was fear in the air. We had always been considered Easterners by our neighbors and one of them told my other he would rather have San Francisco's earthquakes than our eastern thunder and lightning storms any day!

-- Dorothy Day, from The Long Loneliness, pp. 21-22

What I remember most plainly about the earthquake was the human warmth and kindliness of everyone afterward. For days, refugees poured out of burning San Francisco and camped in Idora Park and the racetrack in Oakland. People came in their nightclothes; there were newborn babies.

Mother had always complained before about how clannish California people were, how if you were from the East they snubbed you and were loath to make friends. But after the earthquake everyone's heart was enlarged by Christian charity. All the hard crust of worldly reserve and prudence was shed. Each person was a little child in friendliness and warmth. ...

While the crisis lasted, people loved each other. They realized their own helplessness while nature 'travaileth and groaneth.' It was as though they were united in Christian solidarity. It makes one think of how people could, if they would, care for each other in times of stress, unjudgingly, with pity and with love.

-- Dorothy Day, from The Long Way Home, in Selected Writings, pp. 10-11

Collective Improvisation:

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