Fire and Rain

San_Francisco_Fire_Sacramento_Street_1906-04-18I love the old black and white movies from the twenties, thirties and forties. I used to watch them late on Friday or Saturday nights on our television when I was still a very young child. It never occurred to me that many of the beautiful men and women who so enchanted me were old enough to be my grandparents. One of my all time favorite stars was Clark Gable. Even back then I was taken by the little squint in his eyes and the sonorous voice that he used so commandingly. He filled the screen with his charisma and always seemed to be featured in epic films with stories that kept my full attention. One of my all time favorites was San Francisco which I just happened to see for the first time when my family was briefly living in northern California.

We had literally just moved into our home in San Jose in 1956, when my mother  suggested that we watch a late night television showing of San Francisco. She and my dad were huge fans of Spencer Tracy who was a costar in the flick. I would later develop an appreciation, respect and even a bit of a girlish attraction for Mr. Tracy but at the time it was Clark Gable that I wanted to see. Not surprisingly I wasn’t thinking about handsome leading men by the conclusion that the story had concluded. Instead I was terrified because I had learned about the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 in a way that only a blockbuster is able to convey. I remember enduring a sleepless night that evening as I worried that the earth might one day move beneath my feet, a fear that stayed with me until we had moved back to Texas.

It was on this day, April 19, that the horrific earthquake featured in the movie hit San Francisco, registering an 8.0 on the Richter scale. Unfortunately the city’s buildings were not constructed to withstand such a shock and so hundreds of poor souls were killed as multi-story businesses and apartments toppled to the ground. Gas lines erupted causing fires which were difficult to fight because water lines were also broken. It would take days for firefighters to quell the destruction. Many who survived were homeless and forced to live in the open air. The devastation was shocking and all of it was recounted in the movie San Francisco that so ingrained its images in my mind. Over three thousand people lost their lives and upwards of 30,000 buildings were destroyed. Like the 1900 hurricane that became synonymous with Galveston so too did the specter of another deadly earthquake hang over San Francisco, at least in my childlike mind.

As an adult I have developed a respect for the quirkiness of nature more so than a fear of its power over us. Our architects and engineers have created stronger buildings and faster response times than existed in the early twentieth century. It seems less likely that we will experience the utter helplessness that our ancestors knew all too well and yet a stormy morning like the one that is shutting down our city today reminds me that we are not immune to cataclysmic events. We pay our homeowners and flood insurance bills because of the possibility that we may one day have to make a claim if winds blow away our roofs or swelling waters enter our front doors. We spend little time worrying about the reality of such things but when the sky grows dark and the rains fill the streets we are reminded that we do not have domain over the earth.

I once asked my son-in-law Scott, who is well versed in such things, where one might move to avoid the likelihood of ever enduring any form of natural disaster. Regardless of what locale I suggested he was able to note the possibilities of nature on rampage. Our rivers sometimes overflow. We watch in horror as hurricanes head for the land. The earth rumbles beneath us. Tornadoes circle over us. Fires rage through our forests. Lightening strikes. We have safer places to shelter us than did primitive mankind but we can never completely hide. We simply have to be alert and ready for the uncertainties that have always been our lot since Adam and Eve were cast from paradise.

As I grow older I am more and more in awe of the natural world and I sense that we have important duties to perform to keep the land happy. It has always been our pridefulness that causes us the most harm. The man made structures that fell like toothpicks in San Francisco more than a hundred years ago had been thought to be strong enough to handle the underground foe that threatened the city. The Victorian homes standing level with the ocean in Galveston were temptresses of fate. Our mad obsession with diverting rivers and damming waterways scars the land and creates even greater problems time and again. The ribbons of concrete that encase the ground can’t handle the deluges that are bound to come our way. When nature demonstrates its power over us we lose again and again. We find that our feet of clay all too quickly melt.

So on a day like today when the rains are pounding our own city into submission we need to think again about the demands that we are putting on the land in the name of satisfying our human follies. We will never be able to prevent the earthquakes or the storms but we might want to think about how and where we build our structures and which resources we squander. The earth reminds us again and again that we must indeed be mindful that we humans are but a small part of the universe. If we are to live in harmony we must also live with regard for all living creatures and forces of nature. It is our duty to think about such things lest we one day find ourselves defeated by the anger of fire and rain.

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