Mike Bowen: Break-Up

By Guest Contributor December 7, 2014 02:30

Another FANtastic Tale of Adventure

By Mike Bowen

Life is a journey. Sometimes we try to plan our journey by deciding where we’re going, when and how we’re going to get there. Other times a single split-second decision or event can change our lives and the direction we’re going forever. Each of these things has happened to me at one time or another over the course of my 70 years.

After high school I went for one semester to our local community college but couldn’t decide on a path. Then a classmate announced he had enlisted in the Air Force and it got me to thinking that maybe this was the way for me to go. I saw the recruiter the next day and it wasn’t long before I was heading for boot camp.

Toward the end of boot camp while we were in front of the barracks in formation the training instructor announced that overseas assignments had come in and those whose names were called should step forward.  He stated that only four of the 50 of us who asked for overseas assignments would be called forward. He began reading the names over the sighs of the assembled airmen. I was excited to hear my name called first. The four of us were ordered to the N.C.O.I.C.’s office for more information as to where we were being assigned.

The master sergeant welcomed us into his office and told us to stand at ease. He pulled out our orders and proudly told us we were going to A.P.O. 942. We stared at each other wondering what the hell that meant.

Jim, the airman on my right, timidly asked, “Where is that?”  The sergeant said, “Oh, well, let me see.” He pulled out a book and ran his fingers across a column then stated, “That’s Japan.”  Before we could get too excited he continued, “Oh, wait a minute,” and ran his finger back across the page again and said, “I’m sorry, it’s Alaska.”

It got real quiet. We didn’t know Alaska was still considered by the Air Force as an overseas assignment. The only references I had in my memory of Alaska was an old picture of Juneau showing a tall-steepled church with a snow-covered mountain in the background and Eskimos in igloos.

As it turned out, we were stationed at Elmendorf Air Force base outside Anchorage, Alaska. Including the outlying locations there were over 100,000 people living in the Anchorage area.  I discovered I loved Alaska and made a lot of good friends among the locals. Even though I was not Jewish, I made many friends in the Jewish community. An Air Force colonel invited me to his house to join his family for a traditional Seder dinner on the eve of Passover.

I arrived a little early and was told the colonel went to the base to pick up a couple other airmen he also invited to dinner. The lady of the house invited me in, and as dinner was pretty much ready, we only had to wait for the others to arrive before we could begin. The mom and daughter sat on the couch next to the front door.  Their son and I went to the back rumpus room and while he sat down in a nearby chair, I began to cross in front of him to sit on a chair on the other side of him.

At that moment I wasn’t aware of the time but later learned it was 5:36 p.m. March 27, 1964.

As I crossed in front of the boy I noticed a three-foot hollow chicken-wire ball start to roll across the floor on its own. Being from California I knew what that meant. I said, “Earthquake.”  I looked at the boy and said “Let’s go,” and we ran out back.

I assumed the mom and daughter would exit the front door, but then I was only 19 and not a parent. It never occurred to me that they would come through the house where dishes and other things were now flying as the quake continued to grow intensely.

Once in the backyard I could see that theirs was the only property with a backyard fence; it was only about three feet high, more decorative than functional.  By now the shaking was so violent that it was impossible to stand on one’s own two feet without holding on to something. We held on to the fence and each other. The roaring of the ground rumbling was so loud we had to shout to be heard. I could see the end of the street about half a block away where an elementary school and a house next door to it were being torn apart.

They were on the edge of a small cliff above the railroad yard below. We watched in horror as we saw the house go over the cliff and out of site. The classrooms of the school were a little farther away from the edge but we watched the play yard break up and every classroom split right down the middle. It was fortunate the school was not in session.

The shaking lasted three solid minutes and took another couple of minutes to completely die down. That was and is the longest five minutes of my life. The earthquake was a 9.2 on the Richter scale. In the state 113 people were killed, including 30 in the Anchorage area.  I remember thinking at one point during the quake, “Is this Armageddon?”

In the weeks that followed I saw the devastation in the area firsthand, on and off base, and how quickly the inhabitants came together to rebuild. It was a rude awakening for this teenager to see how quickly life could change – and a chance for me to think about what life is all about, and what should I be doing to make it worthwhile.

Mike Bowen is a retired communications worker who lives and writes in the Lake Don Pedro area of California.

 To read our Tales of Adventure Contest winners’ stories, see the Winter 2014 issue
of Friends and Neighbors Magazine, available at these locations and by subscription.
By Guest Contributor December 7, 2014 02:30
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