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Brandon Lingle




The crash and slip of tectonic plates spawns earthquakes. But the ancients’ explanations resonate with me. Certain Hindus thought earth rides four elephants, balanced on a turtle’s back, tottering on a cobra’s head; the earth shakes when any of these creatures shift. For Siberians, earth perches on the god Tuli’s sled and the land quivers when his dogs scratch fleas. Namuzu, a catfish curled in the mud under Japan, thrashes when his subduer—the demigod Kashima—gets careless. Vaqueros blame El Diablo ripping the earth from the inside. Some Greeks blamed Poseidon; others blamed shifting air pockets. Further suspects include the Great Spirit, Atlas, Drebkuhls, Chibchacum, raging underground seas, seven serpents, thunder, Loki, vengeful angels, a cross-dressing demon named Poxono, giants and their wives, frogs, whales, and thunderbirds.  Several scientists argue that unlike most calamities, earthquakes trigger human beings’ primary fear—falling.


GI Joe just reminded me “that knowing is half the battle” when a low-thunder rumble, from too far away, rose above my crunchy mouthful of Froot Loops. The joint cracks of 2x4s and drywall punctuated the growl like a brittle invalid forced to stretch. Dual-mirrored candle holders swayed above the dining room table like twin faces disagreeing in unison. The brass light fixture, with eight tear-drop bulbs, carved lazy eights in the air.

Just then, my father—the chief of police—grabbed my 1st grade bicep. Shaving cream gave a Santa Claus feel to his anxious eyes. He didn’t have his shirt, but a badge and holster hung on his dress belt. He didn’t know what to do. A Hoosier new to the Golden State, Dad was better equipped to deal with twisters and doped-up college kids than tectonic plates liquefying beneath his feet. Images of the Big One—California falling into the sea—percolated through his brain. Instead of bracing under the sturdy oak table, we scrambled to the master bedroom. He tried to shove me under the California king, but I was too husky. The shaker ended before I stood up.

That day I heard older school kids chattering about a tsunami—the whole Pacific Coast under some sort of tidal wave alert. Worn out teachers explained the 3.4 temblor couldn’t generate a killer wave, but their words didn’t soothe my paranoia. That night I dreamt of a towering green-black wall of water—backlit by the moon—barreling toward me. This old water monster slams the shallows, soars up, looms over the houses, and pauses; a ten-story killer just milliseconds from obliterating Goleta, California.


My nine-year-old dream of the zoo’s misty rainforest vanished when Dad snatched me from bed and hauled me out of grandma’s two-bedroom apartment on the 10th floor of Grace Tower, a San Diego retirement home. Dazed from sleep, I thought we were taking out the garbage at 5 a.m. Grandma held fast in her recliner, knitting and smoking Virginia Slims. As we traded the apartment’s cigarette air for the hallway, I heard her, “If it’s my time, it’s my time.”

Shoeless, we scrambled down the outdoor stairwell cleaved to the building’s spine. While hopping the concrete steps, I realized it was an earthquake. Maybe it was the tower’s swaying or maybe Dad told me. The shaker was over before we hit the stairs, but that didn’t slow our escape into the earthquake. Out of breath at street level, Dad declared an end to our vacation, and an immediate high-speed run back up the coast. I sheltered in place—in the cardboard brown Nissan Sentra—while Dad climbed back up to pack. In the car, I heard stale-voiced newscasters report on damage and aftershocks. The Oceanside quake registered 5.3 on the Richter, a force equivalent to 150 kilotons of TNT or 10 Little Boys, the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima. One person died, a hermit crushed by his bookcase.

My old man—a die-hard Catholic—said we all die, we aren’t in control, and not to worry about it because there is nothing we can do. During mass at Saint Raphael’s that Sunday, I peered at the car-sized light fixtures—wrought iron, flying-saucer shaped masses—waiting to jackhammer me into the kneeler after their flimsy chains snapped. And the stained glass. Lead and edges, one step from bullets and blades. I conjured splintered shards imploding and pinning me to the pew.


San Jose creek tumbled its way toward the Pacific a block from my childhood home. Tim and I waded the waters scooping tad poles and casting salmon eggs for fish that weren’t there. Once we scoped an old milk bottle jutting from a steep bank fifty feet above the stream. A colony of tiny black ants thrived within the jug’s frosty glass. We pried the container from the dried soil and watched the ants scramble as their world flipped. A moment later, I palmed the bottle and softball lobbed it toward the calm waters. The jug whirled on its parabolic trajectory slinging its contents like spin paint as I shook ants from my hand. An explosion of glass—then soil, ants, and eggs floated or fell to the surface, spreading in rings from the epicenter. We clambered to the stream to view the carnage as the San Jose’s waters scurried the ant world to sea. Survivors clung to each other and brittle brown sycamore leaves.

Villagers in Eastern Europe or Southern Asia use a failsafe earthquake warning system. Like canaries in coal mines alerting miners to poison gas, ants in ant hills can sense seismic spasms. People eyeball the mound from time to time, and if they spot frenzied ants—hauling eggs from the nest—then a tremor is imminent. In California, many believe cats and dogs can sense temblors. Experts discount people’s beliefs that insects or animals can predict earthquakes.


Fifth grade football practice on La Canada Elementary’s shabby turf. As a skinny lineman on the Scorpions, I willed practice over so I could get home to watch Game 3 of the World Series, the Battle of the Bay… A’s versus Giants. McGwire and Canseco were due. My coaches, a trio of gritty sergeants from nearby Vandenberg Air Force Base, wanted to be home watching the game too. One of the assistants—Ellis, an Air Force cop—had played ball at Clemson, and yelled too much. The sun hovered above a wall of fog chugging in from the Pacific. The sergeants seemed meaner than usual. Their ire likely targeted Andy, the kid who bawled at practice the day before. The sergeants wanted us tough, to peel our baby fat. Tackling drills.

There was no way I could have felt the 7.1 Loma Prieta quake killing dozens nearly 300 miles from me. The shaker would have felt like thunder if I wasn’t battle-royalling another kid between the two tattered yellow dummy bags. The truck’s radio blared when Dad picked me up. I expected Al Michaels’ voice propped up by background crowd noise. Instead, newscasters droned about pancaked highways, a broken bridge, and exploding row houses. Later, I read motorists’ accounts: “The bridge was like a wave. I saw the bridge go up and down and then I passed out,” or “the freeway was just falling down. Concrete was flying everywhere and people were screaming.” I watched news videos of the Superman cars trying to jump the gap in the Bay Bridge. Could they just not stop, or were they trying to escape—to span the void?  


Parkinson tremors shake up insidious, unpredictable, and terrifying consequences just like the spontaneous flux, rupture, or twist of tectonic plates. Like fault lines crisscrossing California, Dad’s synapses and nerves cradled a terrifying potential. His motor cortex and spine, a personal San Andreas. A lack of the key neurotransmitter, dopamine, generates Parkinson’s, and the friction between two chunks of crust churns up earthquakes. No chemicals or hormones can ease the tension between these tons of rock just as they can’t relieve Parkinson’s. Medications can’t penetrate the blood-brain barrier. Brain surgery can temporarily mask symptoms, but it becomes futile, like riding out an earthquake in a doorway.

Dad spent every minute wondering not if or when, but how his world would shake. It began simply with a twitch in the hand, a jumpy leg. Not crumpled bridges, or flattened schools, but the helplessness of not being able to carry a cup of water, walk to the bathroom, or work a fork. He lived in a world of aftershocks constantly reminding him the Big One was coming.


Often earthquakes don’t kill, but their side effects do. It’s not the earth’s shaking, but the movement of things—buildings, glass, furniture, water—that slaughter. In the great San Francisco quake of 1906, fire consumed more lives than seismic waves. The 4th deadliest shaker in history slammed countries ringing the Indian Ocean on December 26, 2004. It registered 9.3, roughly 26.3 megatons of TNT or 1500 Little Boys. The quake—off Sumatra, 19 miles below sea level—unleashed 10-story tsunamis. More than 230,000 people—the population of Birmingham, Orlando, Scottsdale, or Jersey City—died not from the shaking, but the walls of sea water.  

Many diseases don’t kill, but their side effects will. Choking, pneumonia, falling, or dementia usually claims Parkinson sufferers. Dementia ravages 40 percent of Parkinson’s patients. For my father, dementia was his Big One. Three years before his death, he fell into a choppy sea of memories, hallucinations, and delusions. His past blurred with the present, marooning him in time and place. Early on, his grip on reality overpowered the episodes. He could rationalize his way out, lulls in the storm.

Eventually, the delusions and hallucinations became his reality. Frequently he was two states and decades away. Sometimes he left the house for 3 a.m. appointments. He called the sheriff to rid the house of invisible trespassers. Mom moved his guns out, sold his truck, and took his keys. Dad blamed my Mother. She conspired with the spacemen. In 2005, I was charged as an accomplice when I couldn’t take him to a 1977 Illinois Elks Lodge for a Pabst. His grandkids were alien progeny. He unpacked and reshuffled thirty years worth of police records daily. He showed my wife crime scene Polaroids from yesterday’s twenty-five-year old murder.

He said “this is the damndest stuff; I’m not sure how it will end up.” The medicines wore off with sleep, and most nights he was paralyzed in bed with his runaway mind. He slept with a hand-crank radio, sports commentators linked him to reality and lulled him to troubled sleep. Once, raccoons, skunks, and porcupines scurried around his room, under his bed—glared from the windowsill. He asked me to help oust the rodents, and warned me about their short fuses. He recommended a soft “shhhh” sound. Together we shooshed away the varmints.


The VA dementia unit’s locked doors open in one direction, and they buzz to let staff and visitors in. Once I walked in his room to find him under the bed. His bare feet jutted out, like a Wizard of Oz witch or shoeless mechanic. The orderly said he’d been under there for an hour.

“What’s going on, Pop?”

“Damn earthquake, so I got under the truck.”

“A big one?”

“Not too bad.”

“Why are you still under there?”

“Figured I should fix this thing while I was here.”

“Can I help?”

“Sure, hand me that crescent.”

On my knees, I handed my father an imaginary wrench as he tinkered with the motors and rods of the wheeled hospital bed. When he finished, I grasped his still muscular arms, helped him to his feet. Later, I sat at the foot of his bed and wished he could somehow get us out of this mess. On the way out, I stood in the doorway and clutched the frame.

Brandon Lingle

Brandon Lingle’s work has appeared in The North American Review, War, Literature, & the Arts, Airman Magazine, and elsewhere. He is the art director of War, Literature, & the Arts. He teaches at the US Air Force Academy.

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