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Timing is everything

The Spirit of Tehachapi

I entered into a conversation with someone who had another earthquake story. We have read a good many interesting tales, but wait until you hear Josephine Renteria Serda's story. She and I spoke for over an hour recalling the fateful day of the Tehachapi Quake but we also found we had much in common, such as age, being native Californians, both husbands having served in the military as well as our sharing an earthquake together; she in Keene and I in Tehachapi. She said it first, but I was in complete agreement that it's so nice to talk to someone near the same age as oneself. It helps when recalling certain past events, not known by many, but whose memories still linger with us. Here is her story.

Timing is everything

by Josephine Renteria Serda

At eight minutes before five in the early morning on July 21, 1952, the early dawn was interrupted with a violent earthquake of 7.5 intensity. The patients, as well as the staff of Stony Brook Retreat, – a sanitarium for those suffering from Tuberculosis – were jolted awake by a violent, loud, shock and in another half minute the initial quake began with an ear-splitting, grinding sound that kept one a prisoner until it finally stopped. It was like being dropped, picked up again and then slammed down; over and over. The sound of the buildings cracking and items hitting the floor added to the din.

After the initial shock the ground kept trembling and people tried keeping their footing as they began to attempt to leave the building. Josephine "Josie" Renteria, a patient for some months at Stony Brook, was sharing a room with two other patients, Magdalena Hernandez and Mary Caretta; both just girls in their teens. Magdalena (called Nena), had recently had surgery. Josie called to them to get under the beds for safety. She discovered it a mistake as the beds, with rollers, kept moving about the room. As pieces of the ceiling kept falling on them, she informed the girls they'd better get outside. She was able to find a wheel chair for them and both Nena and Mary were so slim they both were able to sit side by side while Josie pushed them down the hall.

An orderly noticed them and said he'd get a gurney for the post operative patient, Nena, who was still very weak. As the three moved slowly outside they were assisted to a small, grassy space. The orderly placed the gurney next to them on a pathway. He departed to help others but he did not set the brake on the gurney. Josie and Mary watched as the gurney began to roll down the sloping path. Neither Josie nor Mary were able to catch it and began to scream for help.

Dear reader, we must, at this moment, pause to provide necessary facts.

In Tehachapi, my sister and brother-in-law were helping me get myself and my two children out of my parent's house. The house had "leaned" off the foundation and was not safe. As we sat on the lawn in front of my brother's house on F Street, Father John Kennedy from St. Malachy Catholic Church walked by. He had been up town assisting in digging in the rubble of a collapsed brick building that had fallen on two different families causing eight casualties, seven of them children. He was tired and his clothes were covered with brown dirt. He said he was going down to check on the patients at Stony Brook Retreat where he also served as Chaplain.

Josie said that he was on a bicycle so it can be assumed that he rode the 11 miles to Keene for fear the roads were not passable. I do recall that for a time they were not allowing traffic to or from Tehachapi unless they were emergency vehicles. The road to Keene was the only way north out of the Tehachapi Valley at that time ... U.S. Highway 466.

As Father Kennedy approached the sanitarium he heard screams and shouts for help. He jumped off the bike and ran cross country to the hospital just in time to catch the escaping gurney!

It is said: "All of life's successful ventures are dictated by being in the right place at the right time."

About Josephine:

Josephine Renteria was to be permanently healed of her tuberculosis and was to marry her fiancé, Ray Serda in 1952. At that time he was in the Army having served as a medic; both in World War II and in Korea as well.

Josie and her husband have three children, now grown: Andrea, Gilbert and Raymond who grew up in San Jose where their parents lived for 25 years. As a civilian Ray had a barber business and Josie has had a fine career teaching children in special education classes as well as spending 35 years teaching Catechism to countless children in her parish church. She sometimes, meets a young person who will say, "Do you remember me? I was a pupil of yours."

Her parents, Arcadio Renteria and Francisca Mathewson Renteria were from Sonora, Mexico, but did not meet one another until the were in Los Angeles. It was difficult making a living during the dark days of the depression of the '30s. Her mother, a talented seamstress was able to add to the family income. Josie was born in Oakland, in 1929 and lived in several California cities but for most of her school years lived in Wasco. It was there she met her future husband, Ray. Now, in her 91st year (next Sept. 8), she would like for her story to be remembered where fate, in the form of a priest on a bicycle, was able (with a nudge from the Almighty) to respond to cries for help.

Josephine told me that she has told this story for the past 68 years, since the Tehachapi Quake.

"It's just too good for it not to be remembered, " she says.