Remembering the day
The Spirit of Tehachapi
August 19, 2023
Few would elect to be in a major disaster, but if you've experienced one, there is a kinship with those who also shared the catastrophe that creates a lasting camaraderie.
People sometimes ask, "What were you doing when Kennedy was shot?" The same question about Sept. 11, 2001. Many just call it 9/11. We all remember events such as those but as time passes, and the people who were there also pass, the event itself dims. Franklin Roosevelt said that the attack on Pearl Harbor is a date that would live in infamy, but the people who were there "in the flesh" to remember the fateful day, are becoming fewer as time marches on.
A reporter from channel 23 Bakersfield, visited Tehachapi Museum a few years ago asking for help in contacting people he had spoken to some 15 years ago about our July 21,1952 Tehachapi earthquake. Talk about feeling one's age; I was the only one on the list still hangin' around. Well, Charles White and I talked to him and he left with some information for his broadcast about our day of infamy.
July of 1952 was hotter than normal and very humid. It was also devoid of the famous Tehachapi winds and breezes. One could count each leaf as it hung motionless on the trees. People called this kind of action of the elements, "earthquake weather." Everyone knows that there is no such thing as earthquake weather! Mother Nature plays by her own rules.
In the wee hours of the morning of the 21st the weather turned quite chilly and I had gotten up to put light blankets on the children. I had just dozed off when the town was awakened by a single, violent jolt. We just had time to wonder, "What was that?" The major 7.5 shake sounded like the earth was in a giant grinder. There was no way to get out of bed as the quake kept picking up the house and dropping it, or so it seemed. Dead silence followed and then we began to communicate with the neighbors, which were my sister and brother in their homes next door.
I was assisted by my sister, Evelyn and her husband, John Catalano, with my two babies. We were fine but the house was damaged some. We went next door to my brother, Everett Davis' where we sat outside on the lawn with family members. We were experiencing after shocks by the dozens and we kept hearing the only two church bells in town ringing. The aftershocks were keeping them tolling. At the same time, Mr. Martin, just down the block on main street, was calling "help" over and over for aid in digging his children from beneath the rubble of his home. With the bells and the calls for help it created a sort of a surreal Twilight Zone atmosphere. Help was there but he, in shock, kept calling.
With children though, we tried to keep as calm as possible. My niece Gerry Starks, was not yet 6 but does remember, during the quake, looking out the window at her grandmother's house; it disappearing from view and then re-appearing. The refrigerator was blocking their back door. Her father moved it and they all got outside. They had cousins spending the night and some sleeping in the living room where a large upright piano was moving about. The cousins were rescued safely.
One of my good friends, Hugh Vasquez, lived in an old residence right on Main Street (Tehachapi Boulevard). Seconds after the initial shock was over he looked out his bedroom window and saw the railroad water tank collapse and flood the stores on the opposite side of the street. In jest I told Hugh, "You were the only person in Tehachapi (or the world!) who saw that water tank go down and you kept it a secret!" He told me that story just two years ago. Hugh and his girlfriend, Pat, had become engaged the evening before the shake. What a date to jog one's memory.
Another memory jogger was Violet Allen Hamilton who was on the switchboard that night. Hearing and seeing the water rushing by she thought there was a flood as well as the earthquake. On the evening before the quake, in a small, very old frame house next to a vintage brick building people heard wonderful Spanish music coming from the small dwelling. The music was from the Quintana family celebrating Mr. Quintana's wife and three children having just arrived from Mexico. Sadly his wife and children were killed with the collapse of the brick building onto the little frame house.
My husband was in Korea that year. As it happened, he and his men were in the field where there was no power. They had a radio but no way to power it. Finally someone brought in a generator and he hooked the radio to it. They were all anxious to get some music. The first words were from a news broadcast saying that the small town of Tehachapi in the state of California, had been flattened by an earthquake! It was two weeks before he found out how we were.
Daphne Backes and Betty Chambers, also had husbands serving in the Korea Conflict but both Harold and Karl were aboard Navy Ships and they were able to get word that their families were safe.
An emergency phone system was set up with just one toll line coming in. Marge and J.C. Finley had been on vacation and after finally getting through she asked the operator, if she had heard how her family and her parents were. Mrs. McLauaghlin said, "Oh, Margie, they're fine, I just saw your dad walk by!" It helps when you know everyone in town.
One casualty out in Brite's Valley was Florence Fillmore, who was sleeping in a stone guest house that had been converted from an old stone outbuilding. She was a direct descendant of the 13th President of the United States, Millard Fillmore. The Sacred Heart statue in Saint Malachy's Catholic Church was donated in her memory by her family. A small brass plaque appears on the statue with her name.
My brother, Tom (Buster) Davis was a Los Angeles policeman and upon hearing of the quake had someone fly him in to check on us. He was still in uniform and seeing him in his navy blue work clothes made us feel better and helped us maintain a degree of normalcy.
People seem to get used to many situations. Initially, we were upset when an aftershock occurred but finally found ourselves saying, "Hmm, that was a pretty good one, wasn't it!" After my husband came home we had to rent an apartment in San Clemente until we found housing at Pendleton. The Marines used to do shell practice out on San Clemente Island and the boom of the exploding shells sound just like the first jolt that begins a quake.
People ask me frequently the date of the Tehachapi Quake because it's a date from the past, but not their past. It is still a date that sticks in my mind: July 21, 1952 at 4:52 a.m.