The Earthquake that Decided My Career

Do you know when and where you decided to become an architect or engineer? I do, to the precise minute.

It is 1964. The Cold War is hot. The Cuban Missile Crisis was just 18 months earlier. President Kennedy was assassinated four months ago, and the Beatles were invading. As a 9-year-old military brat growing up on Ft. Richardson, Alaska, I cared not for any of that activity. I wanted to be a pilot. Or, even better, an astronaut. But, while getting a new pair of eyeglasses, I shared my dreams with the optometrist at the Post Exchange who promptly informed me pilots have to have perfect vision. Can a 9-year-old crash and burn? It felt like that. I had used up a lot of crayons and pencils sketching jet planes and rocket ships. Crash. Burn. And then…the world changed.

While watching TV after school (on the one channel we had in Anchorage back then) the screen suddenly went black. Then, the TV fell over. It was 5:36 PM March 27, 1964. Good Friday. And the massive fault under Prince William Sound slipped, and we had an e-ticket ride for over four minutes. If you got to Universal Studios Theme Park before 2007, they had a very realistic theme ride called EARTHQUAKE – THE BIG ONE! It let you experience an 8.0 earthquake. The Good Friday quake was bigger with a magnitude 9.2. That’s over 12 times BIGGER than the BIG ONE at Universal. For nearly five minutes you could not walk or stand. You went to the ground and held on for life.

1964 Alaska Earthquake Aerial view of the Anchorage residential area of Turnagain shows destruction caused by the up thrust of the Good Friday earthquake.

I kept looking for the mushroom cloud. Having never heard of an earthquake before, I was sure we had been nuked. And then, it stopped. In profound silence, we looked out upon a world changed. And this 9-year-old saw something in the disaster, and that was to come to terms with the experience. I doubt a 9-year-old can make an analogy between the devastation of an earthquake and the destruction of childhood dreams. I don’t remember ever thinking that. But, I do remember that here was something new I could draw. I got my pencils and crayons out and started sketching buildings; new, modern buildings to replace the destroyed ones in Anchorage, Elmendorf AFB, and Ft Richardson.

And, as it turned out, to replace the ashes of a childhood dream.