When The Pacific Ocean Came Through Our Front Door
Please left click on each photo for description
It was in the fall of 1960. Daddy was thirty years old when my mother left us for another man, leaving him to raise us four children alone. Me, I was ten and a skinny little girl with round brown eyes and baby fine brown hair. I had three little blue eyed blond brothers ages eight, six and five.
It was a worrisome time for Daddy. He was strong enough and loved his children enough to take the responsibility on. I have great love and respect for my Dad. Three and a half years later, his strength was tested again.
March 27, 1964 dawned a crisp sunny day in Crescent City. Daddy had bought us new Easter clothes and he had the boy’s outfits laid out on the couch. He had bought them new dress pants, shirts, shoes and socks. I picked out a pretty skirt and blouse outfit and I took them upstairs to my room. My Aunt Barbara had arrived on Friday evening by Greyhound bus from San Francisco to spend Easter with us. She had to go back on Sunday because she had to be back at work Monday morning. That evening, when it was time for bed, she told Daddy that she would sleep downstairs on the couch. He insisted that she go upstairs and take my brother Tommy’s bed. Daddy told her that Tommy could sleep with him.
It was a beautiful moonlit night and the ocean, in gunmetal gray, glistened with the light of the moon.
I was sleeping soundly when suddenly there was a large blast, so powerful that it threw me out of bed and onto the cold linoleum floor. I got up and ran to my bedroom window, the sky was on fire, and water was slapping against the house just inches beneath my windowsill! I ran in a panic into the boy’s room where my Aunt Barbara had been awakened and shaken from the blast. Running back into my bedroom, I once again looked out my window. I wasn’t sure if I was in a realistic nightmare or truly awake. What I saw made me think that I was sick and delirious, my Dad’s 1955 cream-colored Chevrolet floated by. Aunt Barbara came to my side. I could hear my little brothers yelling something through my haze and then the next thing that floated by was our landlord’s Jeep; then I felt them and other things bump against the house. Aunt Barbara was very calm and with that soft southern accent of hers, she simply said, “Beverly, it’s a tidal wave.” She was former Marine stationed in Hawaii. She knew all about these things.
With those words, I suddenly realized that this was no dream and as I stared out the window in shock, I realized too that my Dad’s bedroom was just beneath mine and the water was above the top of his window!“Daddy!” I screamed in sheer terror. I ran from my room, through my brother’s room and then I bolted for the stairs. Aunt Barbara grabbed me around the waist, but I broke free of her. Still screaming for Daddy and in a panic to get to him, I started to run down the stairwell. I was halfway down when I heard a horrible excruciatingly loud creak and then I felt the old house start to lean. At that moment, I thought that it was going to break away from the old Darby Building that the house was partially connected to, and then collapse over; but it was the main staircase breaking away from the wall. I ran back to the top of the stairs, but then I remembered that my little brother Tommy had slept with Daddy to make room for Aunt Barbara. He was downstairs too! “Daddy! Tommy!” I shrieked. The sounds and the smells were as if I was standing at the shore during a pounding squall but there was something else, I could smell gas.
The ocean roared, the big three story house groaned against its power, I could hear wood splintering and large bangs as logs and debris came right through the front of our house. My Aunt kept an eye on me continuously; telling me to stay put while she was trying to keep my middle brother Donny from running down the stairs after me. He was running around like a wild little squirrel.
I stayed glued to the top of that dark stairwell screaming “Daddy!” “Tommy!” over and over.
As the power of the wave receded, The tall old house leaned making a horrible creaking sound and then after what seemed like an eternity, I heard a voice, say, “stay upstairs!” It was Daddy. “Where’s Tommy!” I yelled, trying to swallow the lump that was rapidly growing in my throat; then to my great relief, I could hear him crying and saying, “Daddy don’t leave me, don’t leave me. Then I heard Daddy say, “I won’t son, hang on.”
I stood at the top of the stairs as Daddy and Tommy climbed toward me. I could barely see their forms in the damp darkness of the stairwell. I learned later, that the wave hit around two o’clock in the morning. They reached me shivering, with their teeth chattering.
Daddy and Tommy’s experience battling the wave:
I sat down with my dad at his kitchen table in October of 2005. I set down the tape recorder and then I asked Daddy to tell me what happened. He started slow at first but then as he talked, he started remembering names and details. This is what he told me.
“I had been awakened by the blast. I rose up to look out the bedroom window and saw water above my bed. The water rose to above the window and then I heard a roar. I jumped and stood up on the bed and then the water crashed through the front of the house and rushed into my room.”
“The mattress began to fill up with water and then it began to fold up all around me and Tommy. The water started rising rapidly. I thought if the house was going to go, then I could try to get out through the window. I held Tommy up with one hand while I tried to pound the window with a piece of mushy driftwood. It wouldn’t do anything so I started to frantically pound with my fist. I couldn’t get anywhere with those small window panes and I ended up cutting a deep gash in my hand. I knew it was futile so now I had to find a way to keep Tommy and me from drowning. My hand was bleeding badly."
"Tommy started clinging to me as the water continued to rise. The mattress, being sponge rubber, began to float. Tommy was dragging me down so I shoved him up on the mattress. Now I was being swirled around and I was trying hard to tread water while fighting the debris that swirled around my legs. The water felt like ice! It was still rising and I kicked upward and then Tommy grabbed me around the neck and clung on like a monkey. He was pulling me down again so I told him, ‘turn loose, you are going to drown us,’ then I pushed him toward the ceiling for air. I had just under a foot of air left when we were suddenly drawn back and slammed against the bedroom wall. The outer wall of the room buckled in but my heavy iron bed held it.” The wave was receding and the old house groaned in its wake.
“We had survived and we hadn’t swallowed any ocean water which would have made us really sick.”
“It was dark, all the lights were out, I could hear the Texaco gas tanks as they exploded and there was a strong smell of propane."
"I felt that it was time to try to get out of there and try to get upstairs. I knew it was a tidal wave and I didn’t know what else was coming. Tommy held me tightly around the neck. I made him get down and he held tight onto my hand. I had to climb over something that was jammed in the doorway from the hall to the living room. I wanted to leave Tommy where he was for a minute because I didn’t know if the stairs were there or not and I couldn’t see well enough to know how dangerous it was. Tommy would not stay; he clung to me; so we felt our way through, climbing over piles of debris. I was cold, terribly cold.”
Daddy’s voice was shaking and he kept saying, “Stay up there, stay put.”
My words as we met
“This way Daddy, this way,” I said, as they made their way up the pitch-black stairwell. When they reached the top of the stairs, I ran and got a blanket and wrapped it around Tommy’s trembling body. They were so cold! Daddy wrapped himself up in a blanket too. He didn’t know what was going to meet us if we tried to get out of the house. The smell of propane was in the air and the flames from the fuel tanks that had exploded were flickering through the upstairs windows. So, we huddled on the beds, filled with fear and shock until daylight.When daylight came, Daddy was able to find some old clothes that were in some wooden bins, built into the walk through closet between the boy’s big bedroom and my little one. He found two pairs of jeans with holes in the behind. One pair had a hole on one side and one had a hole on the other, so he put both of them on. He found an old blue sequined shirt, an old pair of shoes, and a coat.
From the living room of the house there were six steps and then a landing; it turned and then there was the stairwell that led to the second floor. The landing had given way and we made our way out by climbing down the stairs and over debris piled up against it. The front door had been busted open and the living room windows were busted out.
In the living room were logs, deep sand and junk. There was junk everywhere and amongst that junk was our living room furniture. The big wood-heater, that normally sat at the back of the living room, was jammed solid in the doorway that led back to Daddy’s bedroom. That was what Daddy and Tommy had to climb over to get out.
We heard voices and our landlord, Richard Childs, and another man were walking toward the front of our house where we were making our way out.
Richard looked at Daddy with great relief and said, “I thought you had drowned.”
We, as family, have held a grudge against Richard Childs. Daddy hates to make waves and he refused the press when they came in to see and photograph the house. He didn’t want to be interviewed. To tell the real story, he would have to talk about his anger and he wasn’t the type. You see, Richard Childs worked for the power company in Crescent City. His family had been pioneers in the little lumber town of Crescent City California and the three-story house that we lived in had been Richard’s childhood home. The Childs were well known throughout the county. His wife Jacquie worked in city finance.
By ten o’clock that night, Richard had been radioed that there was a tidal wave coming. If he would have warned us, we would have went to higher ground or we would have gone into the Darby building that our house was connected to. There was a door in our house leading into it at the top of the first flight of stairs. The Darby building had two-foot thick brick walls. You couldn’t hear it storm in there. It was a hundred years old and had withstood tidal waves, cyclones, and earthquakes. Instead of warning us, in all fairness, I am just guessing this, Richard Childs, being raised on that block, had seen many tsunamis over the years but none that had devastated all of Front Street. Anyway, he was standing out on the sidewalk when one wave crossed Front Street, came up to the curb and then receded. What he didn’t know was, as that wave receded, it nearly emptied out the harbor and a twenty-one foot wave was right behind it. He said that when he was radioed that the big one was just offshore, he barely had time to run in the house to get his wife and dog and escape up the alley between our houses, to Second Street, then to Third Street and so on. He said that all the while the water was nearly on his bumper.
The next morning when he returned, the house that he and his wife lived in just across the alley from ours, was split in two and one end had floated around and met the other.
When we made it outside and saw their little ranch style house destroyed, we thought they had been killed. When Daddy saw him coming up the alley, he was as relieved to see Richard, as Richard was to see us.
Richard offered us rooms in the Dodge Inn. It faced Second Street and had sustained little damage.
“Take as many rooms as you need and stay as long as you like Tom,” he told my dad.
Jacquie Childs fed us all breakfast and then Daddy told us to go to bed and get some rest. I didn’t want to go to bed, I was curious and I wanted to hear everything and see everything. I obeyed Daddy but for just a little while.
We went up a wide stairway carpeted in thick floral carpeting. The banisters were heavy dark wood and the hotel was furnished with antiques. Once in the room, with it’s old hand carved dresser and beveled mirror, I headed for the steel framed double bed. The sheets were cold, white and starchy. They felt horrible on my legs so I crawled between the blanket and the bedspread and curled up to try and rest, but my eyes were wide open.
Daddy, in the mean time, was taking inventory. He didn’t have a car; our 1955 Chevy was across the street perched up on a city sand pile. The 1956 Chevy Wagon that he had overhauled was still in the garage, but it was filled with what ever the ocean brings in and the water had naturally got up into the wiring, so it was no good.
In the meantime, I got up and went back to the house with Daddy and we left the boys at the Dodge Inn with Aunt Barbara.
Daddy and I climbed around in the house to see what all was lost. In the kitchen, there was a tire up on our kitchen counter along with many other foreign objects that included oilcans and other debris. Much to Daddy’s relief, our old white china cupboard and sideboard had floated on its back like a boat. On the top shelf of that old cupboard, he kept our family photos in a little red overnight case that Daddy has to this day. He also had our birth certificates, titles to the cars and other important papers on that shelf. They were all dry.
The most important thing to him though, was finding his wallet. There was six hundred dollars cash in it. He muscled away the jammed wood heater from the doorway that led back to his room and we went in to search for it. The room didn’t have a closet, but it had a big antique armoire in it. It had been toppled over by the wave and it was laying on its front. When Daddy had gone to bed the night before, he had pulled off his slacks and laid them in the floor beside the armoire. We lifted and pushed to move the armoire over and there laid Daddy’s slacks with his wallet still in the back pocket.
We had our lives, our upstairs bedroom furniture, six-hundred dollars in the bank and the six-hundred dollars in Daddy’s wet wallet. He had a month’s wages coming from Peterson Brothers lumber mill where he worked.
Even though that was all we had to our name, we felt blessed just to be alive.
Later that day, Daddy had a friend of his, take him to look for a car. He paid one hundred dollars for an old 1956 Plymouth to use for work. Then he went back in to find all the clothes that he could salvage. He pulled them out of the old armoire and he pulled more out of the debris and sand. Then he went uptown to the Laundromat to wash them. The man that owned the Laundromat didn’t like it because he didn’t want the sand getting in the motors of his washing machines. But he allowed Daddy to use them. He had to wash everything twice. He cleaned the washing machines out and then ran them through again. The owner helped him although he hated to see him coming with another load.
The Red Cross set up a station in the community center up town. It was the perfect place for an intake station because it was so large and it had not been reached by the wave.
Daddy wanted to talk to them about housing. I was in an office filling out papers for us and Daddy was out in the foyer talking to folks, including someone from the local radio station. The list of the dead was going to be broadcast. I don’t know if he said, “My daughter isn’t with me and her name is Beverly” or what, but the broadcast said, “Thomas Gee, and sons, Thomas, Donald and Robert are accounted for, but daughter Beverly is missing.” I still don’t know how it happened, but my mother who was living in San Francisco at the time, heard the broadcast and became hysterical. As soon as highway 101 was cleared, Aunt Barbara left by Greyhound bus to go back to San Francisco because she had to work and Mom came in. She went directly to our house on Front Street and when she saw the devastation, she became physically ill.
Back at the community center, a man by the name of Bud Hendricks said that he had a house for rent and he told a worker at the Red Cross that he would let us have it for the first month free. After the paper work was filled out, a man from the Red Cross went with Daddy to look at our house. He was shocked at the destruction of the down stairs. He carefully climbed upstairs with Daddy and saw that we had our twin beds, our clothes and dressers. The Red Cross, “God bless them,” gave us vouchers to buy furniture for the living room, kitchen and one bedroom. We needed household goods, groceries, and the things it takes to supply a home, dishes, pots and pans, towels and more. They gave us one hundred thirty five dollars for small essentials. That amount of money went a long way in 1964.
Bless his heart, was Bud Hendricks ever glad to see Daddy. When he approached him, they shook hands and he said, “Tom, I thought you had drowned.”
We had the vouchers, but there wasn’t any new furniture in town. The furniture store had been flooded out and we couldn’t go to Eureka, Grants Pass, or even to Brookings to buy anything because we had no way to haul it.
Crescent City had a second hand store and auction house. We got the best second hand furniture they had. It wasn’t great but it was clean and usable. We also needed a washer and dryer. Our old dryer was sitting up on the attic stairs of the woodshed and our washing machine had salt water in the motor and debris inside the tub. We used the Laundromat until those could be replaced.
The police department gave those that lived in the tidal wave zone tags to wear so that they could come and go without being stopped because there was looting going on. The jewelry store, two banks, oil from the Shell and Texaco stations, liquor bottles from the liquor store, clothes from the clothing store, merchandise from Safeway and so much more, was scattered everywhere and the looters swarmed on it.
The National Guard came in and they sealed the area off. Daddy couldn’t get down town to get his money out of the bank and although the bank was flooded, the money was secure so it wasn’t a loss.
Now, after losing everything, it was time for him to set up housekeeping again. He did just that too and I am so very thankful that my father is a man of strength and character. I love and respect him very much. He had his job as a lumber grader for “Peterson Brothers” and although he had to take time off for us to recover, they didn’t dock him one penny. It was as if he hadn’t missed the days that it took for him to get settled again.
The lists of blessings are long and so are the lists of tragedy. We knew nearly everyone that had perished.