In late October of 1990, the owner and publisher of the Salem News asked me to come to his office. I was living on the farm with Jack and Holly, and working as the paper’s feature writer.
“You’re from California, right?” Davidson pointed to an article in the St. Louis Post Dispatch of a recent 4.7 magnitude earthquake near Cape Girardeau, Missouri. “I think you’re the perfect person to cover another earthquake that’s predicted to occur on December 3rd. I’ll even pay for your gas and meals if you’ll do it.”
“Scheduled? Do what?” It was then he told me, with a bit of a grin, that futurist Iben Browning was foreseeing a monumental shaker along the New Madrid Fault under the town of the same name.
Since I didn’t think it would happen, I said “I’ll be delighted” without too much hesitation. Besides, my friend Pat lived on the route I would have to take to get to New Madrid. We could spend the day together and since she was a total sport, I knew she’d say yes.
You may wonder how Browning could pinpoint the exact date—don’t ask. He wasn’t entirely delusional since geological experts had for years been predicting another shaker. New Madrid had a history of at least three 7.0 – 8.0 in magnitude quakes from 1811 to 1812. They were overdue for one, like we are where I live now.
“Would you look at this circus,” I exclaimed to Pat as we entered the small town. There were TV trucks and newspaper vehicles, marked with their call letters and logos, parked wherever they could find a space. For a town of roughly three-thousand people, the sidewalks were jammed with locals and outsiders as though they were hoping to watch the quake from Main Street.
We trailed the mayor and a University of Missouri professor who had pitched the event to all forms of media. They were awaiting the arrival of Browning, the prophet of natural disasters. He based his predictions on extreme gravitational pressure of the moon and planets and had achieved a national reputation.
Pat and I decided to split up for a while: she would stick with the mayor and I had in mind an article on whether women took a different approach to an impending disaster than men. When I was heading out from home before daylight, Jack’s comment about my adventure was: “You’re going to observe more yahoos. The ones around here aren’t enough?” His thoughts were confirmed by several reporters from St. Louis. They agreed with Jack that the day was “a freak show for those people hoping to see themselves on tonight’s news.” One Christian newspaper reporter compared the possible event to a localized rapture. I didn’t know how to respond to him, smiled, and moved on.
The women I met in the café and at the community center took the threat of an earthquake more seriously. “My husband thinks it’s ridiculous,” one woman said, with many heads nodding in agreement. “But,” she continued, “we have kids and they come first. I sent them to my mother’s fifteen miles away just to be safe.”
I thought, but didn’t say, that if there really were a quake, from having lived through one in California, fifteen miles was a drop in the bucket.
Other women, making sandwiches and unpacking cases of canned soda were less interested in chatting with me as an outsider. “Yep” and “nope” were answers to my questions until I returned with Pat and we joined the sandwich-making line. These women, like my neighbors in Salem, kept their opinions to themselves until they felt you were not looking down on them.
The only people Pat and I were looking down on as daylight faded were the big city reporters and journalists who had already written their stories—a bunch of locals fooled again. What? They didn’t think the earthquake could happen after sundown? I guess so.
We took one last look and saw that main street was still jammed and heard on the radio that Iben Browning had just left the area. The following year would sadly find him no longer predicting much of anything from his grave in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
The next afternoon I reported to Davidson that the best part of the trip was spending the day with my friend and enjoying the newly dubbed “earthquake burger” served in a bun split down the middle. “I did bring you something,” I said. “I hope size large works, that’s all they had left.” He opened the paper bag and pulled out a tee shirt that read “It’s Not My Fault.”
“Well,” he said, still chuckling, “This will work for many events and calls for a bit of Jim Beam to celebrate your safe return.” The following day I turned in a feature for the paper about the way the women of the town took care to feed everyone, whether you believed in the prediction or not.
And Davidson and I would have one more Jim Beam toast on my last day in Salem before heading for New York City.
Photo credits: all from public news sources.