By Eilene Lyon
The Slide Years is a series in which I select an image my dad took from 1957-1982 with Kodachrome slide film, then I write a stream-of-consciousness essay – a sort of mini-memoir.
The freight-train rumble woke me out of a sound sleep at 3:04 a.m. on February 4, 1976. Wait a minute, this isn’t Grandma’s house. We don’t live anywhere near a railroad track. I clutched my mattress as it bucked and tossed me in the pitch-black darkness.
At some point, a bookshelf fell over on my bed, but fortunately missed hitting me. I could hear the cacophony of smashing dishes and glassware coming from the kitchen. There would be a mess to clean up. How long the earthquake rattled my bones I can’t say for sure, but it seemed to stretch out like a death scene.
Soon my parents were standing in the doorway with a flashlight and expressions of concern. I was fine; we needed to check Little Brother, whose “bedroom” was really just an alcove off the kitchen. We were all okay and overall little damage done. Our house, built of sturdy cinderblock and brick in a nice neighborhood, had withstood the tremors.
The city of over a million inhabitants had its fair share of damage from the massive tremblor, 7.5 on the Richter scale, but rural areas took a severe hit. In Guatemala, a country of vast disparity in wealth, many people lived in adobe homes that buried them in rubble. Twenty-thousand did not wake to greet the dawn.
Our school year, which ran January to October, had just begun three weeks earlier, but it would be two months before the largely glass buildings were repaired and classes could resume. We’d have to make up the lost time at the end of the year.
Located on the Pacific Rim, Guatemala is a land of volcanos, not just fault lines. We could see several of them from our front yard. Twice I climbed the conical Agua that looms over the popular city of Antigua. Once was in darkness so we could see the sunrise from that lofty perspective. On a clear day, you can see the Caribbean and Pacific from its summit.
I can never forget the experience of standing atop Volcan Pacaya as a secondary cone blasted out unseen, but potentially deadly, lava rocks. Pacaya is nearly constantly active. The steaming vents obscured nature’s bombshells and we thrilled in our obliviousness to danger. We ran down the cinder cone to safety, ash quickly filling our shoes.
But the show stopper was Fuego. We had a good view of this notorious beast from our perch on Agua and could also see it from the city. This volcano is historically the most active in all of Central America. The most recent eruption in 2018 was its most deadly, but we witnessed a nearly identical spectacle in 1974, fortunately without the casualties.
The cloud of ash billowed miles into the sky, dwarfing the landscape below and generating its own electrical storm. Horizontal flashes of lighting and red-orange magma were visible all night long. We stood mesmerized, marveling at the power of our planet to remake itself in such a violent fashion.
Featured image: Me standing there in my too-short-but-favorite bell bottom pants with Agua in the background (1974). All other (blurry) photos by me with my Kodak 110 Instamatic.