The Slide Years: Seismic

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.

Our home in Guatemala City with a Catholic Church behind it. This house was unusual in that it was visible from the road. Most homes in the neighborhood (and in the city in general) were surrounded by tall walls topped with broken glass on all four sides. Ours was like that on the other three sides.
My bedroom (and boyfriend). Note the brick walls.

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.

A couple views of our school buildings. Each building was 3 or 6 rooms long and one room wide. The walls were all glass except where there were doors and lockers.

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.

View of Volcan Pacaya from the military side of the airport in Guatemala City.

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.

Looking toward Volcan de Fuego from Agua. A sleeping giant.

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.

31 thoughts on “The Slide Years: Seismic

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      1. That’s just it, isn’t it? When we read or watch news of an event with mass casualties, I think there is a morbid anesthetic to the numbers. As in, the higher they go, the less we really stop to think about how each and every one of those lives meant something. Because to imagine twenty thousand souls with myriad connections, perhaps it’s too much to take in. I don’t know.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I really don’t know how we process that kind of thing. We do shield ourselves from horror as much as we possibly can. We don’t like contemplating how random sudden death can be.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. It can be unnerving, for sure. When I was looking at the latest numbers on COVID-19, I was humbled by the fact they were not ‘numbers’, they were lives.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. I’m sure in the moment of that earthquake, it must have felt a lifetime! How very sad that 20 000 lives were lost. As you were saying above each one of those deaths mean something, and we often don’t stop to think of the ripple effect of each loss.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Nor does the government of Guatemala. The contrast between rich and poor that I saw (and which is common in Latin America, I believe) was so stark. If wealth was more evenly distributed, people could withstand this sort of natural disaster much better. Better houses, better infrastructure, better search and rescue, etc.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I think whatever we do within our own communities, no matter how small does have a positive impact. However, until we have leadership that believes in humanitarianism, beyond profit, there will always be a need …sadly, just my opinion.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. What an experience! Such a mangled mess of emotions, too. Surprise, fear, fascination… and the sadness that follows surviving an extraordinary episode when so many did not.

    On a more lighthearted note: I also had a pair of bell-bottomed jeans that didn’t quite make it to my ankles. And a Kodak 110. The times, eh?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It was memorable, for sure! I got the camera for my 12th birthday and took so many terrible photos. Then waited and waited to get the film developed. What do kids have now to teach them that sort of patience, I wonder.


  3. What a scary experience, and deadly for so many. On a lighter note, I had a favourite pair of bell-bottoms which were lengthened when I grew too tall for them by contrasting bands inserted in the legs, fronted, if I remember rightly, by a yellow gingham diamond on each knee! My best friend had a slim Kodak 110, I had the more clunky Kodak 126.

    Liked by 1 person

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