Thursday, March 24, 2011

Calm Amid Calamity -- tohoku earthquake part two

I walked into the dark front hall of the Shimizu Learning Center. A man in a blue windbreaker approached, moving with an efficiency that told me he was at work though in what capacity I had no idea. What was the situation here, or anywhere else? What had really happened, and what needed to be done? I hadn't seen any damage. A distant siren bled through the hum of a single generator; outside the glass doors a circle of men dressed in shadows watched over a huge pot of water, slowly warming over a propane flame.

I suppose I expected to be received in some way, for someone in a dark blue windbreaker to ask me my name, if I was all right and did I come with any family. I waited for direction but the man kept walking, by my shoulder and out into the wind and the returning snow. More figures appeared, out of the black corridors ahead and the blustery darkness behind. A couple of them held flashlights. They traded scant words as they passed each other. No one spoke to me. No lines, no people with clipboards. Barely a sound besides that generator. The siren in the distance faded and died. Something was going on here - but what? I wondered if we had come to the wrong place.

Yet the parking lot outside was full; my wife was waiting out there with our two boys, along with enough food and blankets, we hoped, to get us through the night. There had to be others. I walked down the left corridor, drawn to a softly-illuminated doorway and a murmur of voices. At the bottom of a single step a dozen pairs of shoes lie in semi-disarray. I kicked off my battered sneakers and stepped inside.

Three hundred people I would guess, the majority of them families and elderly couples, took up most of the gymnasium floor. Most were spread out on blankets, staking their orderly claim on some space for the night. Others sat up against the walls, in chairs or on the floor, out of reach of the glare of the two sets of spotlights focused on the middle of the room. Folks walked in slow motion, toward a long table with silver urns of hot water and tea, to the side a mishmash of half-empty jars of instant coffee. Others roamed with bald aimlessness the narrow makeshift walkways, careful not to step on their new neighbors' blankets and bags and shoes. A few just stood in place, looking out over the scene as if they had already resigned themselves to something they had yet to understand.

Squares of empty floor still remained; a family of three edged past, clutching blankets to their chests, scanning the room with tired eyes. I ran back out to the car. The snow had begun to stick to the windshield. 'You take him,' I said, pointing to our little one. 'I'll bring everything else, let's go.' My older son was fast asleep in his car seat. He'd be all right for the time it would take for us to spread out on our temporary hardwood home. We'd brought two heavy blankets and my wife's futon; with a little creativity we'd be able to stave off the chill seeping in through the walls but for me, for my family, this was not good enough. I'd go home and grab what more I could. 'I'll be right back. Do we need anything else?' Before my wife could answer the world started shaking again.

With the added blankets we had, for the four of us, more comfort than any other ten people in the room. And there was still my futon in the car. The amount of food we had with us was also, at least by comparison, obscene. My wife went about settling in, as much as one can settle in on a gymnasium floor among three hundred other people. I began scoping out the place, looking for someone to approach.

Among the mass of people and blankets were several small clusters of older folks, sitting in chairs, blankets over their shoulders, quiet conversation floating up from the air around them. In the shadows their faces showed nothing that could be called fear. Some spoke calmly; others listened, waiting their turn. A few smiled or nodded casually to things I couldn't hear. Along the edge of the room too they sat, in chairs or on thin blankets. Up close I saw lines of worry in their faces, though something in there told me their worries were older than today.

Men in windbreakers, and a few women too, continued moving among the people. People who, once here, had nothing to do except wait. Wait for clean tea cups; wait for the next tremor. Wait for the light of morning. The clock high on the wall read 11:30. It felt much, much later than that.

I wiped a used mug with a damp cloth, made myself some coffee and leaned against the wall, sipping slowly as I tried to wrap my head around the day. At 2:45 I was thinking about the surprise birthday party I was planning for my wife. At 2:46 I was holding onto my son, listening to him giggle as I prayed over and over for the shaking for stop. I'd been through earthquakes but nothing like that, not even close. It wouldn't be until the next day, with the power partially restored and the first images appearing on the news, that we would all begin to understand just what had happened.

But for the moment there was no urgency, no desperation. Save for the lack of electricity and the occasional aftershock this was just an assortment of people gathered in a gym for a night. Then a man in a dark blue jacket entered the room, speaking someone's name. He called out three times, waiting in between, only to be answered with silence. This would occur intermittently throughout the night, bringing with it the underlying and palpable sense that somewhere things were very, very bad.

I walked among the people, eventually picking out an elderly couple sitting quietly on the floor. Their legs were crossed and wrapped in brown wool blankets. There was a hint of sleep in their eyes. 'I have two extra futons in my car, would you like them?' They smiled and slowly shook their heads. 'We are fine, thank you,' the woman said. I asked again. Again they politely, quietly declined. I nodded and bowed slightly (as I figured I should) and gently turned away, wondering what was really behind their outward desire to sit on the floor all night.

I asked several more people, old folks and older folks and couples with small children. Each of them refused, offering the same assurances that they were okay. I hauled the futons in from the car; maybe no one wanted to have me go outside and carry them in on their account. Sitting on the gymnasium floor in a pile they looked nothing less than a pot of gold in a field of rubble. Yet still I could find no takers. I spread them out, hoping to make them seem more attractive, more inviting, at least more available. But really, this just made them seem more out of place among the hundreds of people making do with the scarcest of warmth. And with each demure refusal to accept such luxury when others had so little I began to sense the collective spirit of a people facing a shared disaster.

I listened to the calm words floating in the air around me; under the quiet concern I could hear no complaining. Three hundred people, thrown together through stressful circumstances, and not once did anyone raise his voice. I glanced over the urns of tea and hot water. I stared at the spotlights taped in place on metal racks. A woman walked past carrying a tray of clean tea cups. Men in the hall dragged large plastic trash cans filled with water into the bathrooms. Outside in the elements men prepared dozens and dozens of packets of instant rice; others brought them inside in cardboard boxes, handing them out to people lining up briskly, eagerly and in perfect order. Three elderly women smiled in understanding when my little boy next to them woke up and began crying.

I would speak the next day to a woman in her eighties; she'd say she had lived through a thousand earthquakes but never anything like this, thought she knew what an aftershock was until sitting up all night, listening, witnessing the ongoing drama. And so it was for everyone else that night too, in that shelter and across town and all up and down eastern Japan. Yet at least in Fukushima, at the Shimizu Learning Center, all everyone knew was to take it in peaceful stride. To gather in a gymnasium. To rig up lights and make instant rice. To share space and trade words. To spend the night on a blanket.

And to say that they were okay.