Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Morning After - tohoku earthquake part three

Morning arrived in the form of the generator's low hum; a murmur of voices; the footsteps, discernible somehow, of people at task. I crawled out of my futon (everyone I'd offered it to - elderly women, infant-coddling mothers, even the girl who literally fell asleep on her knees on the bare hardwood - had declined in favor of their own measly blankets) and looked around at a gymnasium filled with sunlight. People were up and about, moving not so much with purpose as with a desire for purpose. A few still reclined where they had slept, or not slept. Many stood in a line that stretched halfway around the room and ran right past the edges of my comforter. In shorts and a t-shirt I folded everything into a less obtrusive pile. The people at whose feet I'd just been sleeping pretended not to notice or care.


At the long tables against the far wall men and women handed out rice balls and tea. My wife was already on line, both our boys hanging onto her. I caught her eye and she motioned for me to join her; food was being carefully rationed out and they might not have given her any extra rice for a husband she'd claim was still asleep in that oversized lump of bedding over there. Although with our own leftover rice from home, along with some crackers and bread and peanut butter and juice, we weren't living on the edge of survival. Not yet.

Overnight the sheltered masses had sat nervously, clutching their blankets and murmuring louder with each successive aftershock.
Some were like angry growls of warning, a couple lasted much too long for anyone's liking. Many amounted to mere shivers, like the earth was shaking off its own unease. Into the wee hours I'd been up, watching with sordid amusement a scene reminiscent of a Monty Python skit: with each new rumble a half dozen bodies would spring from slumber to startled; they'd sit straight up, wide wary eyes peering into the dark corners of the room and beyond; the rumbling would stop then, and as if some kind of switch of consciousness had been turned off, they'd all collapse like rag dolls back down onto their makeshift pillows.

In the course of the evening I'd run into Lee, a British guy I knew from the Japanese class we both attended on a strictly irregular basis. He lived not a cricket batsman's fair effort from the Shimizu learning center with his wife and her family and their unusually dense and heavy baby boy. He told me their house was fine, no apparent structural damage - 'a real testament to the quality of Japanese construction,' he noted - but they decided they'd rather not have to deal with the sudden lack of water and electricity. Not that things were much better there at the shelter, but having the choice was something of a luxury.

We'd heard from people who had spotty Internet access through their cell phones that the massive (as suspected) earthquake had originated off the coast of Miyagi, north of Fukushima. 8.8 they said. Or 8.9. All that meant to me and Lee was that there had to be some pretty serious damage somewhere up the road. 'If we have to be anywhere close to that monstrous a quake,' Lee added, 'on solid Fukushima ground is a good place to be.' Neither of us thought much of the vague reports we'd heard of a tsunami.

With the coming of daylight the atmosphere in the shelter changed dramatically. It was as if we could now look around and see with our own eyes that things were still as we remembered them. That despite the unsettling suspicion that we were wrong, perhaps we could go on believing that life would continue on as normal. People seemed a bit lighter on their feet; voices sounded less grave. Still, the occasional tremor reminded us - reminded me - of an earth still very much alive under our feet.

Sixteen hours had passed since I held my son, telling him everything was okay as I prayed for the world to stop, and still I hadn't been able to contact anyone, to let them know we were fine. After hours of trying, Lee had been able to get a text message to England through his mother-in-law's phone. She let me try, to no avail. The pay phones couldn't handle international calls, or even calls across town at times. The men in the office-cum-crisis management center told me (without, oddly, offering to try) that I wouldn't be able to get through using the phones there either. But no worries, I figured, assuming everyone back home knew I lived on safe, steady ground. (The absurdity of anyone back home understanding this somehow did not click with me.)

With the tremors growing fainter and less frequent, with the sun shining down on a beautiful day in Fukushima City, people slowly began packing up their blankets to go back home. Lines formed outside the building on both sides, folks toting jugs and buckets and garbage cans to fill with water from the spigots that had already come back to life if they had ever even died at all. Cars moved easily up and down the street. An old man and his granddaughter walked their dog together. I watched as my older son played on the jungle gym and the swings, along with a handful of other blessedly naive souls. I spoke with a few of the parents, but only in the context of our kids; I wasn't sure what to say about the quake and wanted to let them bring it up if they wanted. None did.

On the playground and in the buildings and houses all around not a brick, not a tree branch looked out of place. Mount Shinobu, Fukushima City's grand natural centerpiece, rose up into the bright blue sky as it always had, lines of her hilltop temples visible through the naked branches, radio towers standing straight and tall. Snowmelt ran down the concrete gutters. Birds chirped and flitted overhead. Down at the edge of the river my son and I flipped rocks into the water. The world indeed felt at peace. 'See what happens when you throw a rock in?' My son watched intently. 'It sinks. It goes down to the bottom, right?' He smiled and threw another of his own in and watched it disappear. 'Now watch this,' I said, picking up a thick, weather-beaten stick. 'This is going to float on top.' And I tossed it into the current.

My son and I watched silently as the stick splashed into the water, drifted along a few inches under the surface, then slowly sank into the murky depths and disappeared.

'I guess that was a really heavy stick,' I said to my son. Like everything else going on it didn't mean much to him. Thank God.
A loose crowd around a large flat screen television in the front hall of the Shimizu building told me the electricity was back, at least here. Tonight, if we did stay, we wouldn't be hanging around in shadows. We wouldn't have to bring a flashlight to the bathroom. We could now recharge our cell phones and try once again to reach the outside world.
Staring at the images coming across the screen, reaching the outside world was suddenly a much more urgent and pressing matter and at the same time nothing more than the most trivial of matters.
Fishing villages reduced to fields of splintered wood. Cars and houses and debris packed in surreal heaps. Who knew what everyone back home was seeing? Who out there knew what the situation was where I lived? Who knew where I even was? These thoughts were washed away though; I was fine, and my family would know this soon enough. Right now, though, right up the road, were scenes so terrible, so horrific, they barely made sense even as I stood watching them, over and over. It felt like watching planes fly into buildings on TV. It hit me like having to listen to my sister tell me over the phone to come home to say my last good-byes to my father.
For the rest of that crisp, sparkling blue Saturday I kept returning, with the others, to stare at those images. I went home, to check if by chance we'd gotten electricity back - and looked around at the pictures and knick-knacks that had fallen to the floor, the bottles of cooking oil and boxes of curry mix that had been shaken right out of the cabinets, the papers and toys and crafts from pre-school, scattered all over an apartment that, despite its appearance, was safe. Still, we would sleep in a gymnasium one more night.

Slight though they were, there will still tremors out there.

Separated from our haven by thirty miles and a range of mountains, just over there along the coast, the world we knew and had been to many times, and as recently as four days ago, had suddenly ceased to exist. That our building, that Lee's home, that my son's pre-school and Fukushima City were still standing was indeed a testament to the world man had built around us. But my wife and I felt better, for now, having others around us. Just in case.