The day the Earth did not stand still

On June 28, 1992, the earth quaked in the Mojave Desert town of Landers, and I wrote my first staff story for a major metropolitan daily. It was a Sunday night. I was then 37 and for some perverse reason had decided to change my life around to become a newspaper reporter.

 

I was supposed to start work the next day as a temporary science writer for the San Francisco Examiner. I’d been living in New York just prior, and had spent a full calendar year in the vain search for a job after spending another academic year getting trained at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. Jobs had not been plentiful. After a year of looking the best I could find was a 6-month gig, filling in for the Examiner’s then-science writer Keay Davidson, who had taken a leave of absence to write a book about the Big Bang. Then-Examiner publisher Will Hearst was a science-lover who insisted on keeping a reporter on the science beat, and he had interviewed me by phone for the position. I had flown out from New York, leaving my pregnant wife and 3.5-year-old son to follow in the family’s beater car six weeks later. And I recall spending that last Sunday fretting about the next day — none of my soon-to-be bosses had ever seen me. I had been a cheap hire on the phone.

 

But my fretting was cut short that Sunday evening when the phone rang at the apartment where I had arranged to stay (thanks to Thomas Sinsheimer and his brother Jeffrey). It was my wife, still in New York, telling me Tim Porter, the editor who had hired me, had called to say that if I wanted to be a science writer I’d better get in to the goddamn office to write some frickin’ science!

 

As I recall, I arrived at the Examiner newsroom about 7:30 p.m. The newsroom was in a quiet uproar with people gathered around computer monitors or television sets, talking in whispers and eyeing me with curiosity. Porter, the editor who had hired me, introduced me to some of the desk editors, Gail Bensinger and Beth Hughes. He also gave me a five-minute introduction to the newsroom computer system and showed me how to get an outside phone line.”See what you can do,” he said, and left me in a cubicle near Bensinger and Hughes, who were supposed to help ease me into this strange new tribe which I had apparently joined.

 

So I went to work and pulled out the file folder that I had stuck under my arm, containing the phone numbers of the most prominent seismologists and geologists in the United States. By the sheerest of luck, my very last freelance piece prior to taking the Examiner job had been a feature story about earthquake prediction that I had written for The Scientist in Philadelphia. For that story I had tracked down and interviewed some of the top people in the field (the only name I can recall unaided is that of USGS scientist Thomas Heaton). I had their numbers at their desks and lo, though it was by then after 8 p.m. on a Sunday night, several of these scientists were at their desks gathering the latest data on the magnitude 7.3 earthquake that tore through the sparsely populated Mojave Desert town of Landers, followed shortly thereafter by a magnitude 6.4 shaker located at another little spot called Big Bear.

 

Once I got the scientists on the line it wasn’t a big deal to get down the facts: biggest quake in 40 years; unusual ground movement with two faults rupturing in an zone where the Pacific and North American plates were forever locked in a sumo embrace. About 9:30 p.m., as I recall, I tapped Porter on the shoulder and asked him to take a look at the story I’d written. (I have a hard copy somewhere but I can’t find an e-version.) I think he made a few minor changes and I recall going over a few more things with Bensinger and Hughes, and by 10 p.m., I was on my way out the door — having written my first daily newspaper story and getting it on the front page.

 

I came in to the office that Monday morning, June 29, 1992, gliding on a cushion of air. I always feel that way when I land a real A-1 story. Not one of those bullshit pieces that the editors order up because they want a local byline on some big story that is all over the wires, but an ass-kicking piece of enterprise that forces its way onto the cover.

 

I recall sitting at my desk — or rather Davidson’s desk, as I was then a temp — when my buddy Trapper Byrne came over to congratulate me. In the late 1970s, when I was in college, Trapper and I had worked together at UC Berkely’s Daily California. And in the 1980s, when I had a (legal) business in Humboldt County, Trapper had helped me get back into journalism when I sold the Examiner — actually Tim Porter — a freelance story about the Pacific Lumber Company takeover (a saga which I have followed to this day.)

 

In any event, Byrne, clearly an accessory before the fact of my hiring, leaned over my cubicle to congratulate me in characteristic newsroom fashion: “So you started off on A-1,” he said. “There’s no where to go from here but down.”

Truer words were never spoken. In the last 15 years I have experienced a strike, a merger and I am currently living through the meltdown of major metro newsrooms. But none of the disillusions of the ensuing years can tarnish the magic of that moment when I earned the right to be the person I have become.

 

 

 

 

 

(A Science Magazine article about the earthquake.)