Tuesday, May 17, 2016

"RING OF FIRE" [Fiction tale of survival]


I SAT ALONE IN THE OUTDOOR PATIO AT STARBUCKS, stirring sugar and creamer into my coffee and watching the passing cars and pedestrians. A homeless man shuffled by, mumbling angrily to himself, a tattered sleeping bag draped over his head and shoulders like some monkish cloak. His greasy hair stuck to the sleeping bag and I wondered vaguely when he'd last bathed. A fastidiously neat Catholic Nun walking in the opposite direction kept her head down and walked quickly, shooting several furtive sideways glances at the man as she hurried to slip past him. Was she scared or just ducking a handout I wondered...?

It was a cold November morning. The steam of my coffee swirled and drifted. Today was an anniversary of sorts...5 years ago today. Maybe someday, I'll look back and maybe it'll all make sense to me, but I'm not there yet...I rubbed my leg and felt the old ache and traced my fingers over the healed ridge of puckered tissue where the bullet had lanced deep into my leg...
It had all started on a sunny and cold Friday morning. My girlfriend had dropped me off at the AMTRAK station, kissed me goodbye and wished me luck. I was going down to L.A. for a job interview with a company called TGS, a multi-national exporter of marketing and sales software. I'd just finished up college a month earlier and was excited when a rep from the University job fair had called and invited me to an interview. My computer degree included a specialty for business software writing applications and they liked what they saw so, yeah, a real job interview!

The previous evening I'd packed my suit and shaving kit and a few other items I deemed necessary. Looking around the room to see if there were any items I'd forgotten, my eyes fell upon the old photo of my father...1971...he was just 25...my exact age. Tiger striped cammies, a floppy boonie hat, and a short-barreled Colt rifle with a can on the end of the barrel. He'd passed from cancer last year. I'd adjusted, but I still missed him a lot.

Below the framed photograph sat his knife. I picked up the worn brown leather sheath and wiped the film of dust off of it. I popped the snap, brushed the strap aside and slid the blade out. It was made by GERBER...the company with that Sword-in-the Stone logo. It was odd to say the least...a double edged dagger with a blade that was slightly bent and an odd metal handle that felt, well, sticky. He'd said the blade was made that way to hug the contour of the hip, important in the jungle to avoid catching on foliage.

The blade had been darkened with a chemical at some point, and had grayed over the years. There were lightly pitted brown patches as well. As a youngster, we'd go camping and he'd strap the knife onto his belt. It cleaned a lot of fish and shaved wood for the campfire. I can still remember him telling me that a good knife was an indispensable woods tool. I'd asked him once about the brown spots on the blade and how it had rusted, and he didn't reply...he just fell silent and looked a little sad as he carefully re-sheathed the knife and put it into his pack.

Several weeks after he'd passed, my mother had called me over and asked me to take some of his belongings, among them the GERBER knife. I'd resisted, but she pressed it into my hands and folded my fingers over it. She closed her hands over mine, looked me in the eyes and said, "No, he'd want you to have it. Use it for good things."

Snapping back into the present, I began to turn back to packing, but for some reason, and to this day I don't know why, but I turned back, hesitated briefly, and then opened the side zip of my computer bag and slipped the sheathed GERBER knife into it...


I WATCHED MY GIRLFRIEND DRIVE AWAY and so I picked up my computer daypack and pulled my rolling luggage case and walked over to the platform. The train had arrived only moments earlier on its southern run from points north and already Porters were accepting luggage and loading it into the storage compartments of the carriages. I handed mine over and the Porter tagged it and handed me a claim check. It never ceases to amaze me that, given all the threat of terrorism, railway security is virtually nonexistent. Finding a window seat was easy enough, as there were few passengers, and I settled into the seat and watched as the last few passengers scurried aboard the train and moments later felt the tug and heard the loud clack as the Engine began to pull the cars. In no time, we were picking up speed and zooming south toward my new future…

The ride south was uneventful enough, most of the passengers napping or accessing the AMTRAK Wi-Fi. I busied myself sorting my discs and thumb drives and looking over some notes I’d made about the corporation in order to prepare for my interview. I’d brought along some sample programs I’d developed and was hoping to demonstrate, as I was fairly sure a member of the software team would be on hand to evaluate my work. I opened the main compartment to fire up my laptop and found a “Good Luck” greeting card and some snack items snuck in by my girlfriend. Something clunked loudly against the plastic case of the laptop and I felt in the pack suddenly remembering the GERBER. I froze in my seat and let my eyes play around the car, wondering if the noise had alarmed anyone in the stillness of the car. I was relieved to see no one paid any attention. “What was I thinking bringing this thing…?” I asked myself. It was such an unusual and spontaneous action, I had no explanation what had caused me to drop the knife in my bag, but it was here now and that was that…

We entered L.A. pretty much on time. We were moving along nicely when a sudden impact and a loud “bang” were felt throughout the train. It felt as though the train and cars had slammed into a mountain of granite and then been cast backwards into the air. Women screamed and men cried out loud. Then it was quiet again and everyone sensed the train was moving as normal and calmed down. Presently a Porter came along, checking on the passengers and reassuring everyone. Oddly he had no explanation for the event and was as much in the dark as were we. About a half an hour later the train pulled into Union Station. I gathered my belongings, disembarked and claimed my luggage. I had walked out to the line of Taxi cabs and was about to enter one when the temblor began….

It started insidiously at first, just a slow rolling sensation. At first and for just the briefest moment, I thought it was me…that maybe I had some kind of motion sickness from the train ride, but then it quickly became apparent it was an earthquake. I expected it would pass, like so many, but it kept going, then the unthinkable occurred. The intensity and the tempo increased and the sound was like standing in the midst of a million stampeding animals…deafening and the vibration shaking you to your core. Now the ground was visibly rolling like swells on the ocean as the two great plates battled for position beneath the earth’s crust, obedient to geology and completely oblivious to the plight of the creatures above. Geologic time is now, goes the saying, and so it was playing out.

Pieces of the 76 year old building were fracturing and falling to the ground. I glanced about quickly, looking for someplace to shelter. I dropped my luggage case’s handle and ran back under the Station roofline and cowered in a corner, pressing against a row of steel luggage lockers. I pulled my backpack off and covered my head with it, feeling the impact of plaster and God knows what else falling about me. I stole a glance out toward the street and saw cars were careening into one another, ricocheting into buildings and water lines were exploding and spraying up out of fractures in the street. Then as if to compound the destruction, a massive up thrust jolt occurred as one of the plates gained advantage and violently slipped past the other. Screams, alarms, were dinned in the deafening noise…and then the earth stopped shaking.

History now tells us that the November 23, 2018 Los Angeles Earthquake struck at 11:07 a.m. and is calculated to have been magnitude 7.9 on the Richter scale although some devices [presumed malfunctioning] registered it at 8.32, and having an intensity rated at XI [Extreme]. The temblor shook southern California for a total of 57 seconds and was centered on the Puente Hills Fault. None of that much mattered. I crawled out of the rubble in my tattered, dust covered business suit and staggered woodenly in shock into the roadway, just in time to see the MTA building disintegrate and collapse into a heap of rubble.

I picked my way around chunks of concrete, glass and a crushed Taxi, the driver’s severed arm lying on the pavement next to the destroyed vehicle. Looking toward the center of downtown Los Angeles, none of the trademark skyscrapers were visible any longer amid the smoke, dust and haze now filling the air over the city. A woman in ragged clothing, carrying a dead infant staggered over to me, bleeding from the head, then collapsed at my feet. I bent and tried to revive her but it was of no use, life had fled. I felt a rush of nausea, then the blackness engulfed me and I slid into darkness…


I WAS IN A SWIMMING POOL…and coming to the surface. The light on the surface shimmered like diamonds. The blackness gave way and I slowly came to, looking about me. An older woman was cradling my head in her lap while an elderly man kneeling next to us looked on curiously. My head swiveled from one to the other as I tried to reason out this strange situation. Groggily, I asked them, “What’s happening? “You passed out”, the man said. “We saw you collapse and came to help.” His voice had a thick accent, European maybe, not German. I looked around and, seeing the carnage, remembered the earthquake…and the woman. “Don’t worry” said the man, “She has been cared for”. It was then I saw her a distance away, legs poking out from beneath a pile of spread newspapers, a smaller heap lying next to her. The baby. My eyes moistened, and I wiped them with the back of my hand, shaking my head in disbelief…”this can’t be happening”, I thought.

Slowly I pushed myself into a sitting position. The man introduced himself. “My name is Josef Haledjian, and this is my wife Irina.” Panicky, I felt about for my backpack. Josef sensed my need and pulled the pack over and placed it in my hands. They helped me to a standing position and then walked me over to the sidewalk next to the platform. We were only minutes into the event, and all about, people sat in shock and disbelief, crying, wailing in pain from their injuries. Some were being attended by others, tearing pieces of fabric to create field-expedient bandages and compresses for the serious bleeds. The air was hazy and full of dust and I could smell smoke and fumes. Looking at the rails, the trains were all toppled off the uprooted tracks and were lying on their sides. Fires had broken out in many places, and broken, crumpled structures were all about. Nothing had survived the temblor.

I took out my cellphone and found no signal. I considered that either cell towers had collapsed or the power grid was down or too many people were trying to use the system and crashed it or all of the above. I fired up my laptop and wasn’t the least bit surprised that no Wi-Fi or Network signals were available. In short, there was no way to communicate with emergency services, friends, or family.

Josef stood, surveyed the cityscape and waved his hand at the scene. “The city is utterly destroyed. Not have I seen this thing since I left Serbia. I thought when I left there, “I will never see these things again!” and, yet, here it is.” He began to weep softly. Irina was crying to and hugged Josef tightly. He was right. The city was completely and utterly destroyed, and I had to believe this was probably not unlike the Great 1906 San Francisco earthquake, except now the structures were concrete and steel instead of wood. I sat, trying to gather my wits and calculate what to do. Distantly there were explosions, and the dust was growing thicker and heavier. I vaguely remembered a TV documentary about the S.F. earthquake, and how people had to sleep on the ground in parks for several weeks.

I wondered aloud where the railroad personnel were? How long it would be before help would arrive? Josef looked at me, astonished at my naiveté. “There is no help coming. Do you not remember your Hurricane Katrina? It took many days for emergency services to respond, weeks to get resources to the needy….and this is much larger than Katrina. No, there is no “help” coming. We are on our own. It will take a decade to recover from this…perhaps longer.” People sat about, apparently awaiting “help” and unawares nothing, no one, was coming. It made sense…probably police and fire stations had been destroyed, equipment trapped or rendered inoperable, personnel injured or dead. Judging the damaged conditions of the roads, no emergency vehicles would be getting through. What to do?

Presently, Josef suggested that we move to someplace sheltered. But where? Every building in sight was fractured, wrecked, unsafe and uninhabitable. We gathered our belongings and walked out to the street. After a study of the area, we spotted out a car parked at a curb. It appeared undamaged, and there were not electrical lines or teetering buildings threatening it. We found it was locked. We foraged for a piece of wire to slip the window, but could find none, so I broke the side window with a piece of concrete and reached inside and unlocked it. Josef helped Irina into the car and then we sat silently.

After a while, Josef spoke up. “We will have to walk to safety. We are older, and it will be difficult. Not so much for a young man such as you. Will you help us?” I looked at him and asked, “Walk? Where…?” Josef explained he and Irina were from Fresno and traveling to San Diego to visit kin. He suggested that we would have to “rescue ourselves” and walk out of the L.A. basin until we reached the limits of destruction. This they had done in Bosnia, and had survived. “We go north” , he said. I pondered this suggestion. There was nothing for me here now. TSG was either destroyed or inoperable, so my job interview had evaporated. The city was levelled. Remaining here was pointless. The only option was to take to the road as a refugee. I agreed it was our only option, and I would go with them. It was too late to start, so Josef suggested we try to gather whatever we could to get through the night and then start in the morning.

Leaving Irina and our belongings in the car, we returned to Union Station and started looking for anything useful we could salvage. I was able to climb atop a toppled train car and carefully climbed through a broken window. Inside I gathered some blankets, pillows, and a few bottles of courtesy water I found. We located the club car and I was able to climb inside and pass out some snack food items, bags of peanuts and such. I also found a working flashlight behind a counter. Already, other people had gotten the same idea and were foraging for plunder.

We returned to the car and passed the blankets and pillows in to Irina. Josef said that we would need to set a watch for the night. “When I was in Kosovo, the living conditions were not unlike this. Food and water were often unavailable and men would kill for it. It will soon become difficult, and people will be at their worst…we may have to fight for our very lives. We will need to find some things we can use as weapons.” I reached into my backpack and withdrew the GERBER. “I have this…” Josef nodded slowly. “That will do for a start”, he said.

Josef told me to take the first watch. It was already getting cold…the broken window was plugged with a pillow to prevent cold air entering. We locked the doors and bundled up in our blankets. I stretched out in the driver seat. Josef sat up in the rear seat, Irina lay on the seat with her head in his lap. Poor Irina was asleep in no time. Later in the night, she tossed and cried softly in her sleep. Josef awoke and gently stroked her hair and reassured her. I had the feeling this was nothing new for them and thought how unfair life was for her and Josef to survive a war and be cast into yet another horrific situation. About 1 am, Josef told me to get some sleep, and for the second time in a day I drifted into blackness….


THE NEXT MORNING I AWOKE feeling somewhat rested. I had awakened several times during the night and had sat awake, fearful, listening. There were several explosions, muffled in the distance. There were also several aftershocks during the night, none particularly violent, but enough to rattle my already frayed nerves. I sat quietly until Josef and Irina stirred and woke. We stepped from the vehicle and stretched. I excused myself and found a building corner that provided privacy for me to urinate. No one spoke as we each had some water and nibbled on the few snacks we’d salvaged. It was far from a sumptuous breakfast, and it was not nearly enough calories for the long days walk ahead of us.

Having finished our “meal”, we rolled our blankets. Josef told me to use my knife to cut fabric from the cars upholstery to make straps to carry the blanket rolls. Clever I thought…how would he know that? The pillows we had no way to carry and would have to leave behind. I again attempted to use my cellphone and computer, but still could find no service for either. Josef said that we would walk for an hour and then rest for 15 minutes. I started to place the knife in my backpack and Josef told me to loop it onto my belt. “The next few days will be very difficult. As people become hungry, they will become very desperate and will harm us for what little we have. Stay together and be watchful.”

We turned and faced toward the 101.Josef thought it best if we followed it north, believing it the fastest route and a route that might afford some resources. We began to cross the Union Station property, and it became immediately apparent it would be no easy task to walk the roads. Everywhere, there were fissures & cracks in the road surface. Chunks of building debris and concrete that had to be stepped over or around. It required slow, careful movement to pick your way along and not trip. It also became apparent my dress loafers were not adequate for the conditions. In no time the shoe leather was being abraded and I wondered just how long they’d last…

We reached Alameda Street and I looked south and west. I could see great columns of smoke rising throughout the city. It reminded me of images I’d seen of the oil fields burning in Iraq during the first Gulf War. The now missing downtown skyline resembled the desert. I shook my head…the loss of life must be huge, and the property damage incalculable. I wasn’t sure there were enough materials or money in the world to rebuild the city.

No sooner had I thought this then we passed a stack of bodies, piled on a corner near Arcadia Street where the Freeway overpass had collapsed. Among them I saw what appeared to be a Policeman. I moved closer and saw that his belt was missing the pistol and maybe other things. He appeared to have a massive head wound that had cleaved his head nearly in half. The uppermost bodies were covered with cardboard, probably someone’s idea of keeping the sun from ripening them too fast. I estimated at least 12 people piled there. I wondered how long it would be before they were recovered and…identified…if ever? What if they’d lost their I.D.? It could be years before their family knew their whereabouts. Perhaps never.

Already, small groups and solo refugees were likewise beginning to move north. People with injuries…arms in makeshift slings; people with leg injuries using sticks as canes; a man with a bandage wrapped around his eyes being guided by a woman; a family with 2 small children, both too young to walk for very long. Few of them had any belongings with them…just walking in a dazed zombie-like state….shock? It was like a migration of invalids. Admittedly, I felt pretty numb myself. I was just hoping to get to some point where I could get a signal and contact my family…hopefully they were already coming this way to rescue me. I hoped…


WE PICKED OUR WAY AROUND AND OVER DEBRIS FROM THE FREEWAY and reached Aliso Street. I was amazed when I saw a sign that read DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY. The structure itself gutted from fire and completely pancaked. I wondered whether anyone was inside when the quake hit and whether they got out. We walked over and looked into a couple of the cars in the lot. They were locked, and we couldn’t see anything useful inside…just a computer monitor.

Josef indicated that we should follow West Temple Street, which took us parallel to the 101 and through the heart of the downtown. We walked about a block and I think we all stopped dead in our tracks simultaneously when we beheld the sight…The LA City Hall, Hall of Justice and other structures were now nothing more than huge piles of rubble, spilt across the streets like mountains…insurmountable and impassable. “We must go back and try another direction”, said Josef. I was beginning to feel like we were trapped. Stranger still, there were no sirens, no rescue vehicles. The roads were impassable for anything except maybe a tracked bulldozer or a tank.

By mid-morning, we began to see military helicopters buzz overhead, probably conducting damage assessments. We had managed to cover a few blocks on Cesar Chavez Street and already we were becoming tired. I opened my rolling luggage case and sorted through it, selecting a jacket and tossing other clothing items and a travel iron. I kept the shaving kit. Thinking at some point it’d be nice to clean up. Another couple of hours and we’d made it to the 110. Irina spotted a damaged Mexican café. We were able to force a door and gathered up some cans of refried beans and sacks of flour and corn tortillas, which we stuffed into our bags. We also grabbed a few cans of beverages.. Josef selected 2 large kitchen knives and quickly fashioned sheathes for them using some cardboard and rubber bands. These he and Irina slid into their blanket rolls, accessible, but hidden.

By now, it was beginning to become dim, and we decided to shelter up for the night. We hydrated and ate whatever else we could find at the café, thus preserving our packed food, and then wandered outside. Across the street, Irina spotted a Community College building that appeared reasonably intact. We were able to slip inside a broken window by laying a heavy rubber doormat over the broken glass in the frame and wriggled through. There was no smell of gas and Josef selected an interior room which had a locking door and a rear door that exited outside. We laid magazines on the tile floor to provide a little pallet for Irina, who was exhausted and went right to sleep.

Josef and I sat up and talked quietly. He told me about his and Irina’s life. They’d been through a lot, and it became apparent where they’d learned the skills they had. Irina’s family had been Serbian Jews living in Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia had tried to keep peace with Hitler and had given shelter to Austrian Jews, but by April 1941 Germany had invaded and in short order began rounding up Jews and sending them to Concentration Camps. Irina’s parents escaped. They were the lucky few; by wars end, only 17% of Yugoslavia’s Jewish population was still alive. After the war they returned home and Irina was born.

Next came life under the Communist’s and the Cold War. Josef was a Christian. His parents had barely survived the war and he was born in the post-war Yugoslavia. His father was a minor Party member and ran a state industrial factory Josef went to the state University to study Engineering. The day he spotted the freckled Irina he was smitten. She liked his gentle eyes, but feigned disinterest. After graduation he proposed and she accepted. His parents opposed him marrying a poor Jewish girl, but love has no price tag and they were wed. Life was hard under the Communists, and try as they may, they had no children. Still they loved each other deeply and were thankful for every day…until the Serbian War.

When the Communist country fell apart, they found themselves caught between the battling Christians and Muslims, life became a living hell as the country was ravaged. They lost everything and everyday was a fight to survive…just finding some tiny morsel to eat, water to drink, or a dry place to sleep was a struggle. Still, they learned how to stay alive and in `99, the NATO bombing campaign brought the conflict to an end, the first time in history Airpower alone stopped a war. It was then Josef & Irina applied for, and received, passage to the United States where he found work with an Engineering firm and Irina made them a comfortable home.

“And now” Josef said, “Here we are once again. I do not understand the Lord’s will, or why our lives have been so difficult, but I will do what I must to save my `Rina. Promise me, if I do not make it, you will see her to safety.” I pondered for a moment, wondering could I do it. Then I remembered dad’s photo at home…he’d say do the right thing. “Yes, Josef. I promise.” He smiled and slapped my knee. “Good! I’ll take the first watch. Get some sleep!"


ABOUT 3 A.M. I HEARD SOME NOISES IN THE BUILDING. I wasn’t sure at first, but after a few minutes it became apparent someone was moving around. There was an echoing effect, and it occurred to me they were probably in the main hallway we’d passed through as we’d entered the building. The class rooms were laid out on both sides of the hall, and it sounded like someone was trying doors. I crawled over to Josef and gently shook him. He awoke without moving, just opening his eyes and looking at me. I put a finger to my lips and pointed with my other hand. Josef sat up quietly and listened. The door to our room rattled as someone tested it. Finding it locked they pulled harder on it with no success.

Josef reached for his kitchen knife and drew it from the cardboard sheath. I realized I should do likewise and pulled out the GERBER. It was quiet for a moment, and then we heard a soft murmur…why would you speak? At least 2 persons? A few seconds passed and then we heard the doors rattling further down the hall, signaling they’d passed us by. Just to be safe, Josef and I sat awake the remainder of the morning and kept watch while Irina slept. About 6 a.m. it was getting light and we all began rolling our blankets Josef borrowed my GERBER and balanced the tip on a can of beans. He tapped the pommel gently until it pierced the can, then moved it slightly and repeated the process until he had opened the can. We spread the bean mix on tortillas and each ate a couple for breakfast. It wasn’t great per se, but much better than yesterday’s meager fare of snacks. I washed it down with a can of JUMEX nectar from the café.

We spent a bit of time searching the building for any useful resources. Mostly it was A-V equipment, books, and whiteboards. We located the restrooms. One of the toilet tanks still held water, and we filled a couple of empty bottles. Attached to the bathroom wall was one of those old school metal Industrial First Aid kits, which we took. We found a service closet and located the water heater. We opened the valve and were able to get water to wipe ourselves off and feel somewhat refreshed. In a desk drawer we found a Scripto lighter and a book of matches, and guessed the desk’s owner was a smoker.

Satisfied, we agreed to set out and Josef listened at the back door, then opened it slightly and scanned the area. He deemed it safe to leave, and out we went, walking again, another long day ahead. We followed our same plan of paralleling the 101 north. By now, the migration had grown to large groups of people, spread out for blocks and numbering in the thousands and we fell into the line of refugees. It was apparent people had concluded the same as we that help wasn’t coming and the only hope was to walk out of the L.A. basin to safety. We also began seeing signs of people becoming desperate. A large group of people were fist fighting over rights to forage a Mexican “Roach Coach” that was lying on its side in a parking lot. It appeared to me to be at least 3 separate groups…whites, Latinos, and blacks, and it occurred to me that there was an almost tribal aspect to the conflict, probably not unlike how primitive man had operated in the paleo era.

We’d covered some decent ground that morning and reached a park named “Echo Park”. It was about 3 p.m. when a particularly strong aftershock hit, knocking many people to the ground. Irina was stepping from a curb when it struck and was catapulted forward, hitting her head on a chunk of concrete when she fell. We rushed to her aid and found her unconscious. We lifted and carried her beneath a tree and checked her over. She was bleeding from a 2” laceration to her forehead and already it was darkening and swelling into a bad contusion. Josef pulled a kerchief and dampened it with a few drops from his water bottle and dabbed at her head. Presently she regained consciousness. It was then I heard a shriek. I turned and saw a man with a baseball bat separate from a woman and a small boy and approach us. The woman had tried to hold the man back, but he pulled away. He looked intense and was walking with deliberacy and I sensed trouble. I got to my feet, brushed my coat back to make my knife accessible, and asked, “What’s up friend...?”


HE POINTED WITH THE BAT, and now I really started pinging. “You got water! How much water you got? I need some water.” I made a quick assessment. He was a white man, 30-ish, powerfully built, shaved head, heavily tatted. He looked like somebody who had known violence in his life, almost certainly knew how to do violence. “What else you got boy? Got any food? I want to see what’s in that pack you got!” I stayed calm and replied, “We only have enough water for our needs. We don’t have any to spare.” “BULLSHIT!” he screamed. “GIVE ME YOUR FUCKIN’ WATER!” and he took hold of the bat with both hands and raised it back onto his shoulder as if to swing.

Josef walked over and stood at a right angle to the man. Clever I thought…positioned this way, the man can’t focus on us both at the same time. Josef tried calming the situation, “Sir, we can spare a bottle of water for your little boy, but we haven’t anything else to give.” “I WANT YOUR FUCKING PACKS!” he screamed. I glanced around and saw no one coming to assist him. This guy’s alone I thought, and he’s scared too. I noticed Josef’s large kitchen knife stuck through his trouser belt. I was sure by now bat-man had seen that we both had knives. Looking at the bat, it struck me I needed to acquire a walking stick or a piece of pipe that would give me some distance…if I survive this.

Josef retreated to his pack and gathered a bottle of water from it. He returned and held it out. “For your little one. A gift.” The man swallowed, looked about, glancing back at the woman and child, and then lowered the bat. He took the bottle and walked away quickly. I looked at Josef and let out my breath. “That was TOO close”, I said. Josef said nothing and went back to Irina, who by now was sitting up, but complained she was dizzy. Irina was in her mid-60’s, and the fall had done some harm. It was obvious she couldn’t walk further that day. Josef said we needed to find someplace to shelter up and rest and asked me to scout around and see what I could find. The area was without power and residential. Several homes had fire damage. On one porch I saw a man keeping watch with some kind of rifle. It was obvious there would be no Welcome Wagon committee. I returned and told Josef there was nothing nearby, so we moved under the trees and wrapped Irina up in a blanket to keep her warm. I foraged for firewood and we were able to make a small fire. An elderly man and later a small family asked if they could share our fire and we welcomed them. Nobody had much to say, the mood being very somber and our attention on caring for Irina.

The following morning, Irina indicated she thought she could walk. We moved to a secluded spot and wolfed down a quick meal from our food stash, which was beginning to shrink. I broke a limb off and using the GERBER, fashioned a walking staff for Irina. She was able to walk, but it was slow going and obvious she was in pain. We covered some decent ground and reached the Santa Monica Blvd very late that afternoon, and already people were setting up to camp, so we did likewise. I went to find someplace to make latrine when I noticed a lot of graffiti. I wasn’t sure, but I thought it might be gang related, and it seemed to indicate “Locos” so, a Latino gang was my guess. Not a good sign. I conveyed this to Josef and we decided to locate in a far corner of the small park where we would not be so obvious. We decided against a fire and it got cold, maybe not freezing, but damn close. Josef and Irina huddled together for warmth. The night went by too slowly and I was so glad to see the sun rise. That morning saw the last of our small supply of food and we were down to a half liter bottle of water each. Time to forage.

We reached Sunset Boulevard and noted more commercial businesses and started checking those we deemed safe to enter. They were picked clean and it became obvious that the horde was now cleaning out everything they could find. We were able to gut a water heater for potable water, but did not find any food that day, meaning tomorrow we would wake up to our first day of hunger…


THE FOLLOWING DAY WAS GRIM. The weather had turned very cold, maybe daytime highs in the mid to lower 50’s, windy, and overcast. We’d had no food and were not moving particularly fast. We’d only covered a very few blocks when Irina pointed out a school a couple of blocks down a side street. We decided to make a detour and scout for resources. Many of the structures were partially collapsed or gutted by fire. We managed to make entry into a classroom and in a Teacher’s desk found a half-empty bottle of Peanut Butter and a partial bag of saltines. It was during this time we heard shouts from outside.

Peering through a window, we saw a group of young Latino men fighting with a Police Officer some 50 yards away on a fenced playground. They were obviously gang-banger types, wearing those Pendleton shirts, khaki trousers, and bandanna head wraps. The Officer had a baton and was attempting to defend himself from a gang of 7 gangsters. He was older, overweight, and swung the baton wildly, and it was obvious he was quickly wearing down. The gangsters taunted the Officer and finally judged the opportunity, moved in and swarmed him like a pack of wolves. He went down in a flurry of fists and vicious kicks to the head and ribs. He appeared to be unconscious and the gangsters danced with around him with glee. What I witnessed next would stay with me the rest of my life…

Dragging the unconscious Officer to a chain link fence, they removed his handcuffs from his belt pouch and stood him up, handcuffing his arms above his head to the fence. Next, they gathered pallets and wood from behind the cafeteria and stacked them beneath the Officer, and then as he regained his awareness, set them ablaze. It was horrific and medieval. They kept piling wood, building the flames up, and laughing and hurling insults…”Puto Policia” [Whore Cop]…and other expletives as he screamed for his life. It was not long before he went silent and slumped, apparently dead. Every so often one of the cowards would charge forward and brave the flames to take a swipe at his lifeless body with a knife.

One of the gang-bangers left and went behind a handball backboard. A few moments later he returned dragging the lifeless body of a female Officer. They unceremoniously cast her body onto the funeral pyre and stood back, laughing and admiring their evil handiwork. One of them advanced and dropped his trousers to urinate on her while the others laughed hysterically. I felt so helpless and tears of anger, shame, and frustration ran down my cheeks. Irina had turned away and was sobbing. Josef was silent and stoic as he witnessed the grisly event. I had to believe he had seen similar events in Serbia.

Josef told Irina and me that we must go quickly while they were occupied, so we would not be discovered. We retreated out the door we had entered through, but as we did so, my arm encountered a metal filing tray and knocked it to the floor. It made a loud crash in the empty classroom. I looked and saw that the gang-bangers had stopped and were looking this way. Then one of them, the leader I suppose, motioned one of them to go investigate. I told Josef and Irina to go, and I would catch up. I was scared to death, and it took everything I had to walk slowly away, intent on being a decoy.

I turned a corner into an open area between two buildings when I heard running footsteps coming up. I stopped and turned as the gang-banger entered the area. He appeared surprised, then smiled nervously, wolfish like. “Heeyy, Ese, what choo doing here? I was scared and fought not to shake, “N-nothing, I stammered.” He looked about the area, checking to see if anyone else was around. “Nudding eh? Joo see us out der? He asked. “No. No I didn’t see nothing…anything.”

He angled a little closer to me. “Nooo, I tink joo did see us. And dats no good…” He reached into his pocket and removed a folding knife, which he flicked open. He started to move toward me. I threw back my jacket and pulled the GERBER from its sheath. He smiled and said, “oooh, dats a beeg knife amigo. Joo know how to use it? You better.” I dropped a couple of steps back and got the knife out in front of me. “S-Stay BACK!” I tried to back away, but he kept advancing, and then lunged at me. I almost tripped backpedaling. Twice more he tried to lunge and stab me, but I was able to jump back.

Now he was aggravated…impatient…I could see it. I saw him shift the knife in his hand to an icepick hold and start to angle toward me slowly. “He’s going to stab down” I thought. I kept his gaze and carefully set my feet while feigning fear. “P-Please…I don’t want to get hurt.” I pleaded. He smiled, his lips curled back and eyes narrowed. He looked like a wolf, confident he had cornered a sheep. He moved closer, angling. Then, for just a second, I saw him tense and thought, here it comes. It was like slow motion. He raised the knife, his mouth dropped open, and he ran at me. The last thing he expected was me stepping forward right into him. It put me inside his arm and robbed him of the ability to stab downwards. At the same time, he ran full force into me, and I rammed the GERBER to the hilt in his gut. I felt warmness flowing onto my hand, He was shocked and looked down. Before he could act, I tripped him, withdrew the GERBER and then destroyed his throat, violently ice picking it with the GERBER. Blood flew every time I withdrew the blade to stab again and again. Finally I stopped and sat atop him, listening to the gurgling until it stops and his eyes fixed. I rolled off of him, nauseated, but I had nothing in me to permit regurgitation.

I stood and ran, catching up to Josef and Irina a few blocks away and quickly told them what happened. Josef looked me over, noting the blood on my clothing. We then walk-ran back to the marginal safety of the refugee parade, stopping off just long enough to share the crackers and peanut butter out of view behind a business where we’d stashed out belongings while foraging. The horrible events served to energize us to keep moving and get clear of Los Angeles, but of course, we had no way of knowing how far we’d have to travel to escape the destruction. How had thousand Oaks fared? Or Ventura? Clearly downtown L.A. was the epicenter or close to it, but how far did the destruction reach?

I had youth on my side, Josef was stoic and hid his pain, but Irina was clearly taking a beating. During a break I spoke to her and she seemed to not hear me and be drifting off. Josef urged her to hydrate, but she had little interest in water. I was worried, and if I was worried, I know Josef had to be panicking inside. We’d crossed the Hollywood Boulevard and walked a fair distance further when we noticed the blocks were getting less densely populated and larger, and realized we were beginning the ascent out of the L.A. basin….


IT HAD BEEN 6 DAYS SINCE THE QUAKE and by now the Exodus numbered in the 10’s of thousands, strung out in a long line leading all the way back to Los Angeles. Men and women and children of all ages, utterly exhausted, dehydrated, starving, struggling to get clear of the destruction. It was literally a race between life and death, and there was no guarantee that emergency services or resources would be awaiting us. So far, we’d seen some helicopters but no resources.

That night, we slept on the shoulder of the 101 below the Hollywood Reservoir, along with thousands of others. Once again it was cold and more so because we’d had no meal for calories to burn to warm us. Day 7 broke, and we continued the climb up the Hollywood Freeway. It reminded me of photographs I had seen of the Alaskan Gold Rush and the miners ascending the infamous “Golden Stairs” of Chilkoot Pass, braving cold and altitude to reach the gold fields.

Part of the freeway had collapsed and a large impassable crevasse had opened up in a canyon below the road. This necessitated climbing above and traveling overland the crevasse to skirt around the damaged portion of roadway. By now my shoes were broken and little more than shredded leather on my feet. My feet were raw and blistered and every step was miserable. Irina stumbled and fell several times, and Josef and I each took an arm and helped her. Her head turned slowly and looked at me, and she whispered something unintelligible. Her face was quite red and strangely dry in appearance. I was sure she was badly dehydrated and tried to get her to drink water, but she was past that. Irina was a very quiet woman and rarely spoke, but this was well beyond that. Not good I thought…

We began the descent down to the Ventura Freeway, and could see a lot of activity and military vehicles below. Could it be some kind of disaster assistance? It had to be, and we quickened our step. We arrived, exhausted but overjoyed to find that a disaster relief center had been established in a park next to the Los Angeles River. A RALPH’S supermarket nearby by had been turned into a landing zone for helicopters and parking for transport vehicles and bulldozers. I saw vehicles marked with ARMY, MARINES and AIR FORCE. There were also some State of California Emergency Management Agency vehicles, as well as Red Cross and Salvation Army.

As we entered the center we passed a Detention Center manned by armed Military Police. Posts had been driven into the ground and concertina wire strung. The detainees stood idle inside the wire, and I chuckled when I noticed the Bat-man who had tried to rob us a few days earlier was present, hands bound with flex ties, scowling and exhibiting an obviously broken nose. I wondered if there was a reason the Detention Center was prominently located at the front of the facility…a warning not to misbehave perhaps?

We waited in line to be registered at a check in station, questioned regarding health and diseases, and then directed to a line and awaited our turn to receive a bottle of water and a military ration meal. We advised the check in staff of Irina’s condition, especially her apparent altered mental state, and they radioed the medical team. Moments later an Air Force Paramedic and 2 airmen with a stretcher arrived. The Paramedic did a quick evaluation and concluded at minimum, Irina was badly dehydrated and likely suffering from a concussion. He directed the Airmen to deliver her to the Medical Unit for advanced care. We followed along and they parked her in a cot and administered an I.V. while a Doctor and Nurse began an advanced evaluation of her condition. They told us to check in with them the next morning.

Josef and I found a place to sit and broke into the ration we’d been given. The meal, called an MRE, had a main entrée, mine being spaghetti and meatballs. It also had crackers, a cookie, and some other items like a drink mix. It had a heater unit, very simple to use, so I was able to heat the meal and enjoy something hot for the first time in five days. We watched Army and Marines helicopters constantly flying in and dropping pallets of supplies, then moving off without even touching down.

It had started to rain and Josef and I sought out a place to shelter, but there was no place that was not already taken. I concluded one of those disposable poncho’s would’ve been handy about now and vowed to add one to my travel bag in the future; hell, an entire survival kit for that matter. It was a miserable night and my filthy, soaking wet AMTRAK blanket offered little protection and no insulation from rain. Again I was never so glad as to see the daybreak, although bleak.

The following morning we returned to the ration line and received another meal and water. After finishing our meal we went to the USAF Medical Unit to inquire as to Irina’s condition and how long it might be before she could travel. The Nurse checked her name on the roster and asked us to wait a moment. Presently an Officer came out and met us. His name tag read “Major J.T. Sims, Flight Surgeon”. The look on his face was disturbing, but nothing like could’ve prepared us for what came next. He said he was sorry; that everything had been done that could be done, but that Irina had slipped away during the night.

Josef was shattered. His knees buckled and he fell against me. I barely managed to stay on my feet and prop him. He sobbed for a while and Major Sims had a folding chair brought out for Josef to sit in. I asked what had been the cause of death, stupid I suppose, as it was pretty obvious given the ordeal we’d just been through. Dr. Sims said they suspected a brain hemorrhage, but could not confirm without a proper autopsy, which there was no time fore He said her death certificate would read, “COMPLICATIONS FROM DEHYDRATION AND HEAD INJURY/SUSPECTED BRAIN HEMORRHAGE.”

After a time, Josef recovered somewhat and we inquired if we could see her. Major Sims called for an escort and we were led to the Mortuary Affairs unit’s tents which were being managed by an Air Force non-commissioned officer overseeing several Technicians at work. An Air Force worked at a computer terminal, and I figured he must be communicating via a military communications satellite, because I still wasn’t getting any signal on my phone or laptop. Irina’s body bag was located and the Sergeant allowed us privacy. Josef opened the bag with shaking hands and looked upon her. She looked serene, at peace at last, after a lifetime of struggle. Josef wept again and I found myself sobbing as well.

Josef removed a chain and medallion from his neck, and placed it around Irina’s neck. He clasped it onto an identical medallion about Irina’s neck and fitted the pieces together. I couldn’t know it at the time, but it was inscribed with a prayer, “The Lord watch between me and thee when we are absent one from another”. He prayed over her, kissed her face, and then slowly zippered up the olive green body bag.

We left the tent, silently, much the same way as Irina had left this world.


JOSEF WAS GIVEN A COPY OF IRINA’S MILITARY DEATH CERTIFICATE by a mortuary affairs officer. He sat silent, staring at it, turning it over in his hands. The military had made an announcement that a refugee center had been established in Ventura and that everyone had to keep moving north. Mothers with infants and small children and the very elderly, of whom there were very few, were being loaded into large CHINOOK helicopters for transportation to the refugee center. It would be an arduous walk for us, a few minutes flight time for them. It didn’t seem fair, but I understood it.

I turned to Josef. “Josef, I know you are really hurting over Irina. I am too. But I believe she would want you to pick up and carry on…she would want you to live. When I was a kid my Aunt Marie was in the hospital dying of Cancer. I loved her very much, and I remember when I went to say goodbye. I was crying and even though she was weak and could barely whisper, she told me,”Don’t cry…this is just part of life…if you won’t forget me, I’ll never really die.” Josef, if we don’t forget Irina, she’ll never die, but live on, in us. I believe that Josef. I truly do.”

Josef looked up, looked at me, and managed a weak smile. “My friend, you are wise beyond your years. Thank you.” He stood, folded the certificate and packed it away. He grabbed his blanket, and began rolling it. 10 minutes later, we were back on the road.

As we left the Disaster Relief Center, everyone was handed a “Casualty Blanket”, kind of the military version of a Space Blanket. This proved to be a great item, as it was wind and waterproof, and reflected heat. Over the next couple of days, we used it every night and put our AMTRAK blanket inside it. It was much nicer than the polyester blanket alone.

The Military had organized hydration stations along the route every few miles, and had a big potable water tank on wheels parked with soldiers attending it. It’s amazing how far you can go without food if you have access to water. Josef and I had noticed our clothes fitting looser, and knew we were losing weight. . Already I had taken in my belt a couple of notches. The roadways were improving, not perfect, but not littered with debris and cracks, so much easier for us to walk. We were detoured around a few overpasses that were standing but severely cracked.

It took us a day and a half to reach Hidden Hills. There was nothing to eat, and we were too tired to gather wood and make a fire. My stomach was beyond hunger pangs. We just rolled up in our blankets and slept on the roadway along with the other thousands of refugees migrating north. During the night, an armored Military Humvee with a machine gun passed through the area, apparently patrolling to enforce martial law.

The following morning we awoke and got started walking. We saw 7 bodies along the way, one a young girl, maybe 11 or 12. She didn’t have any injuries and we supposed she died of exhaustion, exposure, all of the above. The bodies were being collected by a Military Ambulance. I imagine they anticipated this….the refugee march was like a “culling” of sorts…only the strong would survive. Josef and I decided it would be wise to exchange contact information including next-of-kin, just in case one of us didn’t pull through.

I took us the whole day to walk to the next hydration point and again we just flopped in our casualty blanket and raggedy AMTRAK blanket, rolled up and died. I didn’t even notice cold anymore. I was too numb with weakness to care. The following morning a military transport truck came along and the soldiers handed out MRE’s to us. I didn’t even bother to heat the contents…just devoured them and licked the wrappers clean...


DAY 11 SAW US WALKING ONCE AGAIN. When we got to Thousand Oaks the Military and local Service Clubs and their CERT organization had set up a large Aid Station. We got a meal of fresh fruit from local farms and oatmeal and real coffee. Hot coffee! Josef and I were ecstatic! That was short lived, as the march to Ventura took another 2 days. We’d been existing on about 1,200 calories a day, and it was barely enough to keep us putting one foot in front of the other.

When we arrived in Ventura on day 13, we were directed in to a huge relief center that had been established. Supplies, shelter, and medical personnel were constantly pouring in from around the country to care for the refugees. The U.S. Air Force had taken over operation of the Ventura Airport for the relief effort and receiving air transports of supplies.

We later learned the USS AMERICA and USS MAKIN ISLAND, 2 huge amphibious assault ships with helicopters, and the hospital ship USNS MERCY from San Diego had dropped anchor off shore from Los Angeles and were helping emergency crews with search and recovery operations and casualty care. As well the USS BONHOMME RICHARD and USNS COMFORT were sailing to L.A. from Norfolk Virginia.

The power grid had been restored, and there was power in the Ventura area, but so many displaced people were attempting to access Internet and cell phone service that they kept collapsing due to overwhelmed circuits. Bus service was organized for those persons wishing to travel to other communities. Josef and I were placed on a waiting list and had to wait in the relief center’s refugee tent city. We were assigned to a huge MGPT military tent with a group of other men.

Just when I could see light at the end of the tunnel, bad luck struck. One of our tent mates was a white man with SS and Iron Cross tattoos on his neck. He kept to himself and spoke to no one. It was clear he was trouble…and troubled. Also in our tent was a Black man named “Royce” who was the polar opposite. Royce was friendly and gregarious, he laughed and joked and made our stay a lot more enjoyable.

One evening, Royce was regaling us with his stories and mentioned his white girlfriend. At this, the brooding white man stood up and berated Royce, saying he didn’t like the idea of any Black man putting his hands on a white woman. Royce showed a different side at this point, and went nose to nose with “whitey” and a terrible fistfight broke out between them. The commotion drew the attention of a roving Military Police patrol walking the compound and they attempted to break up the fight, which by this time, had gone down to the ground in an all-out scuffle.

Whitey went for a gun grab on one of the M.P.’s service pistol and they wrestled for control of the weapon. Us bystanders were fleeing the tent when the pistol discharged. I felt a hard punch followed by a sensation like a red hot poker stab through my leg, and fell down. Faced with a lethal force situation, and given the state of Martial Law, the second M.P. didn’t waste any time, but drew his pistol placed the muzzle in contact with Whitey’s head and pulled the trigger. Red mist filled the tent and Whitey dropped as if struck by lightning.

One of the M.P.’s applied a dressing to my leg while the second reported the shooting and requested a Medical Team. I was rushed to the relief center infirmary, prepped and rushed into surgery. Fortunately, the bullet had struck the muscular part of my upper leg and missed the femoral artery…a flesh wound essentially. The bullet was removed and I was parked in a hospital bed. In the meantime, Josef was called to catch his bus ride home and came to say goodbye. It was a happy moment, and sad too, as we’d been through so much together. We agreed to contact each other soon.

After about 5 days, the attending physician judged I was fit to travel and I was helped to the bus and transferred for the ride north. Arriving in Santa Barbara, I was finally able to reach my family by way of the Internet. It was a joyous moment to make contact and have them know I was alive and *reasonably* well. I arranged for them to drive down to San Luis Obispo and meet me as the bus arrived. I was never so happy in my life when the bus arrived to see them with Jen, my girlfriend, awaiting me. The ordeal was over…

I was weak and could barely manage food. My family took me to my personal physician and he determined I had lost 22 pounds over the 19 long days, that I was severely exhausted, anemic, and exhibiting some symptoms indicative of PTSD. He placed me on a special diet and 4 weeks bed rest, stress counseling, and then a very gradual regimen of fitness therapy for rehabilitating the bullet wound to my leg. I made a full physical recovery, mostly attributed to the resilience of youth. I was home. That was all that mattered.



5 years later, reconstruction of greater Los Angeles continues. The earthquake took in excess of 8,000 lives and 15,000 injured persons. The total economic loss is estimated to be around $220 billion as of this writing.

After I recovered, I contacted the Los Angeles Police Department and reported the murder I had witnessed…and the life I took. A Detective came to my home and took my statement. They were already investigating the murder of the 2 officers, and had identified the gang member found dead on the school grounds, and had some suspect’s in mind. Josef and I both made identifications of 2 of the actors. They later struck a plea deal in exchange for becoming state’s witnesses. The remaining 4 gang members were convicted of murder with special conditions of torture and are on death row. I was not charged by the Los Angeles District Attorney on grounds that I acted in self- defense.

Josef and I stay in touch. We talk on the phone a couple of times a year, and whenever I pass through Fresno, I drop in and visit him. He’s in his early 70’s now, retired but still living independently.

I never went to work for TSG. The Corporation went out of business after their L.A. headquarters was destroyed. Instead, I started my own business designing custom small business software.

Whenever I travel, I carry a small survival kit with some basic items I could use were I ever put in a similar situation, including a newly made GERBER Mark II. Dad’s GERBER knife is back where it belongs…next to his photo on the shelf above my computer desk at home. It is my belief that blade was meant for dark purposes and should be left retired.

About 6 months after my recovery, I wed my girlfriend Jen. If anything, the earthquake taught me how fragile life is, and that every single day is a blessing to be grateful for and I wasn’t going to waste any more time. A year later, Jen gave birth to our first child, a daughter. 

We named her Irina Marie.


Copyright © Manny Silva, 2016. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

No comments:

Post a Comment