Apr. 18, 2013


by James Fenton

Awake, alert,
Suddenly serious in love,
You're a surprise.
I've known you long enough —
Now I can hardly meet your eyes.

It's not that I'm
Embarrassed or ashamed.
You've changed the rules

The way I'd hoped they'd change Before I thought: hopes are for fools.

Let me walk with you.
I've got the newspapers to fetch.
I think you know
I think you have the edge
But I feel cheerful even so.

That's why I laughed.
That's why I went and kicked that stone.
I'm serious!
That's why I cartwheeled home.
This should mean something. Yes, it does.

"Serious" by James Fenton, from Yellow Tulips. © Faber and Faber, 2012. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1775, Paul Revere made his famous ride from Boston to Lexington to warn the patriots that the British troops were on the march. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow commemorated the historic occasion in a ballad, "Paul Revere's Ride," which begins:

Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.

It was on this day in 1906 that one of the worst natural disasters in the history of the United States occurred: the San Francisco earthquake. The shaking started at 5:12 a.m. on a Wednesday, and lasted just over a minute, with the main shock 42 seconds long. It erupted along the San Andreas fault, which runs the length of California. The epicenter was two miles off the coast of San Francisco. It was probably about a 7.8 on the modern Richter scale.

In 1906, San Francisco had a population of 410,000 people. The earthquake and resulting fires left about two out of every three residents of the city homeless. The earthquake ruined many buildings, but historians estimate that 90 percent of the destruction to the city came from fires that followed the earthquake, rather than the earthquake itself. The initial fires were caused by ruptured gas lines, and then firefighters decided to blow up buildings with dynamite, hoping that they would create firebreaks. It didn't work, and it's estimated that half of the buildings blown up by dynamite would have otherwise survived. On top of that, since insurance covered fire damage but not earthquake damage, people started setting their own homes and businesses on fire. But as it turned out, insurance companies could not cover the massive disaster, so people didn't get their money anyway. About 500 people were shot and killed by police and federal troops who had been called in to keep order. Some of the people who were killed weren't actually looting, they were trying to rescue their own possessions.

The city of San Francisco hurried to rebuild in time for the Panama Pacific International Exposition in 1915. In the rush, many building codes and regulations were ignored, and buildings built after the 1906 earthquake were actually less seismically safe than those built before.

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