Editor's Note: Recollecting the bad times

By Richard Wiens, The Triplicate August 22, 2012 06:34 pm

Little in life is as discretionary as the observance of anniversaries. I’m not talking about remembering wedding dates — that task clearly carries consequences — but rather the big news events of the past.

Later this week we’ll look back at a disaster that everyone who was living in this region 10 years ago will recall. The Biscuit Fire burned up a lot of southwestern Oregon and an appreciable chunk of northern Del Norte as well. At the same time, the much-smaller Shelley Creek Fire seared timberland far too close to Gasquet for comfort.

Other notable anniversaries of catastrophes are on the horizon. Crescent City’s signature tidal waves will be 50 years old in March 2014 — followed months later by the December floods that devastated the Klamath area while swamping much of the Northwest.

 

Like I said at the start, such observances are discretionary. The number of years that have passed matter, of course — one, five, 10, 20, 25 and 50 stand out. Those numbers are part of a highly inexact formula that includes the significance of the event.

For instance,  the tsunami of ’64 was such a defining event that the Triplicate just couldn’t wait for the golden anniversary — for its 45th birthday in 2009 we produced a series telling the tales of survivors and explaining why this area is especially prone to this particular problem.

I’m not sure how we’ll top that in 2014, frankly.

Will it become a community-wide observance? That’s hard to say. Some folks take the view that the less we say about disasters of the past, the better (consider the current debate over the idea of renaming Front Street as Tsunami Way).

Then there’s that old expression — how does it go? — those who don’t remember the past are doomed to repeat it, or something like that.

You can certainly argue that some historic events are simply too big to ignore when a significant birthday rolls around. Then again, the 20th anniversary of the opening of Pelican Bay State Prison didn’t generate much of a ripple in 2009, despite that facility’s enormous impact on the regional economy.

If you prefer a Chamber of Commerce mind-set that keeps the community focus on the positive, anniversaries can be problematic because the most memorable events are the unexpected ones that are usually not so positive. There are exceptions such as the first moon landing, but generally it’s the tragedies that inspire those poignant personal recollections of where we were when we first heard the news.

One of my earliest memories is of eye-witnessing an enormous tree — the centerpiece of my family’s backyard in Salem, Ore. — crash to the ground. I was 5, and it was a startling lesson in the impermanence of things a child assumes will be there forever.

That lesson came courtesy of the Columbus Day Storm, a freakish “extratropical cyclone” that raked the Northwest with gusts as high as 179 mph reported at Cape Blanco. At least 46 people were killed.

Other than shedding a tear over what I saw in the backyard, I just remember a gray day of flying shingles, no electricity and fears voiced on the battery-powered radio that the brand new Space Needle might blow over in Seattle.

It happened Oct. 12, 1962. Almost 50 years ago on the nose.