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August 25, 2009

Shaking in One’s Boots

Tom McLaughlin

[Editor’s Note: An earthquake struck West Sumatra, Indonesia, on August 16. Our intrepid correspondent, Tom McLaughlin, was on a travel foray there at the time. This is his account of his personal experience.]


Padang, West Sumatra Indonesia – I was exhausted from arising at 4 A.M. for a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Padang. I had spent the previous day visiting a long lost friend on an Indian Ocean island, old acquaintances renewed and past lives shared. Mainly, a bunch of lies being told with successes magnified and failures reduced.


Hot and sweaty from lugging my backpack from the airport, I stood under a cool shower in my hotel room allowing the water to penetrate my pores wishing for ice to cascade from the pipe. The burst of cold air from the air conditioner sent a welcome shiver over my wet body as I toweled off and flopped down on the bed.


Channel surfing, I scanned the six stations and, for some reason, Animal Planet was the only one in English. They were broadcasting a special on lions chasing and capturing grazers of different kinds on the African plain. Zebras and antelopes all met their doom as I drifted in and out of a light sleep.


At first, light bumps much like the rumbling of heavy trucks passing on the road nearby, shook the window panes. Then the room became a moving mass like an airplane in very, very bad turbulence. The bed undulated under me as I saw a lion leap on an unfortunate gazelle.


I jumped up and pulled on my shorts trying to maintain my balance as the floor danced under me. I knew it would be culturally insensitive to run out naked. I looked around trying to decide what else to bring. The walls swayed, a large crack snaked down one of them and the lion was sharing the animal with her cubs.


I stuffed my pockets with money, forgetting my passport, opened the door and dashed out of the room just as two large chunks of hotel fell and crashed on either side of me. I teetered as another shake occurred, regained my balance and dashed drunkenly through the cinder block remnants for the lobby and outside.


I joined a group of people and one gentleman calmly asked me if I was an American. Dressed in only shorts, disheveled wet white hair and zipper down, I wondered how he had guessed. After the earth quit moving, the security people said everything was fine and we could return to our rooms.


Obviously they did not check my wing. I told the front office manager damage had occurred in my section of the hotel. He assured me there wasn’t any. I kept insisting there was. Meanwhile, the Indonesian who had asked my nationality informed how he had lived in Seattle, the name of the street and described his house. I certainly was not interested.


Feeling like Chicken Little in the tale of the sky falling, I grabbed a security guard by the arm and led him to the area outside my room. My new friend followed, and by now, related that he had moved down the coast to San Jose.


When we got to my wing, things rapidly changed. The guard called for help and six or eight people cleared my room of my belongings and whisked me to another part of the hotel. A hotel search and rescue team began to go door to door looking for others.


Rochester? What the hell were you doing in Rochester was my first reply to this nuisance as he continued the low tone drone. He answered it was a stop over for an hour and I cryptically told him he couldn’t count that.


When I had calmed down and he was describing Vancouver, I think he did the South, but in the haste to evacuate my wing I had not paid much attention, he asked my employment. I told him I was a former teacher. Elated, he informed he taught English classes in the evening and would I come tomorrow night to his home. He then went on about me being a native speaker. I agreed to meet him in the lobby at 4 P.M. just to be rid of him.


Probably the worst experiences were the aftershocks. The rumblings lasted for five days and each time I would twist my head in alert, like a chicken that suddenly scans the horizon looking for danger.


The largest aftershock shook while I sat in a second floor Indian Ocean front restaurant. I was enjoying a Coke before the meal while a 12-member Malay family, awaited a feast, celebrating something, what I am not sure. The quake, bigger, louder and longer than the other after shocks, caused the Coke to splash up and out of the glass. Dishes clinked next to each other. The singer stopped. The servers looked and then hugged each other.


I led the pack running like hell down the stairs with the others in tow. The street, filled with people and we waited to see if another big one was on the way. All of us warily eyed the sea wondering about a tsunami. When nothing further happened, we climbed back upstairs to finish our meals and had a good stress relief laugh.


The first quake was powerful, 6.9 on the Richter scale. In comparison, the one that caused the tsunami a few years ago was 7.2. The aftershock in the restaurant registered 5.9. Thankfully, there was no loss of life and damage was minimal. The hospital received the most damage, collapsing after the patients were evacuated.


One local person told me this was an example of the power and mercy of Allah before the holy fasting month Ramadan that was to begin in a few days. The power was the quake; the mercy, no loss of life.


I cannot come up with a better philosophical explanation.


…life is good


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