Everyone in the neighborhood had a different name for him. I’m sure some of the elderly people on the block knew his real name, but I only knew him as Crabface. I’d dubbed him this horrible name because the day I and my college roommate, Todd, moved into the house across the street from him, he yelled at us because our Uhaul went up onto his driveway for half a second while we backed it into our driveway.
Oh he didn’t just yell at us, he went on a tirade. “You rotten kids. You don’t know how to respect someone’s property. Don’t you ever trespass on my property again or I’ll shoot you dead. I have every right to, ya know! I’m an American!”
Todd, my dear pacifistic friend, apologized to him profusely. “We’re sorry sir. We didn’t mean to. The street is so narrow, we had to go onto the apron of your driveway to get the truck backed up. It won’t happen again.”
Crabface waved his arm down at us and said, “Bah. Stupid kids. I better not hear any loud music coming from your house!” Then he went into his house, slamming his screen door as best he could.
Day after day Crabface had some kind of altercation with someone. I remember when the city workers came by to dig up the street and replace a pipe or something. He came outside yelling at them. “Stay off my property. You don’t have any right to be here. Get out of here now!” The worker said, “Look sir, we’re not on your property. This is city property, and we’re just here doing maintenance. Sorry for the inconvenience.” Then Crabface told the man to go back where he came from, that this was America! And the American Indian city worker replied, “Sir, I’m a Native American. Why don’t YOU go back to where YOU came from.” Crabface gave him the “bah” wave and stormed off back into his fortress.
Crabface always knew what was going on in front of his house because he liked to sit on his porch with his shotgun in his hands. Kids would ride past his house on their bikes and he would lean forward like he was getting ready to shoot them. It was bizarre.
Every time Crabface drove up into his driveway he would yell out very loudly, “Martha, I’m home!” I thought it was weird that I never saw his wife myself.
Finally one day I spoke to one of the neighbors who told me that Crabface was a veteran. An old and crotchety veteran I decided. Apparently he still thought there was a war going on because he acted like he was ready to do battle on a daily basis. I asked my neighbor why we never saw his wife. He replied, “She’s been dead for 10 years, but every single day when he comes home from running errands he let’s her know he’s home. It’s sad really.”
Okay this guy was off his rocker. I just hoped he wouldn’t shoot me one day. We gave this guy a wide berth.
Nine months later, everything changed.
On January 17, at precisely 4:31 in the morning, the Northridge Earthquake hit. Did I mention I was living 1.5 miles from Northridge at the time? No? Well I was. When the earthquake happened it literally felt like a giant walked down the street, picked up our house, and shook us like mice in a jar.
In the pitch blackness I didn’t even see my bed move all the way across the room with me still in it. I heard glass breaking, lamps crashing to the ground, and wood creaking. The worst was the sound of the roof cracking. I literally thought I was going to die and be buried in the rubble. I decided that if I was going to die, I wanted to die screaming. I opened my mouth to scream and no sound came out. I tried as hard as I could to scream but my throat was closed up tight. Oh well, I decided I’d have to die in silence.
When the shaking stopped I couldn’t believe I was still alive. Todd came running in from his bedroom to find out if I was alright. This was the big one. The one you grow up preparing for but are never actually prepared for.
There was no light anywhere. The power was completely out in the city. As soon as I could muster it, I got out of bed and Todd and I started walking through the house to gauge the damage. The contents of the kitchen were all on the floor. Even the refrigerator and freezer doors were open and now empty. Every glass, dish, and bowl was shattered on the floor. There were significant cracks in the beams of the house. A painting on the wall in the living room had landed 30 feet away in the dining room.
Incredibly, two very important things survived. A lemon cake I’d made the night before was still sitting on the counter right where I’d left it. I don’t think it moved an inch. A miracle! And my computer. My little Macintosh computer was still sitting on my desk, undamaged and unmoved. Praise God!
We had a problem though. We were trapped in the house. A heavy bookcase had fallen in front of the door and was blocking our exit. The back door was stuck, it wouldn’t open. There was so much glass on the ground and we couldn’t find shoes in the dark so our bare feet were getting cut up by glass as we moved around. It was horrible.
Everything was in shambles. Stress was very high. All of a sudden we saw a flashlight from outside coming our way. And then we heard a man’s deep voice. “Are you kids okay?” We looked out the tiny bedroom window. The man behind the flashlight was Crabface!
We responded, “Yeah, we’re okay but we can’t get the door open. It’s blocked.” He yelled back to us, “Don’t worry. I’m coming! I’ll get you out.” And all of a sudden he was there. He jimmied the door open with some kind of tool and then hacked away at the bookcase until he had cleared a path for us. As far as I was concerned, Superman had just appeared at the door. He led us out onto the street. Then he said, “Stay here, I’m going to turn off your gas and come back to check you out.”
We stood there freezing in our pajamas, bare bleeding feet, huddled in the dark, while this miracle of a man took complete charge of the situation. He came back from around our house and said, “Had to turn the gas off. There’s a huge gas leak in the neighborhood. See there?” He pointed to a spot behind our house. A few blocks away we could see a huge spire of fire in the air. What on earth was THAT!? It rose about a hundred feet into the air.
He checked us out very quickly, saw we were in state of emotional shock, but not significantly injured. He said, “Sit down on the driveway and wait for me. I need to check on everyone else.” And then he was gone. He went to every single house on the block and helped and liberated everyone who needed help, turning off the gas at every house he went to. He moved like lightning. We could see his flashlight bobbing around in the dark.
People were coming out onto the street. Everyone was moving slowly, clearly numb. No one on our block seemed to be significantly injured, but we had a lot of elderly people on the street and some of them were having chest pains.
Then Crabface gathered us all together and started barking orders at us. “Don’t go in your house until I’ve checked the structure. Once I’ve cleared your structure, go inside and find some clothing, put on some shoes, and get as much food as you can and bring it out here. Do not use the water in your pipes, it’s probably tainted. If you have camping supplies, bring them.”
Phone lines were dead. We couldn’t call our families to tell them what happened. That was frustrating. I had family scattered all around the valley and at this point we didn’t know how close to the epicenter we were and we didn’t know if our families were still alive.
As dawn approached we began to see the devastation with our own eyes. If you stood in the backyard of your house, you could see down the entire street of backyards because every single wall was rubble on the ground. We were united in that moment. We were a family. And Crabface was our leader.
He was the one with the emergency supplies, the radio, the food, the flashlights, the heavy tools, the hard hat, the camping equipment. He passed out water purification tablets which was great because we eventually found out that all our water was tainted with giardia.
Todd’s dad was the first to reach us. Once he saw that we were okay, he had to take off to find the rest of his family. I sent him with a message to find mine. There were no cell phones at this time. Trees and power poles were down and driving was super dangerous. Sinkholes had even opened up in some locations.
My family was okay, but an entire wall of my parents’ house came down, along with the chimney. Todd’s family gave us food and water. The structure of our house was surprisingly intact. Apparently when you are super close to the epicenter the shaking is very tight, whereas the outlying areas get the rolling wave which takes down structures. So we didn’t have to go to a shelter.
We spent three days just picking up the pieces (and living on lemon cake!). The entire time Crabface was on hand to help everyone. He became the defacto leader on our block. And you know what? He changed. He was happy as a clam. He was in his element. And we were all extremely grateful to him for helping us and for taking charge.
After the earthquake, he didn’t sit on his porch with his gun anymore. Instead he took walks up and down the block asking people if they needed help with anything. He waved to the children on the block and gathered them around to tell them stories of the war. He stopped to have long chats with people tending their lawns outside. He came over and taught us how to turn off the gas in an emergency, and started fixing some things around our house. He was a changed man. He even stopped telling Martha he was home.
The day the walls came down was the day all of our walls came down. We embraced him and he embraced us. It’s sad that it took an earthquake to shake the judgment out of us. But I’m glad it did. The earthquake brought us together. And it introduced us to a fascinating hero of a man. His name was Bill.