If you’ve ever personally experienced the severe shock and helplessness that an earthquake gives you, or if you’ve been face-to-face with an erupting volcano, you likely have a lingering understanding of how powerful, and uncaring, nature can be. And you may have a more than average appreciation for what the people of Hawaii have been going through recently.
One mid-morning in 1957, I was stretched out on a cot at the Oakland Army Terminal, in Oakland, Calif., reading a book while waiting to be slotted on a flight to Hawaii. I wondered why the springs of the cot began to jangle. In a moment I knew why, as the building started a vigorous dance. I could see the warehouse across the street doing the same. Someone downstairs was yelling, “Earthquake! Get out of the building!” Which was not that easy, given that the door out of my room was jammed shut by the building’s dancing. But everything eventually returned to normal, with some damage around Oakland and San Francisco, but no deaths or serious injuries.
Later, during my time in Hawaii, I experienced a few mild tremblors during a training period on the Big Island. These foretold the eruption of Kilauea, which I was privileged to watch in succeeding nights from a hillside close enough to feel the intense heat. While that particular event was unusual enough to draw a lot of attention at the time, it was not in the same class as the most recent eruption. Some property was destroyed and the island was expanded into the Pacific for a distance as the lava oozed into the sea, gradually cooling and often breaking into chunks on the way. Still, it was an impressive display of power, more so because a year earlier I had peered into the then-dormant Kilauea crater and could not have imagined how violently it would change and how much molten lava would blast from its depths.
Lava, once cooled, is of two types. The oozing, molasses-looking kind is pahoehoe. The rough chunks, looking and feeling like klinkers from a coal furnace, are called ah ah. When we units of the 25th Infantry Division went to the Big Island periodically, we conducted tactical training in the Pohakaloa Training Area, a broad expanse along the plateau between the two dormant volcanoes, Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. Much of the area is covered with ah ah. When you spend days stumbling over rolling and turning ah ah, you learn the meaning of “shin splints,” that agonizing pain down your shins that results from excessive stress to muscles and bone. When you move your foot, you feel shocking pain and what feels like an almost audible stretching of a rusty spring down the front of your shin. I have some great memories of Hawaii. Among my worst ones are ah ah and shin splints. It’s reassuring, though, to know that the ah ah and pahoehoe will break down and form some beautiful land just a few centuries from now.
During the thorough coverage of the current Kilauea eruption, I’ve seen few references to Pele, the fire and volcano goddess. My guess is she’s been mentioned a good bit in the islands. After the eruption I witnessed, many people spoke of having seen Pele, her presence indicating the coming event, not long before it happened. While she often changes appearance, at the time she was described as a beautiful woman with flowing black hair, dressed all in red. She appeared mysteriously, late at night, in a couple of Waikiki ballrooms. I couldn’t understand why she had been warning people in Honolulu, when the eruption would take place some 200 miles away on the Big Island. But one doesn’t question Pele.
The folks on the Big Island have my sympathy. I’m just glad there is such a slim chance of a similar disaster happening in our area. But, just to be on the safe side, if you see a beautiful black-haired woman dressed in red, appearing mysteriously somewhere late at night, alert the authorities.