I’m in love. Not romantic love, not leave-your-wife love, but Lord, am-I-impressed-love.

I’m talking about Lucy Jones, the seismologist from CalTech, who was splashed all over TV after the earthquakes last Thursday and Friday. I learned more in 20 minutes then I have in every science course I had ever taken (there weren’t many) and if earthquakes weren’t so potentially life and landscaping altering, I’d welcome more opportunities to hear Jones wax geologic about “ground truth” and the “strike slip event.”

We had returned from San Diego with Andrew, our 4-year-old grandson, and the last thing his parents said to us as we pulled away was, “Keep him safe.”

“Safe?” We’re all about safe. We invented safe. Don’t worry about a thing other than the massive earthquake that’s going to hit five hours after we get home with its epicenter a short mountain range away.

Safe? The worst thing that can happen is we have a third earthquake in three days. Don’t worry, if that happens, and the end is near, at least Lucy will explain why the end is near.


Earthquakes are dividing lines. There is life before the before the earthquake and life after. An earthquake is normally the farthest thing from our minds; however, when one happens, it’s all we can think about until time passes and it recedes from our memories like the tide.

An earthquake reminds us that “we’re not in control,” either a reassuring thought because we can let go or a terrifying one because we have no choice not to.

Friday night, Andrew and I were sitting on the front porch after dinner when new neighbors Mike and Brenda Noel walked by with their son Eli. “Front porch” and an “after dinner” walk. What could be more innocent, summery and downtown-like?

I welcomed them to the neighborhood, they continued their idyllic walk and a few minutes later the earth started to roll. I’m not sure how those events were connected but the earthquake made me forget that I had seen them until I thought about it later on.

“Andrew, I think we’re having an earthquake,” I said.

We were sitting on the front steps of the porch looking at the Lexus and it was rolling back and forth almost a foot at a time. That car is big and heavy but it looked as if it had no more critical mass than a Matchbox car.

I thought the same thing I always do during an earthquake: How long will it last and will the earth open in front of us and produce either a volcano or a parade of dinosaurs that have been waiting for this opportunity to rewalk the earth.

“Papa, was that an earthshake?” said Andrew, the boy we had pledged to keep safe less than eight hours earlier.

“Earthshake.” I like that. If Lucy Jones has grandchildren, she might too.


People communicate after an earthquake. When I looked at my phone, there were 29 text messages. Cousin Ron, friend Steve, Brother Derek. If you are having trouble getting in touch with people, wait for an earthquake. Communities knit back together in seconds.

I turned on the TV later that night and was introduced to Lucy Jones. She looked like an athlete who had trained her whole life and was now carrying the torch in the Olympics. I felt like I was back in college listening to the most charismatic professor on campus with 800 other students, all of whom who were on the edge of their seats. I learned that quakes were part of the “Eastern California shear zone”— where the Pacific Plate grinds against the North American Plate.”

Jones reminded us that those grinding plates are what make big mountains. These were strike-slip earthquakes, which occur when two blocks of Earth shift side-by-side, grinding past each other.

When Jones used the phrase “ground truth” to answer a question about what would happen in the days to come when geologists entered the area to assess the damage, I felt the thrill of the new. Ground truth? I’ve been looking to freshen up my vocabulary and I plan to use “ground truth” as if I invented it.

“Do you think I can sleep in your room tonight in case there is another earthshake?” Andrew said.

Yes. We’re pulling together. That’s what people do during earthquakes. Lucy might call that ground truth.

Herb Benham is a columnist for the Bakersfield Californian and can be reached at hbenham@bakersfield.com or (661) 395-7279.

(1) comment


I was impressed with Lucy and started following her on Twitter!

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