North Coast Journal


Mr. Neale and the wrecking ball

by Maka MacKenna

I REMEMBER THE GREAT EARTHQUAKE OF 1954, the one that was an eight-something on the scale. I saw it from the vantage of my sandbox.

It was a fine sandbox and a fine vantage point since I had a clear view of the two-story Victorian across the alley. It careened wildly left and right but settled back in its place. I thought this was delightful, of course. Little kids thrive on chaos.

Memory is always suspect, but as far as mine serves me, I spent most of my early childhood in that sandbox, and the rest of it at Lazio's. (The women in my family didn't like to cook.) The sandbox precipitated my only instance of corporal punishment. For whatever reason -- perhaps an earthquake-related trauma? -- I decided to empty its contents into my grandmother's flower bed. This necessitated many trips back and forth with small bucketloads, but the grown-ups were unimpressed with my tenacity and I got the only spanking I can remember. I might have had a promising career as a civil engineer but for this early discouragement.

The earthquake emptied everyone's shelves and leveled every chimney in town. Also, of course, it rendered the beautiful old County Courthouse unsafe. Word went out, it would have to be replaced.

One sunny day Mr. Neale came over from across the street and asked if he could take me downtown to watch the Courthouse go down. The Neales were a wonderful couple, he a retired pharmacist, she the homemaker of a home that was like something out of a magazine. Their garden was always perfect and they had a breakfast nook with "Give us this day our daily bread" inscribed above in German Gothic.

Mr. Neale had taken over the old Bohmannson Pharmacy back when pharmacists were really chemists. The pharmacy drawers he used are still on display at the Clarke Museum, deep wooden boxes with labels like "Bismuth."

A few weeks earlier, he had taken me downtown to watch a Fourth of July parade. "Are you sure it's all right?" he asked. Of course, I told him. When we got back, my parents were getting ready to call the police and it was impressed on me that just because it was all right with me, I still had to get permission.

So this time we asked up front, and permission duly granted, we started down H Street. We didn't make very good time -- I was on my tricycle -- but we weren't in a hurry, either.

Every house we passed had a connection for one of us. There was the big house my friend Sharon lived in. That was one of the Daly houses. There was where Dick Adams and his family lived. There was the house where I had many pins stuck in me while being outfitted as a Tiger Lily for the Christmas Festival.

Finally we were downtown in what seemed like a huge crowd. We watched as the baroque curlicues and rounded towers of the glorious old building waited to meet their doom.

Then the wrecking ball started to swing. It smashed into the front, crumbling the walls and knocking the towers into a crazy angle. Back and forth it swung, knocking a bigger hole each time. The crowd watched in silence, knowing something valuable was being lost but maybe not knowing what. Finally, the old courthouse collapsed in a cloud of dust. People started to drift away.

The walk home was quiet, each of us lost in our own thoughts, which neither of us could articulate.

The Neales are gone now, but I never pass their house without thinking of them. The old courthouse was replaced by the mustard yellow bunker distinguished only by its mosaic of a lumberjack in terminal angst. The bunker, too, has been quake-damaged but at this time the county is planning to retrofit it (and eventually paint it salmon to match its new apendage, the jail). If they ever do decide to tear it down some day, I don't think anyone would miss it. I probably wouldn't even show up.

"Rootbound" is an occasional essay on local history/nostalgia that will occasionally replace "Funny Business" when Maka isn't feeling funny.

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