When the Earth Moves

The buzz of reportage associated with the soon-to-be-legendary Quake of ’11 here on the east coast includes more than one breathless story on damage to the Washington Monument and the National Cathedral, national treasures located in Washington, D.C.

I was in D.C. just last year, taking pictures of the Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, and thoughts of the damage sparked instant pangs of dread. I’m sure many Americans felt the same way: What if it had actually fallen? It would be like losing the Twin Towers in New York all over again.

And yet …

I got a “new” car in 1999, just before I left Flagstaff to move to Upstate New York. I’d been driving a clunker for a couple of years, a $500 special affectionately named Dorothy, with a hole in the driver’s side floorboard that allowed me to see pavement rushing past beneath me as I drove.

The new car was a Buick Century, and man was it plush. The seats were covered in soft powder blue corduroy, the carpeting and floor mats were the same shade of blue, and it was filled to the gills with electric-this and power-that and automatic-this-other-thing. Plus, whoever owned it before me took REALLY good care of it. It had slightly over 80,000 miles on the odometer, but it felt and looked brand new. After years of light pickup trucks, and finally Dorothy, the new car was a pleasure palace on wheels.

The absolute first thing I did when I left the dealership was to drop by and visit old friends Anthony and Helena, former next-door neighbors. We’d moved in next to them just two years previously, and struck up an instant friendship.

It was only a few weeks after meeting them that they dropped by with a request. They’d been thinking of adopting a dog, and had finally found the perfect one down at the dog pound, a pure-white husky they were going to name Yukon. The problem was, they were due within days to go on a month’s vacation in Italy.

So, they asked timidly, since we already had a dog, would we consider taking care of Yukon for a month? We laughed and said yes.

Yukon had a great first month out of the pokey, going on hikes twice a day with our dog Tito, bonding firmly with him as his Pack Leader. Tito seemed just as happy to have this energetic but ignorant youngster as his subordinate, and oh boy did they have adventures together. And fortunately I had Dorothy as the perfect dirtbag-dogmobile for hauling them here and there for hikes. The backseat was given over entirely to them and I never worried about dirt or hair.

Prone to race off into the unknown if let loose near the house, Yukon picked up “Let’s get in the car!” – and the woodsy, exciting hikes with Tito that always followed – pretty much instantly, and would leap into the car the second the door was opened.

So here I was turning into Anthony and Helena’s driveway for the first time in months. Yukon was resting on the porch and expressed only mild interest in the vehicle pulling in. It wasn’t Dorothy, after all, and sparked no thoughts of happy wilderness hikes.

But when I opened the door and got out, hailing Anthony with “Hey, I wanted to show you my new car!” Yukon recognized me instantly. He leaped down the four steps from the porch, bounced through a mud puddle from a recent rain, and scrambled over the pristine powder blue passenger seat into the back seat, where he settled, bright-eyed and eager for the coming adventure. Muddy pawprints painted a clear, dark-brown trail over the pale blue upholstery to where Yukon sat in a happy, dripping puddle.

Anthony was horrified. The expression on his face was a priceless mixture of  absolute shock and instant guilt, that HIS dog had soiled MY new car. Nations have gone to war over less, neighbors have settled into generations-long feuds, and best buddies have been fractured forever into mutual grim dislike.

In every real life story you ever heard, the next thing out of my mouth should have been “OHSHITGODALMIGHTDAMN, I JUST GOT THIS THING! AND YOUR DAMNED DOG – IT’LL TAKE ME DAYS TO GET THAT MUD OUT, IF I EVER DO! GET OUT OF THERE YOU SONOFABITCH!!”

Instead, I burst out laughing. Yukie sat there grinning his doggie grin and waiting for The Ride and The Wind and The Woods, Anthony reeled in horror and grappled weakly for the dog’s collar, and I slapped my knees and guffawed, almost falling into the puddle myself with the comedy of it.

It took us several minutes to sort out the dog and to get Anthony to understand that I wasn’t covering up anger too great to let loose between us, that I really didn’t mind, and that the only bad thing was that I had to disappoint poor Yukon by not taking him for a ride.

“Anthony, it’s not I’ve lost my sainted grandmother. If the worst thing that happens to me this week is my four-legged buddy christening my car with pawprints, I’ll be in neck-deep in happiness the whole time. It’s a CAR. It’s just a thing.”

So: Two things.

1) East Coasters, your west coast neighbors have been going through quakes large and small for generations, and this 5-point-whatever is small potatoes. Enjoy the spectacle of it, but there’s no need to take it any further with lasting fears. Shrug and get on with living.

But mainly,

2) Regarding the Washington Monument and the National Cathedral, don’t sweat it. They’ll be repaired – or not – in time. But even if they’re not, even if both of them had fallen to the ground and broken into a million pieces, nothing will have changed in America. We’d still be the same people and the same nation, just without a few of our symbols, of which we have plenty.

If nature tracks a few muddy pawprints across these supposed treasures, or even wrecks them entirely, remember: Symbols are not the things they represent.

They’re just things.