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Remembering the ’06 quake at Lotta’s Fountain

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Sylvia Crawford/Glen Ellen Columnist

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Preparation, celebration are watch words for earthquakes

So far, in my long life, I’ve rarely gotten up at 2 a.m. In fact, at that hour I’m more likely heading for bed after an interesting evening. Such wasn’t the case on this past April 18 however. I was up at 2, well, 2:15 to be perfectly honest, unable resist my alarm’s snooze button at that hour. By 3:20, I was waiting on the street in Sonoma to meet a dear friend. A quick change of cars and we were off on an adventure.

My Sonoma friend, Scott Sherman, qualifies as another one of those Glen Ellen honorary citizens; Scott’s just too cool to belong to Sonoma only.

Every year, Scott travels to San Francisco on the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake, April 18, of course. He goes in costume, looking like a dapper gent of the era, with his white beard and jaunty bowler hat. Scott’s purpose has always been to celebrate the survival of all four of his grandparents who were San Francisco residents at the time of the great earthquake. His younger brother, Bruce Sherman, was also born on that day, though not that year, so Scott makes it a double celebration.

The last time Scott spoke to his brother, before Bruce’s untimely death, was via a television newscast, where Scott was filmed spray painting a fire hydrant out on 20th and Church streets, with a filmed “Hello to Bruce.”

Vandalism? No way; certainly not Scott’s way. Painting the hydrant a flashy gold is San Francisco’s way of honoring that hydrant which kept all of the houses in the Dolores Park neighborhood from burning during the fateful fire that followed the ’06 quake. Besides, it just another way for San Franciscans to extend the party. Ditto for the breakfast gathering later at Lefty O’Doul’s. San Francisco surely knows how to celebrate and native son Scott Sherman was right at the center of the action.

Of course, I eagerly agreed when he invited me to join him this year. Why not? Those early morning hours are kinda hard on this aging, crunchy skeleton; but I went. Despite the early hour, and my innate reluctance to be entirely awake right then, Scott kept me entertained all the way to the City, regaling me with tales of his Palo Alto childhood punctuated with memorable visits to his grandmother’s house in San Francisco.

His classy old Detroit wonder, a luxurious ’96 Oldsmobile that maintains its class and style despite its venerable years, was our chariot, while an egg-shaped moon lighted and guided our path.

Scott regaled me with the various exploits of his family, noting especially how much San Francisco has been a part of their family story.

Arriving by 4:30 a.m. at Lotta’s Fountain on lower Market Street, we could see a sizable crowd had already gathered. While the streets were dark all around, the blazing lights from television cameras brightened our small circle of safety. After various speakers, from colorful and flamboyant (like Emperor Norton and his paramour Lola Montez) to ceremonial, but quite ordinarily sensible (like Mayor Ed Lee and Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White) spoke, at precisely 5:11 a.m. the dozens of gathered firetrucks, police cars were all silenced, and that included the some 100 spectators, Scott and I among them.

That early morning silence was palpable, a recognition of the lives lost, the bravery exhibited and the consequences of ignoring Nature. While the silence lasted only a minute, the ensuing chaos that followed felt all the more scary. At exactly 5:12 a.m. every one of the gathered firetrucks, police cars and sirens available began their long wail, a cacaphonous, spine-tingling blast that echoed off the tall buildings surrounding us. It was one of the most eerie things I’ve experienced on mid-Market Street.

As the sirens sounded and the alarming flashes of patrol lights lit up the small circle surrounding Lotta’s Fountain, it was easy to feel the panic of a disaster. Yet, throughout the entire crowd, from police officers, to firefighters, to costumed performers, to us ordinary folks, silence prevailed, as we watched the walls of the nearby multi-storied buildings light up with the flashing alarm lights. It was entirely awesome, in the sense of awe-inspiring.

It took little imagination to guess what it must have been like on that fateful morning of April 18, 1906, while the city still shuddered from the temblor which ripped through the streets, hunkered up and down the hills and troubled the waters from the bay to the ocean. Earthquakes are sudden, remarkable and disastrous.

Lotta’s Fountain is a public drinking fountain, built in 1875 in Philadelphia and presented to the city of San Francisco as a gift from Lotta Crabtree, a local entertainer of some renown. Her fountain served as a meeting place for people after the 1906 earthquake. There public notices of deaths were posted, along with notes from people who had survived, who had moved out to Golden Gate Park, or distant South Bay. Lotta’s Fountain became the center of information and people gathered there. Certainly the spirit of that event is rich at the site.

As for our experience, on a clear and sparkling April 18 morning in 2014, once the sirens were silenced and the crowd was realigned with the true year, all was well. And the crowd acknowledged that with a grand shout of acclaim.

San Francisco knows how to celebrate fear and courage, calamity, death and survival, above all, community caring and help. April 18 was the day to experience that, and Lotta’s Fountain was the place.

After a short series of speechifying and parading, the crowd disassembled and all raced to Dolores Park to celebrate one particular fire hydrant … the one that saved that whole neighborhood. Various officials, folks, kids and adults manned the spray can that helped paint the hydrant in a shiny golden glow. Each painter was allowed their few minutes of fame to express why they wanted to wield the spray can.

As for our Sonoma friend, Scott Sherman, he dedicated his spray first to his four grandparents who survived the earthquake, then camped out in Golden Gate Park until the aftershocks ended. Then, he included his brother who died a couple of years ago. It was a touching and fitting expression of family solidarity. As in “We can survive almost anything … and still come up smiling,” which is how Scott approaches all of this.

After a quick trip back downtown, Scott and I joined the gathering crowds at Lefty O’Doul’s, an historic hang-out on Geary. While I slipped off for a quick powder room visit, Scott finagled a seat for the two of us at the table manned by Emperor Norton and his paramour, Lola Montez. What a team! And I do mean them, plus us. Scott was his charming Sonoma self, sharing stories of that town as well as their city of San Francisco.

The breakfast – unremarkable. The setting – superb. The company – hilarious and engaging. We heard story after story of Lola’s adventures in European capitals among saints and sinners, leaders and scavengers. Both Norton and Lola are an entertaining pair. Each of them has a sideline business of leading tours through San Francisco. You can easily find their websites online.

The real Emperor Norton, formerly known as Joseph Amster, was a San Francisco character who fancied himself, and proclaimed himself, the leader of San Francisco. And the City being what it is, with folks willing to play along, welcomed Norton and let him be the emperor.

The entire day wasn’t just an uproarious party. Various neighborhood groups handed out Earthquake safety information. Among their suggestions, the most important are: 1) Make a plan; 2) Secure your home; 3) Store three days worth of supplies; 4) Drop, cover and hold on; 5) Check for hazards; and 6) Stay connected. Simple rules that will bring peace of mind and help you prepare to survive and recover from the next quake. We all know it’s coming … we just don’t know when.

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The Folks in Glen Ellen column also appears online. Look for it at sonomanews.com/category/lifestyle-history. Or look for my name, way at the bottom on the home page at sonomanews.com. Want to see your own name in the news? Share your stories with friends and neighbors in Glen Ellen. Call or write me at 996-5995 or P.O. Box 518, GE 95442. Or email me at Creekbottom@earthlink.net. Glen Ellen chatter rarely requires timeliness; however, if your news does, please be sure to contact me at least two weeks before your desired publication date.