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Midnight Rumble

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The Yellowstone Quake through the eyes of a (then) seven-year-old

11:36 pm, Mountain time, in the Madison River Canyon just below the Hebgen Lake dam; campers were snoring, dreamin’, schemin’, braggin’, waggin’ tall tales, eatin’ and weavin’ yarns. Just like campers do everywhere. Since before Louis ‘n’ Clark even.

Brookies, Rainbows and Browns were busy eatin’ dinner by the moonshine in the dark waters nearby. A light breeze going with the flow of the river was getting the trees to whisper stories of their own.

It was August 17, 1959 and all was good on the western front.Twenty miles off to the east/southeast, give or take a broad jump or two, were three kids in their beds being lullabied to sleep by the heartbeat and breath of their log hotel.

Buddy Izaacs and his band had the dance floor packed with the usual assortment of cowboys, tourists, off-duty waitresses, truck drivers, gamblers and wingnuts. Those ol’ logs resonated that country music along with the banter and laughter of a well-mixed crowd like a big ol’ speaker cone, the heals of dancers sending signals through the floorboards and my steel frame bed picking it all up like a radio receiver. All was good and very cool.

Mom and Dad were posting the night’s receipts from the smorgasbord (that’s borgishmorg if you’ve been on a bar stool too long). A neon halo pervaded the atmosphere with a warm, friendly glow. The town was lit up like a Christmas tree. It was high summer at 6666’, the west entrance to the Yellowstone caldera.

Then it was 11:37 and what a difference a minute can make!

My bed suddenly, and without askin’, first went straight up, jump-kicked off the wall and went for the dresser. Tagged it well, it did, then retreated back to the wall. All I can say is I’m darn glad I was tucked in!

I grabbed hold of my footboard to visually make sure my brothers weren’t the inventors of this new thrill. They were always lookin’ for new thrills to invent and I was quite often an unwitting ingredient. They’d been in a particularly inventive mood that day, so I was hopeful, anyways. My hunch was wrong.

Six toe-headed eyeballs wide-the-hell-open at this point! As my bed did the Lindy Hop with my dresser, I watched my brothers’ beds slap together then return to their corners, then hop, skip and slap again like some crazy Russian dancers. Twice I saw their beds meet a good foot off the floor! For about 40 seconds we were havin’ more fun than recent memory could account for.

I was seven, they were ten and eleven.

As it turned out, every eye in a very big area was wide open, trying to draw in as much information as possible to sustain life and protect limb. I’ve never seen people any more alert! For DAYS!

After the first big hit, all was quiet. Well, except for all the hollerin’, shoutin’, cussin’, screamin’, creaking lots, people gropin’, crashing and goin’ thump in the dark. Rock chimneys and glass of many sources mixed it up on the floors and boardwalks. Anything that wasn’t nailed down, and even some that was, was down! Still with me? (That wasn’t a typo, just Mountain English. My favorite kind.)

Back in the kitchen, pots ‘n pans and cans of hams were don’ battle over the ‘taters ‘n’ yams, no foolin’! I can’t even say what the noodle salad was up to.

The drummer lost his stool and the beat, simultaneously. Power was out but there were enough mood candles already lit up to provide a number of patrons a free, hot wax special.

Every bottle of booze on the mirrored display behind the bar turned into the biggest Long Island Iced Tea you’d ever want to clean up—garnished with maraschino cherries, martoony olives, capers, straws, napkins, bottle caps and a couple bartenders. The smell alone was enough to cause birth defects and repel grizzly bears.

Out on the dance floor, previously full of happiness and even a form of choreography, things resembled a melange of drunken earthworms in jeans, skirts and cowboy hats.

There was even a newlywed couple upstairs in #13 who didn’t notice a thing!

Mom and Dad plucked us out of our room and redeposited us in the back of our ‘59 Chevy wagon parked in the middle of Yellowstone and Dunraven, watchin’ the world shake, rattle and roll. They went off to shut off gas lines, console patrons and hired hands, organize a bonfire and round up all the things that go best with one, and check on damages. I learned some interesting new words that night. I think my brothers did too, which surprised me—I thought they knew damn near everything!

Three hours later we were in our back lot around a big friendly fire, under God and the northern constellations and puttin’ up with aftershocks of 6.0 and larger. Three nights we spent around that fire, tellin’ stories of what we’d heard or seen that day. Everything from just plain horrible to makin’ ya pee yer pants. Pretty cosmic, even fer a jaded lil’ fart like me. If I could have just one picture of all that I saw, it would be of that bonfire popping up from a shock wave of obsidian sand 50-feet deep, and all its collection of humans, stools and chairs goin’ butt-over-beer bottle under a starlit night.

Great memories for kids like me and my friend and fellow blockhead Scott Hancock, who was there also but whom I hadn’t yet had the pleasure of his acquaintance and armor-piercing wit.

Meanwhile, back at the campground, things were not so entertaining as 80 million tons of dolomite broke away from Sheep Mountain and liquefied into rubble and boulders the size of buses, filling the canyon below it. The resulting wind carried away trees, critters, river, fish, trailers, tents, campers and any and all thoughts of good times to come. What wasn’t buried, anyways.

The dam held its own but the lake tilted north, dropping eight feet; causing surprise and befuddlement to shoreline occupants both wild and domestic. Seismic ‘seiches’ rippled across its surface for twelve hours straight.

Fault lines cut through anything they felt like. Roads, fences, driveways, bomb shelters, cabins, cars and sleeping herds of cattle were not immune.

They think 28 people (and maybe more) died that minute in that pretty little river canyon, doin’ what they loved to do—camp. A friend of ours came down from Helena to stay there and wet his line that afternoon, but couldn’t find an open spot to park his rig!

Disasters like this are fortunately rare and the range of experiences fill a spectrum complete. My brothers and I had a great time. Others didn’t know what hit ‘em. Some got memories, some got scars. It’s a funny ol’ world. I learned that one in 1959. I just can’t believe it’s been 50 years already!

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Scott Clawson Scott Clawson No, he's not the electrician, he's the OTHER Scott Clawson, who's a quality builder when he's not busy busting a gut while writing his humor column for the first issue of each month, or drawing his Acres n' Pains cartoons.

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