USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘earthquake’
Folk Beliefs
Legends

California breaking off

My mom, who grew up in Los Angeles, recalls a folk belief from her childhood that California would break off from the US and float away:

“So when I was growing up there would be these periodic panics or rumors that on a certain day, California was gonna break off and float out into the ocean. And I remember being- it would’ve been the year that um, the Elton John song ‘Crocodile Rock’ was out because I can remember listening to that song with [my cousin] Robert–maybe 1971 or something?–and being terrified, knowing that it probably wasn’t going to happen but just having a fear in the back of my mind that maybe there was some truth to this rumor…”

I asked if she remembered where she had heard the rumor first. She said, “well that’s a good question. It certainly wasn’t in the newspaper, it wasn’t like fake news and it wouldn’t have been- we didn’t have the internet, so how did that spread? And it seemed like it was mostly kids who knew it, i mean it wasn’t- adults weren’t, y’know, propagating this rumor. So where it came from, I have no idea. That’s always fascinating to me.”

This piece of folklore falls somewhere between the genres of folk belief and legend. It concerns something frightening that could happen, as many legends do, but it is not a narrative, and is believed to be occurring in the future, rather than the past. It could thus be classified as a “folk rumor” in the same category as conspiracy theories. This folk rumor likely stemmed from the reality of the San Andreas fault and the resulting frequency of earthquakes in Southern California. It spread, particularly among kids, because it seemed plausible and because it fed off of fears about natural disaster.

Folk Beliefs

Omen – San Francisco

It looks like earthquake weather today.

This is a phrase that Charlene’s grandmother used to say to her some mornings when the weather looked a certain way.  Charlene grew up in the city of San Francisco, as did many f her relatives before her, including her grandmother.  In 1906 there was a huge earthquake in San Francisco, which caused a huge fire that destroyed most of the city.  Charlene’s grandmother was living in San Francisco at the time.  She remembered that the weather was very grey and muggy that day.  So, every time the weather was similar, she would say it looks like earthquake weather today.

Charlene said it would scare her because she knew exactly what that meant.  Since Charlene had grown up in San Francisco she knew all about the earthquake, plus she had heard all of the stories that her grandmother had told her.  The phrase relates to two different identities.  The fact that her grandmother would say it and Charlene knew exactly what she was talking about, identified both a residents of San Francisco.  They were both well aware of the history of the earthquake in the city.  The fact that her grandmother was able sense earthquake weather showed identified her as part of the group of people who had lived through the 1906 earthquake.

When Charlene described the weather she said it was very muggy and foggy.  I have spent a lot of time in San Francisco and it is muggy and foggy most days.  But, Charlene said that it was a very specific type of weather that only people like her grandma could recognize.  It seems quite difficult to distinguish between one foggy day and another, but Charlene said that one of the days that her grandmother said, “it looks like earthquake weather today,” there was an earthquake.

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