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Posted: March 20, 2011 12:00 a.m.

Harwell: Love of land transcends risk

I’ve been drawn to San Francisco ever since I first laid eyes on the place in the 1950s. Some family friends moved there and would send postcards or letters containing Polaroid snapshots. The place just called to me.

Post cards. Polaroid. Snapshots. Does anyone recognize those things in this age of e-mailing pictures from cell phones?

The Age of Aquarius, flower power, hippies and the Haight-Ashbury District were in the news almost daily as the 1960s drew to a close. I’d formulated a simple enough plan: Upon graduation from high school I would sell everything, buy a Harley and ride to San Francisco to see for myself what was happening there.

Life, someone said, is what happens while you’re making plans. Oh, my senior class of 1969 had options, to be sure. But for the boys those options pretty much boiled down to college, the National Guard, or Vietnam. Meanwhile, Macon’s own Otis Redding, in his posthumously released "(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay," told me to leave my home in Georgia and head for the ’Frisco Bay.

But that was not an option.

Vietnam was eating at me, for my dad and all my uncles had served in America’s armed forces in World War II. I felt it was my duty to go, but I wanted to fly. My dad had died when I was 17, so I couldn’t ask him what to do. Much as I wanted to emulate his service, only the Army would let me fly — in a helicopter. And at this stage of the Vietnam War, the bad guys in the black pajamas knew it was easier to kill the pilot than to shoot down the chopper; I learned the life expectancy of a Huey pilot in a Landing Zone was six seconds.

So I ended up at college instead of Vietnam. Got married, went into teaching and coaching. Raised three kids. And not a day goes by that I don’t reflect upon what I owe every one of the 60,000 whose names are found on the polished black granite walls of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Somehow, though, as several decades of water coursed underneath the bridge, I managed to find my way to San Francisco on a dozen or so occasions. None was more meaningful than the summer of 1991, when our family spent four weeks in the Bay Area while my wife studied at Berkeley on a National Science Foundation grant.

The beauty of the place just takes your breath. The grandeur of the natural setting is so spectacular that it’s undiminished by the fact that every inch of habitable soil has been built upon in some form or fashion. The combination of a near-perfect climate, clean air sweeping in from the Pacific Ocean, the absence of swarming insects, and the scent of eucalyptus trees all produce an intoxicating elixir that attracts people to that golden spot and makes them want to stay there forever.

Even when the earth shakes.And shake it does.

For San Francisco, the place where Tony Bennett left his heart, is built atop the San Andreas Fault. And that’s the most active geological fault in all of North America.

The city was leveled by a monstrous earthquake in 1906.

The clock tower, with the hands frozen at the moment the quake struck at 5:12 a.m. on April 18 still stands on the Embarcadero.

So why would anyone want to live where earthquakes have struck frequently, and most certainly will strike again?

All I can tell you is that if I had to do it over again, that’s where I’d be. Breathing pure, untainted ocean air sweeping in from the Pacific. Sailing the frigid, choppy waters of the bay near Alcatraz Island. Riding the cable cars. Standing atop the Muir Beach Overlook in Marin County and watching the giant orange-red orb slowly dip into the endless, fetching Pacific.

And so it is that still, even now, San Francisco calls to me. Knowing what I know, I’d go in a skinny minute. And stupefying as that may sound, it illustrates how the Japanese people will face the enormity of recovering from their catastrophic 9.0 earthquake.

They will endure.

They will rebuild.

Because they’re in a place they love. A place which, even as the earth moves, calls out to their very soul.


Nat Harwell is a Covington resident. His column appears Sundays.

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