Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Laughing through disaster ...

The Yellowstone earthquake of 1959 was one of Montana's greatest natural disasters, and it was also perhaps the biggest news story of mid-twentieth century Montana. Most of the reportage, of course, was both dramatic and poignant, recounting the harrowing stories of quake survivors and rescuers.

One exception came from Dan Valentine, a very well-known columnist for the Salt Lake Tribune. Valentine wrote a daily piece called "Nothing Serious" from 1950 till the early 1980s, each one filled with sentimental quips and a banal sense of humor that was thoroughly beloved by Tribune readers. Here's how he started his piece about the Yellowstone earthquake, which was published on August 20, 1959:
Even sudden disaster can’t stop American laughter . . . even crushing catastrophe that strikes in a spilt second can’t dull the American sense of humor.

A California woman, Mrs. James Pridgeon, was in the center of the Yellowstone earthquake. She stopped off in Salt Lake City Wednesday with some light side notes on the shattering quake.

Mrs. Pridgeon, her husband and son were in a cabin near the Old Faithful Inn when the quake hit Monday evening.

“There was a roar and a rolling,” she said, “then there was a deathly quiet . . . the next thing I heard was the high-pitched voice of a woman in a cabin across the way who yelled to her husband, ‘Henry get up, there’s a bear outside shaking the cabin.’ ”
The rest of the column was more of the same nonsense, and ended with a line that was as telling of 1959 American sensibilities as any could be:
How could Russia ever defeat a people who can laugh and joke through an earthquake?

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