A Very Special Birthday Party
It was a warm sunny day in the spring of 1933 in Long Beach, California. Marion Roan was working on crocheting a stuffed brown bear she was making for a special boy. She and her sister Kathryn had been up early; they’d done all the household chores, visited friends, and were enjoying a quiet evening in their apartment on Appleton Street just blocks away from the beach.
America was in the grip of a depression. Life was challenging, but the sisters were managing. In the evening, they would listen to the news on the radio, read and write letters, and Marion would write in her diary. That night, Kathryn penned a letter to their middle sister Anne, who was in Norfolk, Virginia. She had been an English teacher at nearby Poly High, the largest high school west of the Mississippi. Anne had met and married Naval Lt. Commander Raymond Walker on September 15th, 1924 in San Francisco, and they were stationed back east.
Ray (53) had lost his previous wife Emily in 1922. Anne was 51, and as far as the family knows had never been married or had children. While living in Norfolk, Anne had met Mae Smith, a receptionist at her dentist’s office. Mae had a 3-year-old son, and had lost her husband. An arrangement was made for Anne and Ray to adopt her son, as a suiter wanted to marry Mae, but did not want children.
Joseph Bailey would soon be renamed Donald Walker and start a whole new life in California. He was oblivious that to the fact that America had a new president, the banks were a mess, and it was only a matter of time before the US entered the war.
Saturday, March 4, 1933
Beautiful day, no fires in the house and windows all open.
Today Franklin Delano Roosevelt became president of US. We heard him to take his oath over the radio hook up from Washington D.C. He made a very good speech, I felt sorry for Mr. Hoover, for he too was a big man. We washed clothes, and rested in the P.M. Ruth Peterson and I went down in the evening also to Pike [a waterfront amusement zone with roller coasters boardwalks and bath house built in 1902]. Ella Pendleton called up. Got letters from Anne [sister] and Mr. Boyenge. Busty [cat] had a worm pill not feeling so well but nice kitty tho.
Sunday, March 5, 1933
Nice warm day Santa Ana also.
We got up and went to church in the A.M. Had our dinner downtown and went window shopping. Irene W. said she was trying to get us all P.M. We rested in the P.M., both of us, and read. Mrs. Crawford called a while late in the P. M. News came over the radio that president declared all banks in the U. S. closed until March 10th to straighten the banks and to put an end to hoarding money. And put the banks on solid ground again. Also listened to the American Legion program over radio. Very good. Went to bed late.
On March 6th, Kathryn and Marion got word from Anne that she, Ray, and Laddie Boy (as Marion referred to Donald) were headed west. Ray had received orders to be the chief engineer on the USS Utah. The sisters were excited to all be together again and finally meet the little boy Anne told them so much about. They would have to look for a larger place to live, but for now they would get their home in order for the big day of little Donald’s arrival. Since the banks were closed, they only had $1.39 on hand. That presented a problem.
Monday, March 6, 1933
Another Beautiful Day
Mrs. C called and cashed a check for us, can’t get any money anywhere and we only had $1.39 on hand. And no stores will cash checks. When banks open up again they will use Script for money. Just heard that the banks will open for only new account deposits tomorrow. Mayor Cermak died 6:45 A.M. in Miami, Fla. [Hungarian born Chicago mayor, shot when supposedly the assassin was aiming for FDR]
On Thursday, March 9th, Kathryn and Marion were invited to see the fleet parade by their friend who lived at the Willmore apartments. They boarded a “launch” and rode out over the brakers to watch battle practice; a rough ride, but a wonderful day. Then on March 10th, disaster struck the coast on California.
Friday, March 10, 1933
Just got in and sat down to eat dinner at 5:55 P.M. when the earthquake struck L.B.
Thought first was explosion, then knew it was E.Q. Came with terrible rumble, we put out fires and light. Grabbed Busty and we ran out of the house. Took my car out and parked it on the street. Where we slept in it all night. Quakes continued all night long. The town was put under martial law at once sailors, soldiers and ROTC boys called to duty and patrolled all night long. Went down to wire Anne and boys about 11 P.M. Town looked terrible, night was cold and foggy and the fog was like a rain. Hard on sick and dying, as they use the parks to care for them, and put up tents. City put off gas four minutes after quake to stop fires.
Saturday, March 11, 1933
Beautiful day after a terrible night.
Listened all night to the radio reports of the quake damage as we could not sleep. Quakes still tremor and shake. Got out of car and went to see the damage, dishes broken, the kitchen a mess, bathroom a mess, broken bottles, furniture moved, piano about 18 inches from the wall. Pictures upside down, but thank God we were not hurt, and house not badly damaged, clean house between quick shakes then got out. K and I went downtown to see disaster and send some telegrams, Town looked terrible, Mann’s phone[d] and wanted us to come up there to stay with them. Ella Pendleton called and ate lunch with us, or rather a piece of bread. All roads to L. B. are closed, and they ask over radio and beg and intreat people not come just now. All P. E.’s are stopped running into town. They sent out an SOS for 100 nurses and 40 doctors more to come as the bad night had caused pneumonia case at the rate of five cases per hour. People slept on the ground and out of doors too afraid to go indoors and I don’t blame them. Poly High is a wreck and all the other schools. No public places open, we cook out of doors on camp stoves made of fallen and brick, the whole town is doing it. Wilsons and us will sleep in our car again. John Enders and Mrs. James called on us. On their way to San Diego. Ambulance and fire whistles all day and all night. I wish they would stop.
Meanwhile, Donald and his new mom and dad were en-route to Long Beach. They had packed up their belongings and sent letters to Marion and Kathryn along the way. Years later, Donald would share that he had a memory of looking out the rearview window of the car as they drove away from the only home he ever knew. It would be years before he would connect with his birthmother Mae again, although she and Anne would exchange letters for the next 16 years.
Although Marion and Kathryn’s two-story apartment building survived the quake, most of the city laid in ruins. The quake occurred on the Newport-Englewood fault and was an estimated magnitude 6.3–which, historically speaking, was not as intense as the 8.3 magnitude that hit San Francisco in 1906–but the damage was severe. The timing, dinner time, had been a saving grace. If the quake had hit earlier in the day during school hours, the results would have been devastating. Within seconds, 70 schools crumbled that day, and 230 schools were not fit to re-enter.*
Marion and Kathryn slept outdoors for several nights. They did not take their clothes off for five days. They cooked outdoors on camp stoves, checked on friends, sent correspondence to family, and helped where they could. There had been 120 deaths; 52 in Long Beach and 17 in nearby Compton. Most deaths and injuries had occurred as people were running from buildings and were struck by debris. 500 injures were reported in Long Beach alone. Kathryn and Marion were grateful they were safe.
Monday March 13, 1933
Another grand day.
Plenty of quakes, will they ever stop, it is terrible and makes us so nervous. Our Lincoln Park is full of suffering people. Which are being cared for by the Salvation Army, Red Cross, and doctors and nurses. I washed out a few handkerchiefs and aprons and underwear. Got letters from an Alice Anson, Irene Buchnell. Kay answered all, I got one from Grace Kime Berger and answered it. Mail the papers to the boys and letters. Walkers, Anne and Ray and baby leave for California March 15th to drive home. Will try and get here March 24th or 25th. Still cook out of doors, but boil coffee on an electric percolator. Will sleep in the car again tonight.
On March 18th, the sisters took an outing to see the frigate ship, “Old Ironsides” in the harbor. On Sunday, March 19th, they heard a “good sermon” at church at the First Congregational Church on Cedar Ave, but outdoors, in a vacant lot. The ground was still shaking, they had no gas, and sightseers were out in numbers. Marion wrote in her diary that night how the traffic in town was so “wild.”
On March 22nd, Marion and Katherine received a letter that Anne and Ray and Donald were in El Paso Texas en-route to Long Beach, and then on March 23rd the waiting was over. On March 25th, Donald saw the Pacific Ocean for the first time.
Cool and very dusty day.
Still cooking out of doors. I pressed the bedroom curtains. Anne phone[d] they were at Laguna Beach, they arrived at about 3 P.M. and were we glad to see them! I should say so. Laddie is a darling and we are so happy with him. Still no gas, got an electric plate, drove through the part where the earthquake was the worst.
Saturday, March 25, 1933
Nice cool day.
Anne, Ray, and Kathryn went down to the market did Saturday marketing. Came home had lunch. Laddie and I went down to the beach and he played in the sand. Had shoes and hose off. His first time in the sand at Long Beach. He had a great time. In the P.M. Anne, Donald and I went down to Irene W.’s at the Willmore and took our baths as we still have no gas. Gas was turned on at 5 P.M. after Kathryn had cooked all P.M. on a campfire stove. Gee! It’s good to have gas. Off since March 10th
Little Donald had turned 4 years old during his car ride to California, but the family waited until they could all be together to celebrate. Donald not only had a mom and a dad to dote over him, but two unmarried aunts, who would be forever present in his life until their deaths.
Donald woke Sunday morning to a handmade stuffed bear and a home full of life and activity, despite the ruins of Long Beach, lack of money, and pending war. Marion gathered roses from the garden and Kathryn baked a cake. These tasks, baking and gardening, would be their perspective vocations when they all moved to a ranch on 300 acres in the Sierra Nevada Foothills in 1935. There would be cows to milk and generators to fix, and gardens to plant, but for the time being the Walker and Roan Families were safe and well in Long Beach.
Sunday March 26, 1933
Got up late. Had breakfast and after Donald’s birthday lunch, a lovely big angel food cake all trimmed up, and flowers and ice cream. Ray took indoor pictures of the table and Donald. He got gifts and a tricycle from his Daddie. We all went for a ride first to Pico Landing then to San Pedro and Palos Verdes Hills also over to Compton. Compton looks terrible and was hard-hit by the earthquake. Left Ray at the Navy landing came home at to get dinner. When he called up Anne and I called for him in the car. We were gone when there was quite a quake. Spent evening at home.
Aside from my dad, Donald Walker, I have never met any of these relatives. They were all gone by the time of my adoption into the Walker family. Many of their possessions, like the vase on the birthday table, were fixtures of decoration in my parents’ home as I was growing up. Dad would share stories of the Roan sisters and his childhood from time to time, and I think I listened with intent, but of course the value of those exchanges always increases after death, and now I can’t get those moments back. Through the discovery of Marion’s diaries and old photos, I am reconstructing a time line of places and people who lived and laughed and had hardships, and I’m trying to listen carefully to the lessons they are whispering to me though time.
I look at the face of little Donald staring at his birthday cake and it brings me joy. And the lesson of this chapter? Time will tell.
January 15, 2022
*California legislators acted quickly, and within a month, the Field Act was passed. The legislation mandated earthquake resistant construction and called attention to the shoddy unreinforced masonry that failed on that warm day in March. Poly High school, Anne’s school, would later sell bricks from the rubble as souvenirs.
More Historic photos of the Long Beach Quake damage of 1933 via the LA Times.