When Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD the sight of that monstrous mushroom cloud bewildered the citizens of Pompeii. For weeks there had been small quakes and tremors, which were common for the area, and people had gone about their business without much concern. Not until the sky began raining pumice did people take notice.
Too weak to run, the old and sick were buried in their homes. The rest of the townsfolk stumbled in the dark over rising mounds of fiery pumice, blankets tied to their heads. No one knew where to go. Those in houses ran into the streets; those in the streets took cover in buildings; people in boats rowed madly for shore; people on the shore sprang into boats.
Some railed at the gods, others begged for mercy. Exhausted and choking, many gave up and took shelter where they could: slaves and bureaucrats, dogs and dowagers, all crouched together in their last hours on earth. Some managed to reach the city walls and even beyond, and as the falling debris began to let up they must have thought the worst was over.
It wasn’t. The mushroom cloud finally collapsed, sending six surges of ash and searing gases down the mountain. The first surge vaporized the flesh of every living thing in Herculaneum, the fourth surge decimated the people of Pompeii: those who were fleeing, those who were hiding, those who had already suffocated.
In the weeks and months after the eruption, many tunnels were dug into the ruined city. Robbers and treasure hunters risked their lives to take what they could: bronze, lead and marble; tools and trinkets, anything of value. By the time they were excavated centuries later, some of the grandest homes were found empty, their frescoed walls scarred with holes.
In 2007 the US housing market collapsed. Like the eruption of Vesuvius, the destruction was swift and incomprehensible. There were stages, warnings, but these were largely ignored. The market had faltered before and no lasting harm had come of it. A wily few understood what was happening and stole away in time. The masses were trampled.
Officials issued ominous threats. Our financial institutions were “too big to fail.” For our own good, we had to make a sacrifice, we had to appease them. We did and they weren’t. Our banks turned their backs on us.
For Sale signs are still popping up, in neighborhoods both modest and posh. Formerly desirable developments are now pocked with weeds and stagnant swimming pools. Forced from their homes, crazed citizens are stealing their own countertops, hardware and fixtures before trashing the houses they once loved. Who could have predicted it? Homes selling for a dollar. Cities filing for bankruptcy. Disparate relatives elbowing under one roof. People with six-figure incomes fleeing in the middle of the night.
We are living on precarious turf. There is no telling what stage we are in, how many more surges we can expect. We no longer trust what we are told. We move cautiously, using our own instincts. We give thanks for what we still have.
In Naples, Italy three million people live on the edge of a volcano. They know the danger, they can see it out their windows. How many times a day do they cast their wary eyes on a mountain that might be their undoing?
For the three hundred million people in this country, life is not so different.