This is Chance! Redux

ROMAN MARS:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

It’s sometimes hard to know what stories we should tell when we’re in the middle of a crisis. Some people need a story that helps them escape. Others need a story that directly confronts our anxiety. What I love about the episode we have for you today is that it’s really both and it also happens to be one of the most beautiful stories this show has ever produced.

A few years ago we toured the West coast with the rest of Radiotopia performing live stories on stage to sold-out crowds. For our part of the show, 99% Invisible collaborated with Jon Mooallem and “The Brink Players” which featured members of “The Decemberists” and “Black Prairie.” It was the story of Genie Chance, a woman whose voice held a shaken city together in the time of crisis. Even though the story of an earthquake in Alaska in 1964 has nothing directly to do with what many of us are going through right now, it feels so urgent and important that we all listen to this together.

After it was performed live a handful of times, Jon Mooallem continued researching and writing about Genie Chance and it eventually became a book that is out today as I record this and it is brilliant and beautiful. So this week, we’re going to play the original live story-song that we performed on stage plus a brand new interview that I did with Jon last week. I hope you love it as much as I did.

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1. PRELUDE

ROMAN MARS:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

[audience cheers and claps]

ROMAN MARS:
It was the middle of the night on March 27th, 1964. Earlier that evening, the second biggest earthquake ever measured at the time, an insane 9.2, had mangled Anchorage, Alaska. 115 people died. Houses turned literally upside down or skidded into the sea. There was no light or power in the city and for a long time, virtually no communication with the outside world, but there was radio.

GENIE CHANCE:
“Are we on the air…? Yes…? We’re ready to go again.”

ROMAN MARS:
It was a station in Anchorage running on backup generators and a cracked transmitter. A station in Fairbanks picked up that signal and repeated it. And a man in Juno somehow picked up that Fairbanks station, called a radio station in Seattle and let the broadcast play over the phone.

GENIE CHANCE:
“The boy scout troop that went overnight to McHugh Creek, Bill Noble would like to get a message if they are all right.”

ROMAN MARS:
Like that, a voice from Anchorage touched the lower 48. A sign the city was still there and soon the degraded signal broadcast in Seattle was relayed and relayed again until eventually people across America, then around the world, heard the same woman’s voice.

GENIE CHANCE:
“We have word here that Mary Sweet is asked to contact her mother. Mother is at home.”

ROMAN MARS:
The president of that Anchorage radio station happened to be on a goodwill tour of Japan and when he turned on a radio in Tokyo, he couldn’t believe it. It was the voice of his own “newsgirl” back home. The woman’s name was Genie Chance. Jon Mooallem and the Brink Players have her story.

2. MUSICAL OVERTURE

[Musical overture by the Frank Brink Community Players]

3. OUR TOWN

JON MOOALLEM:
In 1964, Anchorage was the fastest growing city in America. The generation earlier, it had been a frontier town without a single concrete building. Now it had 100,000 people, but it was mostly military buildup and oil speculation. The city felt like a bubble that could pop. Alaska had only been a state for five years and as one man put it-

VOICEOVER (ROMAN MARS):
“You had the feeling that everything is temporary. We weren’t all going to leave, but you know, we might.”

JON MOOALLEM:
And that insecurity made every new construction feel monumental – it was a bit more proof to people that their city was real – like the brand new JC Penney building downtown. This was one of the first big chain retailers to build in Alaska. It was huge and nothing said ‘sophisticated civilization rising out of the wilderness’ like a five-story department store full of lingerie and blenders. [music plays]

JON MOOALLEM:
There were the beginnings of genuine culture in Anchorage too, like the city’s all-volunteer symphony, conducted by a moonlighting bulldozer operator and the Anchorage little theater, the community troupe run by a cosmopolitan guy in a turtleneck named Frank Brink. Brink found roles for everyone in his plays – housewives, judges, Air Force officers – and he worked his actors hard. He just staged his own three-hour epic of Alaskan history called “Cry of the Wild Ram.” I know it sounds a little bit like “Waiting For Guffman,” but they were good. Meanwhile, covering all this life in the city were two daily newspapers and five local radio stations, one of them, KENI, prided itself on being-

VOICEOVER (ROMAN MARS):
“The biggest radio network in the biggest state in the union.”

JON MOOALLEM:
And one of KENI’s biggest on-air personalities was a woman named Genie Chance. Genie was 37, she’d grown up poor in Bonham, Texas then came to Alaska with her husband a few years earlier, looking for opportunity. They only sort of found it, at first. He sold used cars and she watched their three kids at home, but Genie loved radio, so she started working construction every morning in exchange for childcare, then go to work all afternoon at one of the local radio stations. Back then, women were usually made to cover cooking or fashion, but at KENI, Genie turned herself into a gutsy roving reporter driving all over Alaska with a mobile broadcasting unit in her car. She flew with smokejumpers, covered Arctic warfare exercises, reported from Inuit villages and crab boats. Her voice was part of the city. People trusted her, respected her in Anchorage — and in a way women journalists weren’t always respected in 1964. Later, a New York paper celebrated her as-

VOICEOVER (ROMAN MARS):
“An Alaskan housewife and mother of three children who does a man-sized job with a radio microphone.” [audience laughs]

JON MOOALLEM:
Late in the afternoon of March 27th, Genie was driving her 13-year-old son to a bookstore downtown. It was Good Friday and lots of people had already gone home from work for the Easter weekend. A banner across Fourth Avenue advertised that weekend’s opening at Frank Brink’s theater. They were doing the Thornton Wilder play, “Our Town.” Curtain was going to go up at 8:00, but at 5:36… [music plays]

4. EARTHQUAKE

JON MOOALLEM:
Genie’s first thought when her car started bucking at the red light was that she must’ve blown a tire, but then through the windshield, she saw people knocked down in the street. She saw a line of parked cars at the gas station slam together and separate and slam again. She watched them fold in and out and thought “It’s like a grotesque accordion.” Later one man would say it felt like the earth was whipping the city around like a dog shaking an animal he’s killed. Buildings listed off their foundations. The huge ground waves moved through the asphalt like the roads were liquid. At the JC Penney building, a school kid stuck in the elevator watched a book suddenly levitate off the elevator floor and hang weightless in mid-air, in front of him. For a split second, it was like he was in orbit, and that’s when he knew the elevator was falling. The quake went on like this for almost five full minutes, then it stopped. And the instant it did, Genie threw her car into gear. [music plays]

JON MOOALLEM:
She was a reporter after all and still not realizing how severe the situation was, she raced to the police station to get a quick story for the evening broadcast. Inside, all the filing cabinets were thrown over, ceiling plaster heaped on the floor. Then a second jolt hit and Genie’s son who’d gone off, came running around the corner shouting-

VOICEOVER (ROMAN MARS):
“Come quick! The Penney’s is falling down!”

JON MOOALLEM:
An enormous concrete panel had shorn away from the JC Penney’s exterior and fallen. Now the entire building was sagging. And running over, Genie watched a second panel lurch loose and drop with a roar. The scene was brutal. Jeannie stepped around part of a body in the snow, a person split in two by the falling debris. A Chevy station wagon was flattened, but she could hear a woman’s still alive inside calling to the crowd, trying to dig her out. Then, Jeanie rounded the corner, saw the whole impossible panorama. One entire side of Fourth Avenue that just dropped. For two blocks, everything was 12 or 15 feet lower in a ravine that had opened under half the street, and the crazy part was buildings were still intact down there. Cars were still perfectly parked next to their meters. Men looked up from outside a bar a dozen feet underground like stunned minors, and still hanging there over the street like a cruel caption over the surreal wreckage, was the theater banner that read “Our Town.” The quake had knocked Genie’s radio station off the air, but now the static on the transistor radio she was carrying suddenly gave way to music. It meant KENI was back. An engineer started talking and Jeannie grabbed the radio unit in her car and cut in.

VOICEOVER (ROMAN MARS):
“Go ahead, Genie.”

JON MOOALLEM:
She was surprised later when people told her she sounded calm.

GENIE CHANCE:
“It has become obvious that the earthquake that struck Anchorage less than an hour ago is a major one. We urge each and every one of you to seek shelter, check your emergency supplies, and plan to keep your homes closed as much as possible so that you can retain the heat. Check your neighbors. See if they have transistor radios. If they don’t, possibly they could move in with you and share one for the night. It seems like it’s going to be a long cold night for Anchorage, so prepare to batten down the hatches and stay tuned to KENI.”

5. CONNECTOR

JON MOOALLEM:
Think of what it means when we say “A person feels shaken.” In Anchorage, this wasn’t a metaphor. The whole city had been thrown. There’d only been about an hour between the quake and nightfall. With the power out and snow falling through a thick fog in the dark, there was no way for everyone to tell just how badly their world had been jumbled. The feeling of vulnerability, total dislocation, it was hard to describe. This one guy put it-

VOICEOVER (ROMAN MARS):
“You don’t know if anyone else is alive. Maybe you were the last man.”

JON MOOALLEM:
So it was comforting to hear another voice start talking to you, especially Genie Chance’s voice. After making that first announcement on the air, Genie drove back to the police station. Authorities realized that with the radio unit in her car, she was the only voice there able to address the entire city, so they told her to keep talking. Soon they got her broadcasting from inside the building and rounded phone calls to her as the lines reopened. It was up to Genie to decide what information to relay to the public. At first, it was mostly just her. One KENI employee remembers that the newscaster who’d been on the air when the quake struck, a hotshot they just hired away from a big station in Los Angeles, had been so wigged out that the second the shaking stopped, he walked out of the building without a word. He resurfaced a couple of weeks later, calling from back in California to officially quit. And Genie was shaken too. A week later, she’d break down out of nowhere and weep all night. But now…

GENIE CHANCE:
“I kept trying to forget the unforgettable scenes I’d witnessed, thousands of terrified people were huddled in their unheated shelters waiting for words of reassurance and instruction.”

JON MOOALLEM:
So she started doing her job, talking to people on the radio. Before long, the rest of her colleagues and other stations in town were back working the airwaves too, but still it often felt like Genie was the one at the center of things, directing things. “The turbine site needs diesel fuel,” she’d say, or “Here’s where electricians should report,” and then she started reading the personal messages pouring in too.

GENIE CHANCE:
“Mr. and Mrs. Dick Fisher are still here at police headquarters waiting for any word of their children. We have a message from Northwest Airlines saying that the crew cannot locate stewardess Beverly Johns.”

JON MOOALLEM:
So many people were desperate to locate or reassure each other.

GENIE CHANCE:
“Howard Forbes would like it to be known that he will be at Mike Whitmore’s.”

JON MOOALLEM:
And Genie was helping those people shout across the fractured city.

GENIE CHANCE:
“A message to Kenneth Sadler. Mrs. Sadler is fine. A message to Walter Heart, Lee Heart is fine.”

JON MOOALLEM:
Meanwhile, HAM radio operators were relaying those messages to families in the lower 48. And when reporters around the country finally got through to Anchorage, it was often Genie, still sitting in front of her radio microphone, who took their calls. No, she assured them the city wasn’t swallowed in flames and no, it wasn’t under martial law. She talked to Omaha, New York, London. One interview she did was rebroadcast in more than a hundred other places the same day. Friday night had become Saturday morning, and then Saturday afternoon, Saturday night.

GENIE CHANCE:
“For the first 30 hours, I talked constantly.”

JON MOOALLEM:
And after two hours of sleep, she was right back on the air. [music plays]

JON MOOALLEM:
But it’s probably worth stopping for a second to say this out loud. Earthquakes are (BEEP) up, but I mean in an existential way too. Imagine how dreamlike it must’ve been watching realities suddenly buckle around you. Watching your city of infallible right angles bend. It was enough to change a person’s worldview. More than 50 years later, a former mayor of Anchorage told me-

VOICEOVER (ROMAN MARS):
“Even now I can look at the solid ground out the window and know that it’s not permanent. It can change anytime. It just moves. Everything moves.”

JON MOOALLEM:
Understand that in 1964, plate tectonics was still just a theory, kind of a radical one. It was hard for people to accept that the continents we stand on are actually in motion, that we’re just sliding around randomly on violently colliding plates of rock, and that nothing is stable, that everything runs on pure chance. That’s what this story is about, really. Chance. Maybe that’s obvious, it’s even the woman’s last name. But the question is how are we supposed to live on the surface of such unbearable randomness? What can we grab hold of that’s fixed? But when I hear the old recordings of Genie on the radio that weekend and all the other voices working too, I picture them as solid objects, like wires crossing the city of Anchorage, then the state of Alaska further out, crossing each other too, like a net. A kind of alternate human infrastructure snapping into place where the built environment gave way. [music plays]

[Montage of archival recordings over music crescendo]

GENIE CHANCE (ARCHIVAL TAPE):
“… Cordova, at the Northern Hotel. The message says your family has been contacted and everything is okay. I’ve been so involved trying to assist down here in the coordination of domestic service at the civil defense headquarters that I really hadn’t stopped to think how worried and concerned my parents must be. I understand that KFAR in Fairbanks is monitoring us and is relaying messages to the South 48. I wonder if the person in KFAR would take down a message from me and get the word to my family in Bonham, Texas that the Chance family is all right. The Chance family is all right. All five of us are safe, none of us received a scratch.”

6. WHAT IS SAFETY, ANYWAY?

JON MOOALLEM:
Late on Saturday, the day after the quake, Genie read a list of the missing and dead on the air. No one told her to do it, but there didn’t seem to be anyone to ask for permission either. And the next day was Easter Sunday. Ministers talked about death and resurrection. The staff of the Anchorage Daily Times picked up all the pieces of movable type thrown all over their printing room, managed to put out a newspaper. Two JC Penney executives declared-

VOICEOVER (ROMAN MARS):
“We will build again, bigger and better than before.”

JON MOOALLEM:
And eventually, the little theater resumed its production of “Our Town” too. One of the actors told me that after the quake, whenever a restaurant in Anchorage reopened or a church held a mass, there was never an empty seat, she said. Everyone wanted to be with someone else, and there was something especially poetic about the sold-out crowd at the theater that first night because that kind of togetherness is basically what Thornton Wilder’s play is about. It’s a play about daily life in a small town – the deaths and marriages, tragedies, births – and how under all that flux, there’s stability to every community over time. In Anchorage, a city that worried it was temporary, realized it was temporary. At least all its buildings and houses and roads. But it was discovering there was something permanent about itself too. All night at the theater, the character of the stage manager talked to the audience directly narrating the story of the play, kind of like I’ve been doing tonight. Now when the curtain rose on the final acts, he came out for his monologue and told them-

VOICEOVER (ROMAN MARS):
“Now there are some things we all know, but we don’t take them out and look at them very often. We all know that something is eternal and it ain’t houses, and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even stars. Everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for 5,000 years, and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it.”

JON MOOALLEM:
In the end, Genie chance stayed on duty at KENI for 59 hours that weekend. When things finally calmed down, she sat down to write a letter to her parents in Texas. They’d written to her right after the quake, pleading with Genie to send her three kids to live with them while that battered city up in Alaska and figured out what’s next. “Think of the kids’ safety,” they said. And part of Genie thought it was a good idea, but then she had another more convincing thought.

GENIE CHANCE:
“We must be together. As long as we are together, we are confident of the future.”

JON MOOALLEM:
She explained to her parents-

GENIE CHANCE:
“That Good Friday night, I knew we had survived miraculously and for this reason, there must be a purpose to our lives. Apparently the children must sense this too, for they have remained calm. They have been fully aware of the emergency but have not feared. We are proud that they are such dependable, responsible youngsters. I would not undermine their confidence in the future, in themselves, by sending them away for their safety. What is safety anyway? How can you predict where or when tragedy will occur? You can only learn to live with it and make the best of it when it happens. These children are not afraid. Their father and I are not afraid. Please don’t you fear for us.”

JON MOOALLEM:
What is safety, anyway? Genie seemed to be conceding that there is only randomness, only chance, and if everything beyond us is chance, maybe the only force we have to survive a world like that is connection. By then, it must’ve seemed so obvious to her. It’s a good idea to hold on to each other. Thank you.

ROMAN MARS:
Jon Mooallem, the “Brink Players”, Jenny Conlee-Drizos on accordion and piano, Nate Query on bass, John Moen on drums, Chris Funk on guitar, and Jon Neufeld also on guitar, and that is Ms. Avery Trufelman as Genie Chance. Thank you.

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ROMAN MARS:
This story was recorded live at the Moore Theater in Seattle in 2017. More about Genie Chance and Jon Mooallem’s new book “This is Chance!” after this.

[BREAK]

ROMAN MARS:
Jon Mooallem expanded the story you just heard into a beautiful and important new book called “This is Chance!” and I had a conversation with him several days ago, right about the time the reality of the pandemic was just hitting a lot of people. And I started off by asking him how he first learned about Genie Chance.

JON MOOALLEM:
Basically, I had first learned about a tsunami in Crescent City, California. This was 20 years ago, I learned about this tsunami in 1964 that wiped out this town of Crescent City, California. And I just sort of learned about that in a roundabout way at a diner in Crescent City one day when I saw these historical photos about it. And there’s just some really interesting things about this story, about sort of the resilience of a community that stuck with me. And it wasn’t until many, many years later, until about 2013 or 2014 that I thought to Google it, basically. And I was, “Oh yeah, what caused the tsunami?” and what caused the tsunami was this massive quake in Alaska. And it was a pretty short amount of time between starting to get curious about the earthquake and stumbling on Genie, basically because Genie had produced a lot of material about the quake afterwards, and just interviewed a lot of people and compiled these almost oral history documents, and even like co-authored a scientific paper with the USGS about it.

JON MOOALLEM:
So her name was out there, but even then it was still just a few more years. Even though I had reached out to her daughter, which became just the most important connection that made this book possible. It still took me a few years even to get up to Jan, who’s her daughter’s house, and look at all of the material that Genie had left behind, which was just 30 something boxes of everything from her life. And at that point, it was just, “Oh my God.” There was just such an opportunity to reconstruct these three days in Anchorage. I mean the book really just tells the story of these three days. And yeah, I just- I couldn’t, I didn’t feel like I could see that opportunity and not do it because it was really almost a now or never thing. Who else is going to be in this basement ever again, right?

ROMAN MARS:
So the first incarnation was the live story-song that you made for 99% Invisible, and so did you always have a book in mind? How did it expand? How did that work in your mind?

JON MOOALLEM:
Yeah. Well, the great thing about doing that project could you guys, was that it gave me the time and sort of the motivation to just see if it was a book. I definitely had that in mind. I was hoping that that’s what it could become. But it’s such a weird process of just cobbling together these material documents from archives, various places, so, but pretty… definitely by the time we were done with that project and we were starting to do the performances, it was very clear to me that this was kind of just the beginning.

JON MOOALLEM:
And yeah, it was just this process of discovering all these other characters and all these nuances to the story, and just learning more about Anchorage at the time and just this fuller sense, almost like a more empathetic sense too, of what was happening there, both after the quake, but also just what it was like to be living in Alaska in 1964. And then also just finding more and more material, both Genie’s documents and then this huge trove of documents from these sociologists that came to Anchorage to interview everyone about the quake and study the community’s response. They interviewed almost 500 people. I had access to all of their transcripts that were these meticulous blow-by-blow accounts of, “Tell me everything that happened.”

ROMAN MARS:
Right.

JON MOOALLEM:
So, yeah, they’re just, as I gathered more of that, I saw all of these other threads just spooling out of what I had already known.

ROMAN MARS:
And so, specifically, that group from Ohio that went to study it – this story of the Anchorage earthquake – it’s really interesting to be talking about it right now when people are figuring out ways to deal with a crisis as it unfolds and after it happens. How did the research and writing of this story change the way you view of how people act in a crisis?

JON MOOALLEM:
I mean I think it’s a very bizarre experience to have spent almost six or seven years with all of this in my head to various degrees. And then, now at the same time, the book is being, materializing as a real object in the world, to just have the world be, kind of collapsing around it. But yeah, I don’t… I wish I had some very pithy moral that I could draw from all this and just dispense to everyone, and in some sense, I think it’s there, but I’m still struggling to articulate it.

JON MOOALLEM:
Basically these social scientists, they came to Anchorage thinking that, they were funded by the military, they were thinking that they’re just here to watch a community fall apart and tell, as a sort of simulation of nuclear war, so we can figure out how to control that kind of chaos. And what they found was just really what we were talking about in that, and the piece is just this cooperation and this altruism that just surged up from the community, this impulse that everyone had to just solve problems and cooperate and just get stuff done. And I think we’re definitely, we’re feeling that same thing now, I think it’s just way more opaque as to what we’re supposed to do with that energy.

ROMAN MARS:
Right.

JON MOOALLEM:
And it’s something that I’ve been turning it just over and over in my mind, and I think it’s just a… the problem is just that it’s… the danger is just not right in front of us the way that it is with an earthquake, and I think it’s sort of scrambles your brain in that way. But I do think that I have this piece in the ‘New York Times,’ that’s sort of an excerpt of the book, where I’m just making the point that I do think we need to kind of understand these things we’re being told to do, like wash our hands and keep our distance, and all of these things that seem like sacrifices or retreats, and just try to understand them as a way to channel that same energy, that these are things we’re doing together, this is a project that we’re doing together, even if we’re actually not supposed to be physically together while we’re doing them.

ROMAN MARS:
Mm-hmm. (Affirmative)

JON MOOALLEM:
But it’s that same thing, and it’s not… nothing I’m saying would be new or revelatory to any of the sociologists that study this, because that field of sociology has gone on in all the years since the quake. And it’s really on firm ground that this is just a phenomenon and this is just the way humanity deals with disasters, in this collaborative, improvised, productive way. But yeah, it’s strange to just think about the similarities but also the differences.

ROMAN MARS:
I mean, that essential truth is really contradictory to what we tend to tell stories about in fiction. We tend to tell stories about the pressure cooker of disaster leading to society breaking down. Have you thought about why there’s that impulse to tell those stories when the reality is not that way and maybe more interesting because of it?

JON MOOALLEM:
Yeah, I mean, I think it’s not just in fiction, I think we tell that story about real life too, right? Sometimes to our detriment. It’s dangerous because if you are in the aftermath of a disaster and you’re looking at everyone around you as barbaric or potentially their whole drive is to harm you and steal what you have, you’re going to address the world very differently than if you walk in with an assumption that people can be trusted and that we’re allies. But yeah, I don’t… I think in some ways there might just be something on a gut level that we’re afraid of, and so we assume it to be true. But it’s really hard to let go of those myths. I mean, even one thing that I just found so entertaining was when you read enough of these case studies or even just press accounts of disasters, and you have, and it was true in Alaska too, is that “Well, we pulled together cause we’re Alaskans.” Right? You had so many Alaskans saying that.

JON MOOALLEM:
And you had the sociologist who just had to kind of push back and say, “Well, everyone did.” Even the fact that they found themselves exceptional turned out to be unexceptional, because after Katrina it was New Orleanians, “Well, we’re just New Orleanians,” or New Yorkers after 9/11, “Well, we’re new Yorkers.” And just no one can get their head around the fact that, well it’s true for everyone else, “Everyone else is going to collapse and turn into heathens but we’re the one place that has our [beep] together.” So, I found that very amusing. I don’t know, I guess it’s just really hard to register. And even me, I’m not trying to… I mean, even now, I know these things, I’ve written about them, I’m out here saying them in public, but I have to kind of reassure myself that they’re true. And I also think that frankly, I’m talking to you from Washington state, right, where everything feels just probably a little bit more intense.

ROMAN MARS:
Yeah, yeah.

JON MOOALLEM:
But I think I’ve also just made the decision for myself that, I’m just going to act like they’re true and I’ll be proven wrong. And I would prefer to live in a world where I see that, the possibility of that cooperation and the possibility of that goodness, rather than just always being on guard for the opposite.

ROMAN MARS:
Yeah. One of the things that we get the privilege of in the audio piece that we performed on stage versus the book, is you get to hear some of these voices at the end. And I remember doing it on stage and nearly crying every time that moment happens. And what was it like hearing those for the first time when you were going through archives?

JON MOOALLEM:
Oh, it was unreal. I mean, especially certain moments, I mean, I had so many written documents, right? I had so many interviews and letters, and you get this sense of real life, but it’s almost kept at a distance from you, there’s that buffer. And then when you hear the voices, it shatters that, right? I mean, not completely, right? There’s still-

ROMAN MARS:
Right, right.

JON MOOALLEM:
… the tapes are fuzzy and they’ve kind of, some of the men especially, seem to have that kind of old-timey cadence. But yeah, there’s something about it. There’s just something about hearing people speak and hearing the confusion in their voices, but also hearing the energy they’re putting into fighting back that confusion, that I just find so moving and so noble. So, yeah, and on top of that, I had all these recordings of just ordinary radio broadcast in Anchorage where Genie kind of making audio diaries of things. And yeah, you can just sort of feel yourself being sucked through time in a way.

ROMAN MARS:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). In this story we are witness to a little sliver of Genie’s life. She went on to do lots of interesting things afterward, can you tell a little bit about what her life was like after the quake?

JON MOOALLEM:
Yeah, I mean it was a real kind of catapult for her. The first thing that happened was she got super depressed and stressed out I think, just covering the months and months of boring recovery work and infighting, and all the stuff that followed this sort of period of great cooperation as soon as the government agencies got involved in figuring out all the technical stuff. But yeah, she actually left her job at the station shortly after because they wouldn’t give her a raise, and because she was a woman essentially, and she felt kind of indignant about that, rightfully. And she went off on her own, she became kind of a woman about town, like a publicity consultant, just kind of hustling and doing all kinds of freelance work.

JON MOOALLEM:
And that eventually led to people started asking her to run for office, and so she became a state legislator in Alaska in, I believe 1971. And was there for many years and just did a whole bunch of stuff there with the kind of same, even a greater a spirit of just, “Who gives a damn, I’m going to do the right thing,” kind of attitude. Which didn’t necessarily make her a favorite among some of her, especially the kind of older male colleagues who looked at their positions in legislator as a sort of a treat that they were entitled to after long careers in business.

ROMAN MARS:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

JON MOOALLEM:
But the other thing that happened too is that she was in a very bad marriage. Her husband, at the same time that he could be very loving and they were a very happy family, he was also an alcoholic and he was abusive toward her very, very violently. And she never really addressed it, but it seems clear, both reading the stuff that you wrote and talking to people that were around her, was that from the earthquake on there was really this process of her just kind of trusting in her own strength, I guess would be a way to put it. Or just kind of feeling more confident about making decisions in her life, and that led to her leaving her husband and eventually remarrying too. So yeah, I really had no idea about any of that until much later in the process. But yeah, it turned out she was… I guess it makes sense that if you find a sort of remarkable person doing extraordinary things on one weekend that you’ll probably find the rest of their life pretty fascinating too.

ROMAN MARS:
Yeah. Some of her relatives came down to see it when we performed in Seattle. What was that like?

JON MOOALLEM:
Oh, it was amazing. I couldn’t, I completely… Yes, so her daughter, Jan, and her husband were there and then two of Jan’s children, and I believe a niece or a cousin or somebody, they came both from Alaska, and then there were some folks that were living in Texas. And yeah, there’s a whole kind of half row of them at the performance, which was just so wonderful because I really never had this experience working on anything before, where so many people that I called just told me outright, “Oh, I’ve been waiting for someone to call me because they’re writing about this.” Often just about the quake, but several people about Genie herself, like “Oh yeah, I’ve been waiting all my life for someone to call me and ask me about Genie Chance.”

JON MOOALLEM:
And I think that her family, her daughter definitely felt that too. I think her daughter just knew what an extraordinary person her mom was, and that’s why she was holding on to all her things all these years and didn’t just toss them. And the other cool thing too was I’d be in their basement just looking through all this stuff, I would stay with them and go up for a few days at a time. And I remember one night being just up really late, just going through box after box, and Jan’s daughter’s, so Genie’s granddaughter who was living in an apartment next to their house at the time, came home from being out with her husband at a bar or something. And we got to chatting and I was, at one point I said, “So, what did you really know about your grandmother?” Because she was pretty young when Genie died. She said, “To be honest, I didn’t really know much about her until you started poking around and we started talking about it again.”

JON MOOALLEM:
So, yeah, I don’t know, there’s just something, maybe it’s a middle-age thing, like a mid-life… now that I’m 40, in my 40’s, but there was just something really potent and moving about just kind of seeing the way people’s memories can kind of catapult through time and the impacts that they have, and yeah. And to also just recognize that yes, Genie’s fascinating and did amazing stuff, but how many other lives out there could you just, if you found this way into would deliver that? Just that same kind of rush, that recognition of just another human.

ROMAN MARS:
“This is Chance! The Shaking of an All-American City, a Voice that Held it Together” by Jon Mooallem, is out today. Get it. Seriously, get it, for yourself, for a friend, for the sake of the world, get it today.

ROMAN MARS:
99% Invisible was recorded at the Moore Theater in Seattle on the Radiotopia Live West Coast Tour. We were directed by Lynn Finkel, post-production mix by Sean Real and Sharif Youssef. Words by Jon Mooallem and music by the “Brink Players’: Jenny Conlee-Drizos, Jon Neufeld, Nate Query, John Moen and Chris Funk. Genie Chance was played by Avery Trufelman.

Credits

Music

Music by the Brink Players:

Jenny Conlee-Drizos, Nate Query, Chris Funk, John Moen, Jon Neufeld

  1. Mims

    I would have appreciated at least a photo of Genie Chance, and more of her actual voice. I found the small snippets very impactful.

  2. Maria

    I would have loved to listen but the loud background music made it unbearable and largely uncomprehensible to anyone with any hearing loss.

  3. Michael Sanchez

    Is there a way for me to buy the music from the This is Chance! (Redux) episode? I would love the instrumentation sans vocals. Loved the story, but those swelling sounds make for a great running soundtrack.

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