loma prieta and the meaning of everything

Starkey had heard about The Fungi from the 19-year-old lab intern who coincidently was also at the concert on the day of the earthquake and stated that they (The Fungi) ‘played Beatles songs better than the Beatles’….”


by mathew szymanowski



On October 17, 1989, a seven-year-old boy, John Tanner, died in San Francisco of what was thought to be a head injury caused during the Loma Prieta earthquake. John apparently lost his balance during the earthquake, bumped his head, and died shortly after arriving at the hospital. Right before the earthquake hit, John and his family had returned from an outdoor concert in Union Square where numerous local bands performed for free. John was eager to get home to watch the World Series with his father. John had an unusual scar on his outer left knee resembling a strawberry. John’s mother, Eleanor Tanner, stated that at the outdoor concert, John’s reaction was most positive to a Beatles cover band called The Fungi. His mother further claimed John was most lively when The Fungi played the song “Helter Skelter.”

The Loma Prieta was the San Francisco bay area’s first major earthquake since 1906. The quake was responsible for 62 deaths, one of which was young John Tanner. The earthquake caused over $6 billion in damage. Over 18,000 homes and 2,600 businesses were damaged. One of the damaged homes was in Palo Alto and belonged to Samuel C. Starkey, a 36-year-old biologist, model airplane enthusiast, and gardener who did research at Stanford Medical Center. Concerning the damage caused as a result of the earthquake, Starkey’ stated he cared not for the little damage his home received-“these things can be fixed,” he said-but was most grieved by the destruction of his strawberry patch due to a fallen telephone pole. “You put so much effort into something and so easily it’s destroyed,” he concluded.

Aside from strawberries, Starkey’s biological research involved experimentation with Necrotising Fasciitis, more commonly known as the flesh-eating bacterial disease. In the San Francisco Chronicle, two weeks after the earthquake, Starkey read about John Tanner’s death, which by that point was figured to be rather mysterious and not a result of a bump on the head. Starkey became interested. In a picture of John Tanner which accompanied the article, Starkey noticed the strawberry-like scar and was instantly intrigued. In an interview he said the scar looked similar to the scars of victims of the flesh-eating bacteria. Starkey was even more fascinated when he found out about the Tanner family having returned from a concert where The Fungi, the Beatles cover band, had played. Starkey had heard about The Fungi from the 19-year-old lab intern who coincidently was also at the concert on the day of the earthquake and stated that they (The Fungi) “played Beatles songs better than the Beatles,” a statement Starkey found to be absurd and based on an ignorance of quality music. When asked if the intern was likely to get a job after the internship, Starkey said, “It’s not likely. The boy is unable to fully apply himself to the lab protocol.”

Starkey was a big fan of the Beatles. Starkey was first turned on to the Beatles when in 1968, at the age of 16, he was told by a classmate, Linda Kasabian, who was in an “extracurricular group,” that the Beatles had hidden messages in their lyrics. That extracurricular group was the Manson Family, led by Charles Manson. Linda Kasabian, on numerous occasions, attempted to bring Starkey along to the “family gatherings” but Starkey was always involved in after-school science clubs which allowed for no free time, which is also why he had not been too familiar with the Beatles’ music before.

Starkey recalled a particular moment with Kasabian: “She seemed very nice, like one of those hippies, and one day, because I never had time to go with her to her gatherings, she gave me a Beatles record, The White Album, and told me to listen to ‘Helter Skelter’ on the second disc.” A little less then a year later, Charles Manson and his Family, along with Linda Kasabian, were responsible for the Labianca and Tate murders in the Hollywood hills. At both residences, numerous Beatles references were written out in blood, “Helter Skelter” being written at the Labianca home.

Eleven years after the Manson killings Kasabian died of unnatural causes shortly after being released early from her prison sentence on grounds of good behavior. An autopsy was not performed, but doctors said she might have died from either poor sanitary conditions at the prison or untreated food contamination. One month after Kasabian died, former Beatle John Lennon was assassinated (December 8th 1980). One month after that, Eleanor Tanner gave birth to John Tanner. It was Eleanor’s husband, Paul Tanner, a devoted Beatles Fan, who decided to name their son after John Lennon. Paul Tanner said it was a coincidence that he met and married a woman named Eleanor because that was his second-favorite song by the Beatles, the first being “Norwegian Wood” from the Rubber Soul album. When asked by his close friends what the significance of the song “Norwegian Wood” was, Paul Tanner said it reminded him of the time he lost his virginity to a girl he had adored since grade school, which was not to be the future Mrs. Eleanor Tanner.

Having come across these unusual realizations and coincidences-Samuel Starkey’s last name being the same as Beatles drummer Richard Starkey (a.k.a. Ringo Star), young John Tanner’s apparent connection to John Lennon, John’s Tanner’s father’s name being Paul like Paul McCartney, John’s mother named Eleanor like the song “Eleanor Rigby,” Starkey’s strawberry patch, the fact that the Beatles cover band that played in Union Scare was called The Fungi and Starkey’s biological research entailing the study of fungus, John Tanner’s response to the song “Helter Skelter” and Sam Starkey’s introduction to the Beatles by a member of the Manson Family who told Starkey about “Helter Skelter” and it later being written in blood at the Labianca home, the mysterious death of Linda Kasabian as a parallel to John Tanner’s death and the distance of time between the former’s death and the latter’s birth, John Lennon’s assassination, and other less significant coincidences-Starkey thought it a good idea to contact the Tanner family and perhaps uncover more information about their lives and their son’s life which might bring Starkey to further understand how these coincidences might not just be coincidences and that in fact there was some greater force at work.

Starkey was not a man interested in anything of a metaphysical nature and clandestinely scoffed at such matters. Starkey was in fact very much a believer in the physical world as it was governed by physical laws and was convinced that with time science will uncover the unifying theory of everything. Just the idea of this made Starkey inwardly giddy. Although, this specific situation involving the Tanner family might have been of interest to Starkey because, according to the 19-year-old intern, at times during his work Starkey would become very frustrated with the lack of scientific information available to prove assumptions on matters involving his research. Therefore, his desperation to arrive at conclusions out of his reach might have led him to explore occurrences which were unexplainable by science and logic.

Starkey was unsuccessful in finding the Tanners’ phone number, which was unlisted, and after some small time detective work decided to drive to the Tanner home just off the Embarcadero in San Francisco.

A week before Starkey planned to visit the Tanners, on his way from a late night at the Stanford Lab where he and his team were possibly days away from uncovering a possible cure for the flesh-eating bacterium, Starkey had himself a McDonald’s hamburger, a very rare occurrence considering Starkey’s fondness of farm-grown organic foods. But because Starkey hadn’t eaten anything all day due to his obsessive involvement in his lab research, he had made an exception-an exception that would cost him his life. The next day Starkey was hospitalized for excessive fatigue. The day after that, Starkey died of what was later to be determined as the Mad Cow Disease-the first case in the United States. Nurse Hatchet, who was at Starkey’s side at the moment of his death, commented on how the radio in the room eerily played “Strawberry Fields Forever” at the moment Starkey had flat-lined.

Young John Tanner’s cause of death was eventually discovered to be a genetic heart condition occurring every fifth generation in his family. The 19-year-old intern at the lab would later witness the discovery of the cure for the flesh-eating bacteria and would go on to ghost-publish numerous articles on the subject. Linda Kasabian’s cause of death was never uncovered. Some say she died because of her sins. No one really knows.

Originally published:
Issue Forty-Six
December 2006



Matt Szymanowski is a writer and director based in Los Angeles and Warsaw. His debut feature film, “The Purple Onion” (2015), available on iTunes and Amazon Prime, won the Best Feature Drama-Comedy at the Indie Gathering International Film Festival. Matt wrote and self published the novel “Cupertino,” available on Amazon. A MacDowell Colony fellow, he studied film and theatre directing at the Polish National Film School in Poland and has a BA in Humanities from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

Comments are closed.