I used to be an expert on the atom bomb in the late fifties, thanks to Junior Scholastic magazine. Everyone in Mrs. Thompson’s fifth-grade class subscribed. We had to. The American Legion paid for the poor kids’ subscriptions so we could all be guardians of freedom, equally informed and watchful. The first line of defense in the Cold War, Mrs. Thompson reminded us, was information. So when our Junior Scholastics arrived, we put aside our other lessons. The theme for May was “Nuclear War and You,” with recipes for Atomic Cookies and a joke column titled “It’s a Blast!” Mrs. Thompson made Ronnie, our slow kid, read the first joke:
Dan: How did you get that black eye?
Sam: I’m a Cold War victim.
Dan: How so?
Sam: I got hit by a guided muscle.
Mrs. Thompson laughed, then most of the class laughed, then Ronnie laughed loudly, so we’d think he got the joke. I got it fine, but I figured I didn’t need to laugh until Mrs. Thompson looked my way. I wasn’t fast enough.
“Helen, why is the rest of the class laughing?”
“Because it’s a pun: guided missile, guided muscle.”
“So why didn’t you laugh?”
When I said I didn’t laugh because I didn’t think that guided missiles were funny, I heard murmurs of “Yeah,” and “For sure,” but Mrs. Thompson never let rebellions swell. Her gaze stilled the room as she rose heavily from her desk and planted herself in front of the blackboard: “Wouldn’t you agree, class, that a sense of humor helps us walk the Road of Life?”
Subdued and a little confused, everyone nodded.
“In fact, class, experts tell us that a good sense of humor equals good mental adjustment.” She wrote this equation on the board in her impeccable cursive hand: “Good sense of humor = Good mental adjustment.” My traitor classmates regarded me with pity and contempt. “Helen,” asked Mrs. Thompson, “would you please work on your sense of humor?”
I muttered that I would.
“I’m glad. We’re all glad for Helen. Aren’t we, class?”
Yes, the class was glad for me. When Mrs. Thompson erased the board, the fat in her arms swayed, then stopped as she turned, considered our worthiness, and finally confided: “Class, if it wasn’t for my sense of humor when my husband died, I couldn’t have gone on as I did. Everybody said so. Now turn to page 19, ‘Life behind the Iron Curtain.’ ”
During the shuffling of pages, I pictured Mrs. Thompson’s great body rocking with laughter as she gaily tossed dirt on Mr. Thompson’s grave and then set off firmly down the Road of Life, still chuckling while friends, family, and experts all nodded their approval.
On page 19 we read about twelve-year-old Olga, who lived in the Ukraine. Olga rose before dawn six days a week, ate black bread and coffee (never pancakes, eggs, or Frosted Flakes), then trudged miles to frigid schoolrooms where never-smiling teachers grilled her in a dozen subjects. After school, instead of sports, she “chose” Young Pioneer meetings sponsored by the Communist Party, where leaders coached her in political self-criticism and helped her scrutinize the loyalty of neighbors, friends, and family members. Then a long, cold walk home for dinners of cabbage soup and black bread with occasional boiled meat, followed by homework (no television) until midnight in the cold, cramped kitchen, striving to master calculus and thus bring glory to the Soviet State.
“I might note, class,” Mrs. Thompson interjected, “that some young Americans didn’t complete their math work sheets today. Apparently Olga sees homework as an opportunity.”
Junior Scholastic lessons were always this way: constant jolts from jokes, to fear, to disgust for a nation of tattletales and goody-two-shoes. Without democracy, would this be our fate?
In the summer, Olga worked hard on a state-run beet farm, which her grandfather had owned before the revolution. She dreamed of someday visiting Disneyland, but, barring miracles, we knew this was impossible. After we’d read Olga’s story, Mrs. Thompson had us open our Cold War notebooks and list ten ways our lives would change if the Iron Curtain fell around New Jersey. I started my list:
- Cabbage soup.
- No TV.
- Study calculus.
- No vacations. Beet farms.
- Inform on parents. They go to Siberia.
I stopped writing. My sweaty hands made the blue lines blur.
Our last exercise, “Know the Bomb,” gave us four new vocabulary words: half-life, implode, firestorm and radiation sickness. Finally recess came. On the playground, Jimmy Enser told me in a whisper that I was right, guided missiles weren’t funny, but his father still thought my father was a jackass.
Jimmy lived next door, and his father was building a fallout shelter that took up half their backyard. “It’s a personal thing, what a man does to protect his family,” Mr. Enser told me one Saturday, and no, he didn’t need any help with the wiring, even if my father was a master electrician.
“He thinks if I help him,” my father said, “I’ll want in his shelter when the big one comes.” We watched Mr. Enser grimly fighting tangled loops of electrical wire. A steel door lay on the grass, ready to install, double thick with a deadbolt as big as my wrist.
“Suppose we did want in?” I asked.
My father shrugged. “Enser’s got a shotgun. I expect he’d use it.”
“Sure. To ‘protect his family.’ But, Helen, don’t let this bomb stuff get to you. It’s a beautiful day. Why don’t you go play with friends? Or else do your homework.”
In the side yard, Mrs. Enser and my mother were hanging their wash on identical Sears clotheslines, talking over the forsythia. Mrs. Enser, who had fought hard against the fallout shelter taking up her garden space, now defended it with a convert’s zeal. “Every family needs one,” I heard her tell my mother. “Don’t count on the government to save you. Even the Red Cross can’t help everyone.”
“But there’re public bomb shelters right downtown,” my mother reminded her. “In the schools, the post office, the library. Even the churches have them.”
“Oh, be serious, Kathleen,” Mrs. Enser chided. “You won’t have time to get downtown. Or suppose you get Helen and the baby to a shelter and they say, ‘Sorry, we’re all full.’ Then what? If you find someplace that takes you in, do you really think there’ll be food and water there for everybody? Will they have formula and diapers for all the babies? Sanitary facilities, band-aids, linens, toys for the kids? You trust the city to think of these things? We’re not talking about the London Blitz, sleep overnight in the Underground and everybody goes home in the morning. This is two straight weeks at least. We need to be self-reliant, like the pioneers.”
She reeled off her own stock list: canned and dried foods, vitamins, clothes, soap, flashlights, generator, bottled water, cases of powdered milk and formula, complete first-aid kit, chemical toilet, board games, cards, books — everything you’d need to live underground until the all-clear sounded. “If we had connecting shelters,” Mrs. Enser threw out, “we could even visit during World War III.” She didn’t mention the gun, but she must have known my mother knew about it. “And if we shop together, Kathleen,” she offered, “we can buy in bulk.”
This was a big attraction. My mother loved bargains. But she was also claustrophobic. The idea of two weeks underground was scaring her, even with board games and a chemical toilet.
“How about moving someplace safer?” my mother suggested.
“Like where? We’re already in the suburbs.”
“They say New Zealand won’t have fallout,” my mother said.
I inched closer. I’d read about New Zealand. “You know,” I announced, “sinks drain counterclockwise in New Zealand, because it’s the Southern Hemisphere.”
Mrs. Enser’s eyes widened. My mother shook her head at me. “It’s not a jungle,” she said quickly. “They’ve got supermarkets and everything.”
But the sink idea had shaken Mrs. Enser. “Kathleen, could you really leave all this?” With a sweep of her hand, Mrs. Enser took in the maple trees along the street, our cars, bikes, and tricycles glittering in the sun, the bright green lawns, the pansies, picnic tables, and swing sets, everything clean and right.
“We’d come back. No war lasts forever,” my mother said, weakening.
“Maybe not. But face facts, you’ve got to do something.”
My father didn’t see it that way. He wouldn’t buy sandbags for our basement and thought the New Zealand idea hilarious. Let my mother burn the carrots or break a plate, and he’d say, “You know, in New Zealand we’d be safe from these catastrophes.” If she wanted to see a Broadway play, he’d point out that Auckland’s a mere twenty thousand miles from New York City. When the baby threw up on the living-room couch, it was: “Don’t tell me: there’s no projectile vomiting in New Zealand!” This time my mother laughed.
“Stop laughing!” I shouted from my room. “It’s not a joke!” If they loved me, why didn’t they care about the future?
Jimmy Enser said I had to make them care. He said that when the Bomb falls, if you’re outside, or even in a regular house, you die instantly or turn mutant, but in a shelter you just wait for the all-clear signal, and then come out, kill the mutants, and bury the dead. Everything will be peaceful afterwards, with no communists or bad people, just good Americans starting fresh. Jimmy showed me pictures of Hiroshima survivors with their eyeballs melted and strips of flesh hanging down. He had even worse pictures he wouldn’t show me.
In Hiroshima there was no warning, so you couldn’t really blame the Japs for not having shelters, Jimmy explained. But since we knew what the communists were planning, it was just dumb not to be prepared.
Summer came, and no more Junior Scholastics, but by now even tall clouds made me shiver. Mr. Enser put a large empty box in the trash, and I sneaked a look. He’d bought an air-purifying system. When I asked for sandbags for my birthday, my parents finally saw how frightened I’d become. But they still wouldn’t consider a shelter, even when I said that other families on our block were looking at the Ensers’ plans. Jimmy, Laura, Brian, and both Cathys would survive. But not me.
One hot Saturday morning my father took me to the lake, rented a rowboat, and rowed me around. “Honey, if I thought it would help,” he said, “I’d build us a fallout shelter. I’d even move to New Zealand, I swear. But can’t you understand? Once the bombs start falling, there’ll be no world left.”
“That’s not true,” I protested. “Even in Hiroshima, some people survived, but they’re mutant and their eyeballs are all melted. Jimmy showed me pictures.”
A goose streaked across the blue sky, honking. My father looked at me, sighed, then wet the back of his neck with lake water. Finally he said, “Your mother thinks the baby needs a sandbox. If you want, I’ll get some extra bags of sand.” I jumped up to kiss him and almost tipped the boat over. “Careful!” my father warned. “Here, sit by me and help row.” The lake was so glassy that the ripples from our oars nearly reached the shore.
The midsummer heat thickened that afternoon without a trace of breeze. By dinnertime all the sweating fathers had mowed the lawns, and the mothers had watered the flower beds. In those days, everyone ate before seven and then had watermelon or ice cream on the front steps. We all begged our parents to let us play in the sprinklers. Usually they said no; we’d get too keyed up and sweaty before bedtime. But that evening they all said yes. Soon kids in bathing suits were running out on their lawns: me, Jimmy, Laura, bossy Connie, Brian, and the two Cathys. We played tag under Laura’s sprinkler, our bare feet leaving dark silver prints in the grass as water arched over us. We played games to get dry and games to get wet again. When we played crack-the-whip, I spun off first and landed on my back. One by one, the others flew off the whip, and then we all rested until Venus came out in the cloudless violet sky.
“Half-hour to bedtime,” parents called from our houses. The fathers turned off the sprinklers; the mothers went inside to wash dishes and put the babies to sleep. We decided to roll down Jimmy’s hill, and did until cut grass stuck to our sweaty skin and turned us green as Martians. Then we lay in the cool, picking ourselves clean and trading elephant and knock-knock jokes. When the first star came out, I wished there’d be no war and Olga would get to see Disneyland. Then we caught fireflies and let them leap like sparks from our cupped hands.
Jimmy had heard that someone paid kids a lot of money for fireflies. He ran inside to get an empty mayonnaise jar from his mother. For a while we helped Jimmy fill his jar, but we were tired and caught only the ones flashing near us. When Jimmy said there were more across the street in Laura’s yard, we told him, “Fine, catch them yourself.” Connie and the Cathys were talking. Brian, Laura, and I were counting stars, and Mrs. Enser was inside, so nobody made him look both ways.
The car that killed Jimmy was a big Oldsmobile, so quiet there was no warning until the brakes squealed. We heard the first thud when Jimmy’s body hit the fender, and the second when he landed on the asphalt. His mayonnaise jar shattered, releasing plumes of fireflies across our fresh-cut lawns.