Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Bomb Shelter

When I was four years old, going on five, the world teetered on the crumbling edge of nuclear annihilation. It was really annoying.

   The possible end of human existence meant that there was nothing to watch on our black and white television set, because the man I thought of as someone’s grandpa had been talking and talking and talking--forever.

   It meant that none of us kids were allowed outside to play hopscotch or stickball because of where we lived and where all our dads worked. Rose Marie Drive was too close to Cape Canaveral to take a chance on hopscotch. When the moon rockets roared into the sky the ground shook and sliding glass doors rattled. We were in the radius.

   It meant that instead of being at work writing technical manuals, my father was sitting at our kitchen dinette, his fingers fluttering and thumping against the Formica. When he turned to watch the flicker of the television, he looked like a man who’d forgotten where he’d put his glasses when they were on the top of his head all along. When the picture got fuzzy he mumbled bad words.

   The rabbit ears on the top of the TV probably needed someone to crumple the tinfoil up better, but who cared; it was just old people talking.

Based on the latest low-level reconnaissance mission . . .[Redacted] Guanajay Intermediate-range Ballistic Missile Site #1 will probably be fully operational on 1 December . . . [Redacted]

--CIA Daily Report, "The Crisis USSR/Cuba," October 27, 1962 (The National Security Archive, George Washington University)

   When my father wasn't watching the television, he scribbled on a piece of notebook paper, drawing heavy thick lines. My mother hovered. She complained that her eye was twitching; she pushed her finger against one eyelid while my father scribbled and talked.

   "It's true, what they're reporting. A-1-A is a parking lot, everyone trying to get out of the Keys. The police are trying to keep the intersections clear. No one going the other way, just Army trucks . . . troops. We couldn't get out if we wanted to. We've waited too . . ."

   "Late," my mother said. "The Christensens left yesterday."  I should have listened more carefully to the way she was saying what she said, but I was only four. I hadn't perfected the art of low-level reconnaissance, yet.   

   Still, I watched and listened and colored while sitting on a bar stool at the breakfast bar in our new house on Rose Marie Drive in Titusville, Florida.

   That breakfast bar was one of the big selling features for those cookie cutter row houses, a stretch of crisp, white Formica, jutting out from the kitchen countertop in a seamless length of modern design.  It was where all the neighborhood kids lived when we were inside, to eat our TV dinners and be out of our parent's way. It was where we sat and eavesdropped on the exotic customs and culture of an alien adult world.   

   I loved sitting there with our dog, a stuffed sausage of a Chihuahua, panting at my feet, waiting for me to sneak him all my supper. I would swing my dangling legs back and forth, like a quiet satellite on the fringe of my parent's universe. The space under the breakfast bar was another kind of place--a snug, close, hide-and-seek spot tucked away from grown-up worries, a handy choice for emergencies and pretending, a handy choice for disappearing. Between the garbage pail and the end of the counter, the breakfast bar was a child-sized refuge and retreat, like a card table with a blanket thrown over it, it felt safe under there.  

   The strangeness of my father sitting in the kitchen, drawing on notebook paper when he should have been at work made me uneasy, in a vague, ants-in-the-pants kind of way. My father didn't draw. He didn't come home early. When my father did come home from Cape Canaveral, he flopped into an E-Z-Boy lounger and made me rub his feet. They smelled terrible. 

   Home early, he drew lines and circles and scribbled important looking words. Curiosity pulled me down from the barstool. The glyphs on his paper drew me like a treasure map. The dog trailed behind me his nails tick, ticking against the linoleum.

   I pointed to the notebook paper.

   "What's that say?" My father kept writing and my mother made her fingers into a hard teepee. They ignored me.

   I tried sounding out the strangest of the words by myself, bit by bit, the way I'd figured out by learning to read "Constantinople and Timbuktu" at the end of Hop on Pop.

   "G-en-er-aaaaa-t-or, gen-er-a-tor." I made the G soft and the A short.

   "Long A. G like J. Gen-er-A-tor," my mother corrected. "Is a generator part of the package? It looks very complicated," she said, "and expensive."

   "Butch says that all we need is a rough sketch and this buddy of his can come and dig a hole in a day or two. It's like a pre-fab deal. Dig a hole, dump it in, and then you add stuff. Shelves and shit, any way you want it."

   "But isn't it too late? The Christensens left yesterday. They're probably to Tennessee by now." She sounded like the only kid in class not to get an invitation to the best birthday party of the year. "There's nothing left at the store, worse than a hurricane."

   My father wrote the words B-O-M-B and S-H-E-L-T-E-R in fat important letters across the top of the paper. He pressed so hard the pencil lead snapped.

   "Shit. Get me another goddamn pencil."

   My mother hustled to the junk drawer still muttering about empty shelves and too little time and things worse than hurricanes. My father drew tiny circles on a straight line, inside a rectangle.

   "Are those rocks?" I asked, pointing to the circles, inching closer to my father's side.

   "Food. Cans. Canned goods. Peas. Tuna. Beans." I got too close. He pushed me back with his elbow. "Go eat something. Make her eat something for Christ's sake."

The 1930's taught us a clear lesson: aggressive conduct, if allowed to go unchecked and unchallenged, ultimately leads to war. This nation is opposed to war.

-- President John F. Kennedy,  Address to the Nation, on the Cuban Missile Crisis, October 22 1962 (from the American website)

   A tiny worm of worry twitched behind my bellybutton.

   My mother and father started to argue. This was back and forth talk I recognized, the cadence of verbal warfare as familiar as any Dr. Seuss book. It started over my criminal, selfish waste of food. It drove my mother crazy that I didn't eat. It made my father crazy when my mother got crazy over me not eating. I watched my father carefully for signs that he might want to teach me a lesson tonight, making me sit in front of a plate of ice cold fish sticks or mashed potatoes for the longest time, because people were starving, somewhere or everywhere. I couldn't remember.

   Then their anger became a tug of war of words over canned goods and ways to hide from bombs and our neighbors leaving yesterday and something called fallout.  My mother wanted to drive away from the fallout. My father wanted to pretend that there was time to build a place to hide away from the fallout by digging a hole in the ground, in our backyard, behind the new chain link fence.

   I knew about bombs from the big kids who went to school and how you had to practice hiding under your desk so the terrible bombs couldn't find you. It was the Russians. Those Russians weren't starving, but they were making missile-bombs to drop on our friends at school and our house and daddy's work and the Spooner family with their seven children and my best friend Teresa and the monkey bars and . . .

   I looked over at the dog, waiting under my barstool for fish sticks to come raining down from the sky.

   "What will our doggy eat when we hide from the bad bombs?"

   "No dog food. No dog. Just people. Tell her."

   That's when the worm of worry started to crawl around looking for a way out, trying to find someplace to hide. I started to worry about how the dog would know to get under a desk if I didn't help him.

   "Don't be like that. It's not like we're actually going to build this silly thing. Let her pretend to bring the stupid dog."

   At some point, I started to cry.

   "I'm not doing this for my health. You can't put a dog in a bomb shelter. Where's a dog going to shit?" He looked at me, and I knew I looked booger-crying-ugly because of the way he stared at me, disgusted. "Shut up that noise. You can't have dog shit in a bomb shelter."

   My mother laughed. "Do you know how stupid that sounds?"

   Then, my father's face started coming apart like a broken coffee cup, all his face lines became sharp points and stone edges.

United Press reports eruption of violent rioting and terror bombing in more than half dozen Latin American capitals. It states that La Paz, Bolivia, was the scene of street fighting near the United States Embassy involving 3,000 anti-American labor union members, pro-American demonstrators, and police reports five killed and twenty-six injured.

--CIA Daily Report, "The Crisis USSR/Cuba," October 27, 1962 (The National Security Archive, George Washington University)

   "You're blaming me for the goddamn Cuban Missile Crisis? What have you done? There's nothing here."

   He marched to the kitchen cabinets and started flinging doors open, some of them banging closed again, and one door ripping loose from its hinges. It dangled from the one remaining hinge.

   It was always like that with my father and mother, missed cues, vague hints of disapproval, the low burn of rising tension and paranoia, and then the inexplicable blowup. 

   Grabbing boxes of noodles, he threw them over his shoulder, an open box of spaghetti skittered across the kitchen floor. He dropped a jelly jar. It shattered into glittery grape-smeared dust. A bottle of ketchup exploded, splashing across the linoleum. My mother started to back away from the pick-up-sticks of loose noodles, the grape jelly full of glass, and the angry words that were not going to stop, not for a while.

   The dog licked ketchup off of the floor.

   I remembered to shove my fist against my teeth, so I could make the crying stop when I jumped down from the barstool. Scooting on my bottom, I wedged myself next to the garbage can under the ultra modern, Formica covered breakfast bar. Globs of food dripped and drabbed down the side of the cabinet under the bar where I would sneak food into the garbage or the dog. My mother couldn't see underneath the counter to clean the spills. Stuff got stuck under here. I pulled the bar stools in tight, trying to protect myself with a toothpick barricade against an explosion of condiments and pasta. I glued my chin to my knees, listening to my father empty out our kitchen cabinets, listening to the sky falling.

   The dog yelped. He scurried under the breakfast bar and pressed himself against my leg.

   "Bill, stop!"

   The barrage ended. The cabinets emptied. He stomped away to listen to the president explain about the end of the world.

   Kneeling, my mother started putting little pieces of jelly jar into bigger pieces of jelly jar. When she saw me jammed under the breakfast bar she started crying but not louder than President Kennedy talking in the living room.

   I stayed under there for a long time even when my mother had finished picking through shattered glass and sweeping ruined noodles into a dirty pile. I knew to stay put until the all clear sounded or bedtime. I stayed until our fat dog licked my face, making me laugh, because his breath smelled like ketchup. He smelled like dinner, the dinner no one was going to remember to make me eat.

The Cuban crisis, we hope, marked an end and a beginning--an end to violent adventures designed to overturn the equilibrium of world power, and a beginning of fresh initiatives for peace, including a new attack on nuclear testing, disarmament, overseas bases, and on world social and economic problems.

--Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Memorandum For the President- "Post Mortem on Cuba," October 29, 1962 (The National Security Archive, George Washington University)

   When I was four years old, going on five, the world teetered on the crumbling edge of nuclear annihilation. It wasn't the scariest part of my childhood.


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