Last night I was watching TV, but mom came down and said she wanted “to hear what President Kennedy has to say about what’s happening in Cuba.” Dad was already down in the basement at his desk. He turned around in his wood office chair to watch too.
That “news” show came on with that Walter Cronkite guy. When the TV showed him, he turned his head and looked out of the TV at us.
Cronkite: Please standby for a statement by President Kennedy on the evolving situation in Cuba.
Then the picture changed to that President Kennedy guy standing behind this little table with that circle thing with a picture of an eagle in the middle with the red and white stripes.
Kennedy: Good evening, my fellow citizens. This Government, as promised, has maintained the closest surveillance of the Soviet military build-up on the island of Cuba. Within the past week unmistakable evidence had established the fact that a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island. The purposes of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere.
“Oh Jesus”, mom said, putting her head down and her hand on her hand above her eyes. Dad didn’t say anything. Some kids said that that “Jesus” guy was in that Bible book and that he was either god or the “son of god”. Other people said it was swearing. That seemed strange.
That President Kennedy guy kept talking about a bunch of stuff about how Cuba had “communist missiles” and how it was becoming a big “base” for the Soviet Union. Then he said…
Kennedy: To halt this offensive build-up, a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated. All ships of any kind bound for Cuba from whatever nation or port will, if found to contain cargoes of offensive weapons, be turned back. This quarantine will be extended, if needed, to other types of cargo and carriers. We are not at this time, however, denying the necessities of life as the Soviets attempted to do in their Berlin blockade of 1948.
“It’s about time!” dad said, shaking his head. Mom looked at him and pushed her lips together, thinking.
Kennedy: It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.
I looked at dad. He shook his head and blew air out of his mouth and looked worried, but didn’t look at me. I guess men had to be tough and ready to fight, even if it was shooting nuclear missiles at each other rather than guns and mortars and tanks. I looked at mom. She looked worried too, but also kind of fierce. She saw me looking at her and her eyes got less fierce.
“Oh sweetie”, she said, shaking her head, “It’s a challenging world we live in, trying to keep our contest with the Soviet Union from turning into a war. But Jack Kennedy is really smart, so I for one trust his judgment, and that he’ll do the right thing.” When you “trusted” someone, you didn’t worry that they would do something stupid.
Mom always liked grownups who were “smart” and kids who were “bright”, which I guess was the same thing as smart, but for kids, since we didn’t know very much yet. If I always tried to do things that were smart, then mom would trust me too and not try to be in charge of me.
Kennedy: The path we have chosen for the present is full of hazards, as all paths are; but it is the one most consistent with our character and courage as a nation and our commitments around the world. The cost of freedom is always high – but Americans have always paid it. And one path we shall never choose, and that is the path of surrender or submission.
I wondered about that surrendering stuff. In the Civil War, that General Lee guy who was in charge of the Confederates, he surrendered, and that was a good thing. In a war, like a game, somebody won and somebody lost. In a game, if you lost, you were supposed to be a “good loser” and not be mad at the other team that beat you. In a war, if you lost, you were supposed to surrender. In the Civil War the Confederates surrendered. In World War Two, the Germans and the Japanese surrendered. I mean they were badguys, but THEY didn’t THINK they were badguys. If they never surrendered, would we still be fighting them today?
Kennedy: Our goal is not the victory of might but the vindication of right – not peace at the expense of freedom, but both peace and freedom, here in this Hemisphere and, we hope, around the world. God willing, that goal will be achieved.
All those grownup men on TV, like President Kennedy, who were in charge of stuff, usually said something about god when they sounded worried. The grownup men that I knew, like dad, his friends, and my friends’ dads, DIDN’T talk about god, even WHEN they were worried.
This all sounded really bad and made me worried. Were those Soviet Union guys going to fight a war with us and shoot missles. I pretended in my mind seeing the giant hydrogen bomb explosion with that “mushroom cloud” that I had seen on TV. Ricky said that if you looked at the explosion it would “fry your eyes out” before it “melted your skin off” and you were dead. I wondered what it would be like to be dead.
I looked at mom and dad. Dad was still blowing air out of his mouth and shaking his head, but didn’t look back at me. Mom still looked worried and like she was thinking very hard. She finally looked at me.
“Sweetie”, she said, “Do you understand what’s going on?”
“I think so”, I said, but I didn’t say anymore.
“This is like a very serious game”, she said, “Between our country and the Soviet Union. Each side makes a move and then the other side makes their move. We just have to hope all our leaders, and their leaders too, are smart enough to work this out without wanting to start a damn war.”
“I still don’t trust Kruschev”, dad said, shaking his head slowly, “He’s just another two-bit Stalin.”
“Well I trust Jack Kennedy”, mom said, “I don’t think we’ve ever had a brighter mind in the President’s chair.” I remembered mom saying that Molly and I were “bright” kids, like that was really good. I remembered her saying that it should be a GAME between us and the Soviet Union instead of a war, where both sides tried to win but not kill anybody with their bombs.
She looked at me really hard like she was trying to figure out what I was thinking. “I bet this is pretty scary for you Cloob. Right?” I remembered that dad said he wasn’t brave in the war, he just tried to “do his job”. I thought about Lieutenant Cord who was brave but got killed when the Martian dinosaurs attacked. Men were supposed to be brave or they were “cowards” or even “sissies”. Or at least they had to do their jobs like dad said. Us boys pretended we were brave so that maybe someday we could really be brave and fight in a war against badguys. I figured I should at least pretend to be brave.
“I’m okay”, I said.
“Are you sure?” mom asked, like she didn’t think I was saying what I was really thinking. I remember dad saying he was okay when I could tell he really wasn’t, like when he burned his hand on that frying pan on the stove. I guess that was being brave.
So I nodded and said, “I’m okay.” I remembered when I saw President Kennedy talk at that Union place before he got to be the President. “President Kennedy will figure it out”, I said. I figured mom would like that.
Mom nodded, but didn’t say anything else.
The next morning, walking to school, I was thinking that I had been in third grade for six weeks now and it was hard and not very fun. I still liked seeing my school friends, Gabe, Jake, Herbie and Amanda, mainly when we went outside for recess. That was fun, but other stuff wasn’t. The teacher Mrs. Rodney was older, and not as nice as our other teachers had been. She didn’t let us talk to each other much in class, and at free reading time, she didn’t let us sit together at a table, we had to sit by ourselves at our desks. And when she asked us questions we always had to raise our hands if we knew the answers. I usually knew the answers so I would raise my hand a lot and tell her if she called on me, so she’d think I was good.
Herbie and Amanda liked her, because they said she didn’t talk to us like we were stupid little kids, but more like we were “regular people”, which I guess meant like grownups. But I liked our first grade teacher Miss Zimmerman better, because even though she talked to us like kids, she didn’t think we were stupid, and she seemed more like an older kid herself.
Mrs. Rodney gave us pieces of paper called “homework”, that we were supposed to work on when we got home and bring back the next morning and give to her. They were usually “definitions”, where you had to write down what each word meant, or “problems” where you had to do adding and subtracting, like second grade, but also “multiplying” or “dividing”, which we hadn’t done before. She would “check” them and give them back to us and put a red check by the ones we got right and a circle around the ones we got wrong. If we gave her our “homework” with all our answers she would put a silver star on our paper and give it back to us. And if we got all the answers right, she would put a gold star instead, because gold was better than silver I guess. She would also put the same color star on this bulletin board on the wall that had all our names down the side and the days of the week across the top, so we all could look at it and see who was doing the best, which was usually Amanda or Mary.
All the kids in the park who were older than me said that third grade was harder than second grade or first grade, and that Mrs. Rodney was really “strict”. Even mom said that it was harder. She said that you learned “basic stuff about reading, writing and math” in first and second grade, but now in third grade you learned more complicated stuff about how to use all those “basic skills” to now learn more “complicated skills” for figuring stuff out.
“For example Coop”, she said, grinning, “In order to learn how to multiply or divide big numbers, something you have to do in the real world, first you need to know how to add and subtract.”
“And”, she said, raising her hand, pointing her finger up and wiggling it, “You have to know how to multiply small numbers, like one through twelve, in your head, without even thinking about it, by memorizing what they call the ‘times table’.”
“Timetable?” I asked. I had heard that word before and seen it in books.
“No”, she said, “The TIMES table. The basic multiplication table. When you multiply, you’re adding the same number over and over again. So like four plus four equals eight, right? That’s adding. But you could also say you’re adding four TWO TIMES, or ‘four times two equals eight’. And if you add four plus four plus four, then you’re adding four THREE TIMES, or ‘four times three equals twelve’.”
“And THEN”, she said, making her eyes open really wide, “You can multiply and divide really big numbers by just using a pencil and paper and the basic adding and subtracting that you’ve already learned, plus the times table that you’ve memorized.”
“Memorized?” I asked.
“Yeah”, she said, nodding her head and thinking, “Memorizing is like learning all the words to a song so you can sing them perfectly without having to have them written down so you can read them while you sing.” I nodded. That made sense.
Then she made a pretend sad face and said, “But memorizing the Times Table is not much fun, not like memorizing a song you like to sing. I remember I had a really tough time memorizing the Times Table when I was in third grade.” I frowned. I still couldn’t imagine mom, dad, or any grownup ever being a kid like me.
“But don’t worry”, she said, shaking her head and waving her hand in front of her face, “You’ll have to work hard at it but you’ll figure it out. And for the rest of your life you’ll remember it, and be able to use it to do all sorts of complicated math problems, even how much fuel to put in your rocketship to get to the moon!”
Gabe said Mrs. Rodney was “sneaky”, because she always made us do hard stuff that we didn’t want to do before recess, which was our favorite thing. This morning before recess she did those “times tables” again that mom had told me about.
“Let’s try to make this more fun”, she said, and then she looked around at all of us and asked, “Who wants to start?”
About half the kids raised their hands, including me, all my friends, and Mary. She picked this girl Sarah, who was one of Mary’s friends. Most of the other girls in class were Mary’s friends, except for Amanda, who didn’t like Mary at all. Herbie said the other girls liked Mary because she was the prettiest girl and she also got the most gold stars on her homework on the bulletin board, except for Amanda, who ALWAYS got gold stars.
“Okay”, said Mrs. Rodney, “I will say the first multiplication problem and Sarah, you’ll try to answer it. If you get it right, I’ll give the next problem to Millie behind you. If you don’t know the answer, or get it wrong, I’ll ask Millie the same problem and we’ll continue down the row. When we get to the end of the row I’ll start at the front of the room with the next row and work my way back. You’ll all get the hang of it, and even figure out when your turn is coming up and maybe even be ready with the answer before I even ask you.”
“Okay ready?” she asked all of us. I nodded, and most everyone else nodded too.
“One times one”, Mrs. Rodney said to Sarah.
“One”, said Sarah, then looking behind at Millie. Mrs. Rodney took a step toward Millie’s desk.
“One times two”, she said to Millie.
“Two”, said Millie. Mrs. Rodney took a step towards the girl sitting behind her at the end of the row.
“One times three.”
“Three”, that girl said. Mrs. Rodney walked up to the first desk in the next row closer to the windows and continued down the row. Everyone was getting them right, but they were “one times” and “two times”, so they were easy.
When she got to me it was two times five, which was ten, and I answered that. These “two times” problems were super easy, because since the way she asked them, you just had to add two to the last answer to get the next one. When she got to Gabe he knew it was going to be two times eight, which was 16.
“Sixteen”, he said, before she even asked him the question. She laughed through her nose and said, nodding her head, “That’s right Gabe, but please, I’d like everyone to hear the problem first before they hear the answer.”
It was the new kid Joey that was the first to mess up when she asked him “three times seven”, and he didn’t know.
“Damn!” he said.
“JOEY!” she said in a very fierce voice, “You will never hear me use those kinds of words in class, and I expect you, and all my other students, will not use them either. If you swear again I’ll send you to see the principal.” That’s what she always said she would do, and one time, when Herbie told everyone that Mary was wearing pink underwear, he had to go to the principal’s office. Joey looked really mad but just looked down and didn’t say anything.
I had talked to Joey in the park a couple times in the summer. He had moved to Ann Arbor from a place called “Kalamazoo”, which was a strange name for a city. He always liked to tell me how good he was at everything, which made me want to tell him how good I was at stuff too. Older kids called it “bragging”.
So we got up to the “six times” and then most kids didn’t know the answers. I didn’t know them either, but Amanda and Mary still knew them, but Mrs. Rodney decided to stop.
“Okay”, she said, “That’s enough for today. You are all doing pretty well, and if you all keep practicing, we can get up to ‘twelve times twelve’.”
“One hundred and forty-four”, said Amanda. Mary made a grunting noise, like she wanted to say that first, and pulled her arms around her chest and shook her head back and forth.
Mrs. Rodney looked at Amanda and grinned, then looked at Mary and said, “Mary my dear, this is not supposed to be a competition. The multiplication table is just something you all need to learn in third grade. It is a lot of memorizing I know, but if all of you practice every day, and we practice in class, I feel you will be able to learn it.”
She clapped her hands together and said, “Well now, there is something VERY IMPORTANT we need to do after recess this morning. We will have a ‘civil defense drill’. This is nothing to worry about, just a routine precaution that all school children in the country are required to participate in. I will explain more after recess. Now everyone please line up at the door in…”. A lot of us started jumping up from our desks and headed for the wall of the classroom by the door.
“STOP”, she said with a loud fierce voice. Everyone stopped and turned and looked at her. “THANK YOU”, she said, still loud and fierce, “Now please all of you line up in an orderly fashion. Once you are all quietly lined up and looking at me, Then I will open the door and I expect you to WALK out through the hall also in an ORDERLY fashion.” She looked at all of us and said, “Is that clear?” Everybody nodded, except for Amanda.
“Amanda?” Mrs. Rodney asked, “Do you have a problem with this?”
“No”, Amanda said to her, not fierce at all, “I already always walk out in an orderly fashion so I don’t have a problem, so I don’t have to nod.”
Mary made a clicking noise with her mouth like she thought Amanda said something bad.
“MARY”, Mrs. Rodney said, fierce again, “Do YOU have a problem with what Amanda said?”
“Amanda should have nodded”, Mary said.
“Is that any of your business?” asked Mrs. Rodney. Mary looked worried and like she was thinking.
“Uhh…”, she said, “No?” like she wasn’t sure that was the right answer and was asking.
“That’s right”, said Mrs. Rodney, slowly nodding her head, “It’s not.” Then she walked to the door and opened it.
“Okay”, she said, “Please walk quietly through the hall to the outside doors.” We all walked out. Amanda, as usual, was the last one.
When we all got out in the playground behind the school, Gabe waited for Amanda and then walked next to her.
“Why didn’t you nod when Mrs. Rodney asked if it was clear?” he asked her. Herbie, Jake, Lenny and I all heard him ask and moved towards Gabe and Amanda to hear what she was going to say.
She did one of those “sigh” things where you blow air out of your nose kind of loud.
“Because Mrs. Rodney should already know that I always do what she tells us to do”, she said, kind of mad, “I’m already clear, so I shouldn’t have to nod like I wasn’t already clear.”
Gabe really liked Amanda so I could tell he thought that what she did was really neat. But Herbie liked to tease girls, and Amanda too.
“Sooo”, Herbie said to her, “You think you’re such a tough guy!”
Amanda looked at him fiercely and shook her head. “I’m not a GUY, Herbert”, she said.
“Did you guys…”, Gabe started to say, but he stopped talking and looked at Amanda, “And you too Amanda. Did you see President Kennedy on TV last night?” Amanda, Jake and I nodded. Herbie and Lenny shook their heads.
“We’re going to blockade Cuba”, Gabe said, “Just like the Union did to the Confederates in the Civil War!”
“Yeah”, said Jake, “So the Russians can’t send them any more nuclear missiles.”
“I know”, said Gabe, sounding kind of mad, “I was just going to say that.”
Theo heard us talking and came over. “My brother said that when you blockade a country that’s an act of war!” he said.
“We’ve got more nuclear bombs than the Russians do so we’d win”, said Herbie.”
Amanda made a clicking noise with her mouth, that she did when she thought something was stupid. “HERBERT”, she said, “So we blow up millions more of them than they do of us. Still millions of us get blown up!”
“Yeah Herbie”, Gabe said, “As a brighter than the sun nuclear explosion fries your eyeballs and melts your skin off your bones, at least for your last thought you can think, ‘This is happening to more Russians than to us… that’ll show ‘em’!” Jake and Theo started to laugh, and I laughed too. Amanda didn’t laugh very much, she grinned and shook her head.
Herbie looked at all of us laughing at him and said, “We’d still win!”
I’d heard that “frying your eyeballs and melting the skin off your bones” stuff before about nuclear explosions. But hearing Gabe say it again made me pretend what it would be like, your skin melting down to just your skeleton. How would that feel? Would it hurt so bad you’d WANT to be dead? It made me really worried, and I wondered if it could really happen.
We all looked at each other and no one said anything more. I wondered how we could stop it from happening. But we were just kids, what could we do? It wasn’t fair! We liked to pretend that things got blown up, and even liked to pretend sometimes that WE got blown up. But not for real.
At the end of recess, as we all followed Mrs. Rodney back into our classroom, there was one of those “projector” things set up in the middle of our room and a “film” screen was opened up in the front of the room behind her. She clapped her hands together and said, “Okay class, now everyone please take your seats and please, no talking!” We had seen this projector before to watch movies about stuff that had happened a long time ago, or science stuff about plants and animals.
“It’s time for our very important civil defense drill”, she said. I could tell Mrs. Rodney was worried but was also trying not to look worried. Gabe looked across the room at me and he made his eyes really big.
“First I’d like us all to watch this film”, she said, clapping her hands together again, “And then we can practice ourselves.” All of us kids were looking at our friends, and many of us were starting to talk quietly to each other.
“No talking please”, Mrs. Rodney said again fiercely, “I need all of you to watch and listen to this carefully.” She went over to the windows and pulled those “shade” things down on each one so we couldn’t see the outside anymore. Then she went over to the projector and turned it on. It started making its special noise and I could see a light come on inside it that made a movie picture on the screen in the front of the room. There was that box thing that the sound came out of on her desk that made a crackling noise at first. Then Mrs. Rodney turned off the lights.
The picture was a cartoon of a turtle guy walking like a regular person down a road with trees behind it. There were voices like grownups singing a silly song with stupid words for kids.
SINGING VOICES: (off screen) Dum dum, deedle dum dum
Then the voices started singing regular words as the turtle guy continued to walk down the road.
SINGING VOICES: (off screen) There was a turtle by the name of Bert and Bert the turtle was very alert.
(A lit firecracker appears on a string just behind his head.)
SINGING VOICES: (off screen) When danger threatened him he never got hurt, he knew just what to do.
(A monkey in the tree above him holds a long stick with that lit firecracker on a string from the end. The turtle turns and sees the firecracker about to explode and grabs his head with his hands, drops down on the ground and goes into his shell. The firecracker explodes.)
SINGING VOICES: (off screen) He ducked, and covered. He ducked, and covered.
Then the movie showed the same part again with the monkey holding the stick with the firecracker on the string on the end and the turtle looking back and seeing it.
SINGING VOICES: (off screen) He did what we all must learn to do. You and you and you and you.
(The turtle drops and hides in its shell again as the firecracker explodes again.)
SINGING VOICES: (off screen) Duck, and cover!
Then there was a different grownup man’s voice talking instead of singing.
MAN’S VOICE: (off screen) Be sure and remember what Bert the turtle did, friends, because everyone of us must remember to do the same thing. That’s what this film is all about!
Then the words were there on the screen, “Duck and Cover”, and that man’s voice said them too.
Then the movie showed a grownup man teacher in front of a class of kids that looked like they were our age. He said something that we couldn’t hear and all the kids got down on the floor under their desks and put their hands on their heads.
MAN’S VOICE: (off screen) That is why these children are practicing to duck and cover, just like you do in your school. We all know the atomic bomb is very dangerous. Since it may be used against us, we must get ready for it.
Then there was more stuff in the movie about being safe from fires and from cars.
MAN’S VOICE: (off screen) We must be ready for a new danger, the atomic bomb. First, you need to know what happens when an atomic bomb explodes. You’ll know when it comes. We hope it never comes, but you must get ready. It looks something like this. There’s a bright flash, brighter than the sun, brighter than anything you’ve ever seen. If you’re not ready, do not know what to do, it can hurt you in many ways.
Then they showed a cartoon with a tree and a house. There is that bright flash and the tree breaks up into pieces that are blown away by a giant wind. The house gets wrecked too and leans over in the wind but doesn’t fall down completely. While we watched this the man’s voice kept talking.
MAN’S VOICE: (off screen) It could knock you down hard. Or throw you against a tree or a wall. It is such a big explosion it can smash in buildings and knock sign boards over and break windows all over town.
Then we see that Burt the turtle guy going into his shell while the big explosion and all the wind happens around him.
MAN’S VOICE: (off screen) But if you duck and cover, like Bert, you will be much safer.
Mrs. Rodney turned off the projector. None of us kids said anything.
“I think that’s enough for you all to get the idea”, she said, “I know it’s pretty scary, and we know our government in Washington is working hard to make sure it never happens. But just in case, we all need to know how to stay safe.”
Gabe, still sitting at his desk, put his hand up.
“A question, Gabe?” she asked.
“They don’t use atom bombs anymore”, he said, “They use hydrogen bombs! They’re a lot bigger!”
“Yes Gabe, you’re right”, she said, “This film is somewhat out of date, but the same safety rules apply now.” She walked up to the front of the room, turned and looked at all of us and clapped her hands together. She clapped her hands together a lot!
“Okay boys and girls”, she said, “We need to practice our own duck and cover drill.” A lot of kids nodded. I looked around the room and most kids looked worried like I was. Even my friends look worried, except maybe Gabe.
“When I say so”, she said, “I want all of you to get on your knees under the front part of your desks and then put your head down to the ground with your hands over your head.” She tried to look at everybody in the room.
“Okay, ready?” she said, “We all see the bright flash of light in the sky outside! What do we do?”
All us kids did our best to get under our desks. It wasn’t easy because our desks were small and there wasn’t much room between the metal “leg” parts of our desks. Everybody was looking around at everybody else. You could see some of the girls’ underwear if they were wearing dresses.
“No looking around everyone”, Mrs. Rodney said, “We’re supposed to put our heads to the floor, close our eyes and cover our head with our hands. I’m seeing a lot of open eyes down there!” Most kids tried to do that. A few others looked like they couldn’t figure it out.
Herbie, on his hands and knees under his desk, looked at our teacher and asked, “What about you Mrs. Rodney? Don’t you need to do it too?”
“HERBIE”, she said fiercely, “No more talking out of you. If it were for real, of course I would be down there on the floor with the rest of you. But this is a DRILL, and I need to watch all of you to make sure you do it correctly!”
“Got it!” said Herbie. But he didn’t sound like he really did. He sounded like he figured our teacher was just another grownup telling us stuff that wasn’t true. Other kids figured that out too and were laughing a little bit.
“QUIET everyone!” she said, “I want to see everyone with their eyes closed, head against the floor and hands over your head.” She waited and I guess everyone did it that way.
“Okay”, she said, “That finally looks good. Now we’re going to try it one more time. Everyone up, and back in your seats. Let’s see how quickly we all can do it this time.”
So we did it a second time and everyone tried to do it quickly. Most of us boys tried to do it really quickly, trying to be the first one to do both the duck and the cover parts. Joey banged his head against the metal part of his desk chair and said, “Ouch!” Some of the boys and girls around him laughed. When my forehead touched the cold floor I couldn’t help pretending that all the houses around the school were getting wrecked and the trees blown apart and the glass of our big windows were breaking.
I opened one eye, with my hands still over my head and I saw Gabe, looking at me from under his desk through another desk between us. He said in a quieter voice so Mrs. Rodney couldn’t hear him, “We’d be SO dead right now!”
“Okay”, Mrs. Rodney said, “That was MUCH better!” She clapped her hands together three times.
“Okay”, she said again, “Everybody up! Joey? Are you all right?”
“Yeah I’m fine”, he said, standing up and pretending he couldn’t walk right and moving his head around like he was dizzy, which made the kids around him laugh again, especially the girls, which he liked.
Pretty soon the bell rang and it was time to go home for lunch. Gabe and I walked up Fifth Street together, the way home to both our houses.
“That duck and cover thing is pretty stupid”, he said, “If you aren’t killed by the explosion you’ll get killed by the radiation! That’s what my dad said.”
“Grownups think they can tell us stuff that isn’t really true”, I said, “Because they think if they do we won’t worry about it.” I was using that “true” word now, instead of saying “right”, and also that not true word, “lie”.
“Yeah”, he said, “Pretty stupid. See you back at school after lunch!” He went across Fifth Street and up his street towards his house.
As I now walked by myself up Fifth Street towards the park, I still pretended what I saw in that movie that our teacher showed. A bright flash, like looking in the sun where it hurts your eyes, but everywhere. All the trees coming apart and the houses getting wrecked and leaning over broken. The wind from the bomb full of parts of trees and houses and maybe even people too. I wondered if I’d be dead before I knew what was happening. Or would I have just enough time to know that we were all getting dead at the same time while my body melted off my skeleton. What would that feel like, to know you were going to be dead, but you were not dead yet? Would I be more scared than I had ever been before with no one around to help me? Would mom and dad already be dead?
Then I wondered what would happen when I was dead. Some kids said that when you were dead you went up to the “gates of heaven”, but there was this Saint Peter guy who had to figure out if you should go to Heaven or Hell. Not that Hell place up by Silver Lake that dad took us to, but the real Hell place, under the ground or wherever they said it was. Those kids said that if I didn’t believe in God, even if I’d been good, I would still have to go to Hell, and go there FOREVER! That was pretty scary.
I wondered if I needed to believe in God, at least a little bit, just in case there really was one. I mean if you believed in God and there wasn’t one, then that really wasn’t a problem, I figured you were just the same dead anyway. But if you didn’t believe and there was one, then that was a really big problem. But how did you figure out if God was real and not just pretend. Some of the kids in the park believed in him and said he was this old guy in the sky with a beard that told you the stuff you’re supposed to do. But I had never seen him and he had never told me anything. I’d never even wanted to pretend he was real. I wanted to figure stuff out for myself, or ask mom or dad if I couldn’t. I didn’t need this God guy in charge of me telling me what I should do or shouldn’t do.
I think a lot of grownups believed in God too, but I never asked mom or dad if they did. I was afraid they might say, “Of course we believe in God, don’t you?”. Then they’d figure out maybe I didn’t, and think that I was a really bad kid.
So was I ready to go to Hell if I didn’t believe in God and he was really up there, in that Heaven place? I didn’t want to have to read that scary Bible book and do all the things it told me to do. I didn’t want anyone to be in charge of me, not grownups or anybody. So I figured, at least for now, I wasn’t going to believe in god, and I was going to “hope” that I didn’t get killed by a nuclear bomb. You “hoped” something when you really wanted it to be “true”, but you weren’t sure it would be. But I also figured I was going to have to keep worrying about it, maybe forever.