When I was a little girl, everybody was afraid of atomic bombs because of Khrushchev pounding the table with his shoe. Plus he put Castro in Cuba with Communism. I prayed every night that Castro would stay on his side of the Bay of Pigs, and not bring his dominoes over to Florida and turn everybody into Communist, and get rid of all the Catholics. For some reason communist dominoes were dangerous. Not like American dominoes. American dominoes were safe as apple pie.
Our neighbor across the street built a bomb shelter. My school had a bomb shelter too, and sometimes we had bomb drills. My mom and dad thought there were more immediate things to worry about, like getting the garden weeded so we could put food on the table, and letting kids like me know not to poke her fingers into the tiny hole in her Keds and make it bigger, cuz money doesn’t grow on trees, and you only get one pair of shoes for the summer, and you should know better.
Nancy and Doug and Noreen lived across the road from me. Nancy was Deanna’s age, Doug was Bonita’s, and Noreen was Vickie’s age. Nobody was my age; that was okay, ’cause everybody let me play with them anyway, even though I was kinda in the gap between ages. Nancy’s dad put a paint mark on the inside of the garage door that marked each kid’s height: green for Nancy, blue for Doug, and red for Noreen. Once a year, Nancy’s dad put a new mark above the old mark, so he could see how much each kid grew. I guess he got tired of that, ’cause Noreen only had one mark, and it was way down there as small as my little sister Julie, even after Noreen was a big kid. Dad said he was going to put a mark on our garage too, just one, ’cause somebody would always be that size at one time or another. On the other hand, if he put a mark for each kid, every year, he coulda had the whole garage painted.
Nancy’s dad dug the bomb shelter behind his garage. He asked Dad how come he wasn’t building one. Dad just threw his head back and laughed. the gold trim on his greenish front tooth glinted in the sunshine.
“I’ll just come over here, with Rita and the kids,” he said.
Nancy’s dad rubbed the space between his eyebrows and let out a short huffing sound.
After a while, Nancy’s dad seemed to get tired of the bomb shelter, just like he got tired of keeping track of how much his kids grew, ’cause he stopped talking about it, and Nancy said they never had any drills, or went in it anymore. Nancy’s mom kept a bunch of Spam and Campbell’s Pork-n-Beans down there, just in case. That stuff never goes bad. I heard Dad tell Mom it was a good thing, ’cause the whole family would be roasted alive if a bomb ever did hit near us. Mom said it seemed like a good place to stored canned goods, anyway, so it wasn’t wasted. It’s super important not to waste stuff; almost as important as remembering to pray before going to bed.
We had a bomb shelter at school with a big yellow sign telling everybody how to get there. We even had drills when the Noon Whistle went off and it wasn’t noon. I guess Communists don’t have Noon Whistles, or they would drop the bombs at Noon, and nobody would be the wiser; they’d just start eating lunch, like every other day. Anyways, the bomb drills were just like tornado drills: go quietly to the shelter, no running, or pushing. Tornado alarms were the same as the bomb alarm, so if the real thing came, the only way to know it was a bomb was if Teacher started passing out the food saved up down there in the shelter. That was only for bombs, not for tornadoes.
After a while, the coaches for the boys’ teams used the bomb shelter for a weight training room. A girl wasn’t allowed to go down there unless a teacher was with her, and then only for some special reason. I was down there once, but Mr. Maize told me to get out, ’cause I was staring at some sweaty high-schooler laying on a bench and lifting a big heavy barbels, like Hercules, ‘cept Hercules just bulged out in the chest and arms, not all over the stomach and legs and even in the area where the legs come together. I never saw anything like that before in my life. Dad lifted heavy stuff, like when he was fixing the hay baler, but he never just laid down in his shorts and lifted stuff up for no good reason.
Mr. Maize grabbed both my shoulders and turned me around and said, “Get out of here, and don’t come back. Ever.”
It smelled like old dirty socks and towels left balled up in the corner of the bathroom for a week of Sundays. I never wanted to go back. Still, I thought about that guy laying on the bench quite a bit. It sure was a puzzle.
We never got bombed by Cuba, but the experience did get teachers and philosophers contriving questions for students. More times than I can count, I had to answer the hypothetical question: Who would you kick out of the bomb shelter: the pregnant woman, the scientist, the grandma, or the young family? I never wrote that everyone would probably roast in there anyways. I once argued that I’d let everyone stay and eat Spam and Pork-n-Beans with me. Pretty soon someone was sure to volunteer to leave. The teacher didn’t like that answer near as much as Mom and Dad did.