October 31st, 2001
Shortly after 9/11,
a boy who had been stealing pick-up trucks
from a local dealership
and hiding them in the woods
so he could sell them later,
decided to fashion a fake bomb
and place it on the loading dock
outside the cafeteria
on Halloween morning.
We, of course, were all still
and sent into a frazzle.
The first order of the morning
was to stop the buses
before they got into the parking lot,
and not let the kids into the school.
As each top-heavy yellow clunker
pulled its plume of blue smoke into the drive,
we stopped it and tried to explain
what was going on,
without freaking out the vampires,
witches, monsters, and ghosts,
each filled with high school kids
all being something else for the day.
We sent the buses to the elementary school,
where all 800 ghouls
would hang out in the tiny gym
until the danger had passed.
Take a moment here to imagine that.
I thought of my own youth—
different time, same fear—
the old days of “duck and cover,”
air raid horn baying at the spring sky,
and all of us either balled up under our desks,
or standing, boy girl boy girl
against the cool, cool
painted cinder block walls
in the shadowy hallways of St. Mary’s,
the perfume of lilacs
in the breeze that breathed there,
or before me, in England,
the shelters in underground tubes,
railway arches, subways,
and my Auntie Elsie,
staring in dread at the ceiling
in the shelter in her cellar.
after the Russians did their bomb,
and Yuri Gagarin swirled around in our sky,
General Foods and General Mills
sold dried war rations,
and the nuclear protection suit was a hot item.
Wall Streeters even claimed
that the bomb shelter business
would gross billions in the coming years,
if there were any.
And every day
the radio sizzled warnings
that a shoddy, homemade shelter
would get you broiled “to a crisp”
or squeezed “like grapefruit,”
as in American neighborhoods
people built “wine cellars,”
or else the contractors worked
under cover of night.
I cried into our couch
for 14 days straight in 1962,
and I didn’t even really know why
beyond the fact that all the adults
seemed quiet and scared,
and I understood the word annihilation,
and saw, over and over again,
the documentary where the house
gets blown away sideways
by a speeding cloud of nuclear winter.
But the bomb never fell,
even though everyone,
kept fear in their hearts,
and spent years
practicing for the end,
and it’s the same now.
When the kids returned to school
later that morning,
we tried to resume a
in a typical American high school,
the kids dressed to kill,
the sugar-high higher
because they were back on familiar ground.
But the party didn’t last long.
Soon a voice filled with urgency
squawked over the perpetual loudspeaker
that we needed to immediately
go into the “S-plan.”
Ignore all fire alarms and bells.
Students in the hallway
should run to the nearest classroom.
Teachers lock your classroom door.
Do not let ANYONE in.
If students ask to be let in,
do not let them in.
Direct them to the office.
Do not let them in.
Cover the windows
with the black paper
that you’ve put aside
for this occasion.
Huddle all your students
into the corner,
away from the windows and doors.
Do not use the school phone
or your cell phone.
Stay there until you receive instructions.
And we did. For two hours,
me and the bum,
the Ninja Turtle,
the Queen of Hearts,
fear in the eyes behind the masks,
fear in the tears of the ballerina.
from Rattle #32, Winter 2009
[ download audio]
John L. Stanizzi: “It occurred to me that generations upon generations have been ‘practicing’ in one way or another for some terrible ‘thing.’ We have been rehearsing so that we will know just what to do when the unthinkable happens. This is the myth around which my poem swirls.” ( website)