I was 5 years old, and I lived in a house on top of a hill. Below it was a honky-tonk, and a highway ran in front of that. Across the highway was a drive-in theater. There were a few houses nearby, and there was a junkyard. This and my parents and my little black dog were my world.
It was the 1950s, a time when our country feared the Russians and feared the Bomb. We were the first generation to grow up under the shadow of the Bomb, and it was a big Bomb, and from comic books and B movies we knew if it were dropped we’d be knocked ass over teakettle, and that when the smoke cleared there would be nothing but radioactive bones left, except for those lucky few who could afford bomb shelters and plenty of canned goods and drinking water. Sometimes the builders forgot about toilets down there, but at the End of the World you can’t have everything.
Of course, even if one did survive in a bomb shelter, then, as the B movies depicted, once the survivors were brave enough to come out of their holes and venture into the light of a new, bleak world, there would be that pesky problem of radiation, and, of course, giant lizards or ants or some guy with three eyes and a limp who wanted nothing better than to eat you and build a hut from your hair and bones.
We believed that then—that overnight, radiation could create critters that had never before existed, swell common household rodents and lizards and insects to giant size.
I mention all this because a neighbor was building a shelter in his back yard, a deep hole in the ground where things could be stored in case of a nuclear attack. I don’t remember much about the building of it, but I remember my parents talking about it. Their conversation went something like this.
Mom: “He’ll be safe and we won’t.”
Dad: “It’ll fill up with water.”
Mom: “What if the Russians drop the Bomb?”
Me: “What Bomb? What’s a Russian?”
Mom: “Don’t worry about it, Joey. Russians are people. They are evil communists who live on the other side of the world.”
Me: “What’s a communist? How do they live on the other side of the world? Won’t they fall off?”
Mom: “It’s okay, Joey. Don’t worry about it.”
Dad: “Russians drop the Damn Bomb, you can bend over and kiss your ass goodbye.”
Mom: “It’s okay, Joey. No one is going to drop
Mom to Dad: “He’ll be safe down there and we won‘t, and we have Joey to think about.”
Mom: “We’ll be fine, Joey.”
Dad: “I tell you, the son of a bitch’ll fill up with water.”
And so it went.
There I was, an imaginative and, dare I say it, precocious little kid, and I had that Damn Bomb to worry about, and believe me, I did worry. But the idea of it was kind of cool too, because if a bomb was dropped, and I got under the bed with my dog and survived—because it was pretty safe down there—I could come up and live in an exciting world with radioactive lizards and a lot of abandoned stores with candy bars in them.
I thought it made perfect sense.
But here we were, waiting on the Bomb, and one day my dad was at work and Mom and I were home with my dog, and the sky turned green. No joke. Green. At least that’s how I remember it. I also remember that my mom suddenly went quiet, an unusual thing, because she was usually entertaining me with stories, or talking to herself and answering, so when she turned silent, I knew something was wrong.
Green sky. Quiet mother. Oh, my goodness, I thought. It’s the Damn Bomb. In less than a day radioactive lizards would be tramping over our back yard and licking clean our busted mayonnaise jars and nosing through my comic books.
Mom went about opening all the windows in the house, even the doors to the outside. The air was as still as an oil painting and felt heavy as a wet blanket. There was no sound. No birds were chirping. Not even blue jays, and they never shut up. You had the impression even a frog feared to fart.
Mom kept staring out the window, and then I saw what she was staring at: a big black cloud, and there was a little piece of it hanging down like a fish hook, near the drive-in theater screen, and then the hook extended and started toward the ground. Then came a sound like a freight train and it was as if an invisible hand reached down and wadded up that screen like a piece of aluminum foil. My mother snatched my hand, and we were out the door and she was dragging me across the yard toward the neighbor‘s house, the one with the Bomb shelter. My little dog, Blackie, was hot on our heels.
I thought: I have seen the Damn Bomb, and it’s a big black cloud that wads up things.
The neighbor met us halfway, as he was on his way to get us, thank goodness, and we ran with him toward the shelter.
I doubt that at this point I was thinking about getting under the bed, radioactive lizards, or free candy bars. But even to this day I remember being scared. I remember all four of us, three humans and a dog, running for that shelter, and then the trapdoor was opening and we went down some steps, and sat on them, halfway between the bottom step and the trapdoor, me clutching my dog to my chest.
The trap was closed, and it was dark down there, and the train I had heard moments before was immediately running right over us, there in the dark. The neighbor pulled a cord, and there was light, powered by I know not what. In that light I saw shelves full of canned goods, and by canned goods, I mean jars full of self-preserved foods, and I seem to remember other people there, probably his family, but that’s a dim memory. What I mostly remember is this: The shelter was ankle-deep in water, and there was a snake swimming in the water.
Someone screamed. The neighbor took hold of something and splashed about in that water and chased that snake all over the place, whacked at it like a madman. Then the light went out.
The train rumbled and the ground shook and the trapdoor trembled like an old man with palsy. I remember thinking maybe the lizards were up there, and maybe the Russians. I envisioned the Russians with one big eye in the middle of their foreheads, and the word, Russian, was to my young mind a key to their comic-book abilities. And then the great lizard, train, Russians, whatever, passed, and there was silence.
A light eventually came on. Maybe the light inside the shelter, or maybe the light from the open trapdoor, but the next thing I remember was seeing that dead snake on the bottom step of the wooden stairs, and all that water.
Out in the light, we looked toward the drive-in. It was gone, of course, and the honky-tonk was missing its roof. Pieces of this and that were scattered all about.
And our house?
Wasn’t touched. Neither was the neighbor’s house. The tornado had come and gone, jumping over our homes like a cloudy kangaroo, leaving us with nothing more than a fearful memory and stained underwear.
I learned several things that day, and I have taken them all to heart.
First: The world is an uncertain place. One moment you can be slapping sandwich meat on bread, and the next moment they can find your ass in a ditch.
The second was that if a tornado scared me that bad, maybe being a survivor after the Damn Bomb had been dropped might not be as exciting as I thought.
And most important I knew this: As Dad had said, if you build a bomb shelter, root cellar or storm shelter in East Texas, the son of a bitch will fill up with water.
Oh yeah, one thing Dad didn’t think about. Sometimes a snake, no matter how tight you think you’ve built things, will get down there with you, and the lights might go out.