Monday, October 29, 2012

Reap the Whirlwind

The second hand on the big wall clock crawled its way to vertical and then leaned to the right. The 3:00 PM bell rang, seven seconds late by 10-year-old Cooper’s reckoning. Cooper leapt to his feet and joined the rush to the Fifth Grade classroom door. Miss Verckler’s daily admonition to “exit in an orderly manner” went unheeded as always.

Cooper joined the noisy K-8 students swarming down the hallway toward the school doors. Naterville Elementary was the only school he ever had attended, and he expected to stay through the Eighth Grade. A new Middle School had been approved by the Naterville town council, as Cooper well knew from the complaints from his father about the school taxes, but it wouldn’t open until 1966. By then Cooper and his classmates would be in high school. He pushed his way through the double doors into the fresh air. It was blustery Indiana day in October, 1962.

Cooper loved Fridays. The school week lay safely behind and a whole weekend stretched ahead. This Friday was especially welcome. All week it had been Cuba this and Cuba that. At first it was exciting because teachers said there might be a war. There even was a Civil Defense drill on Tuesday, and those always were fun.

Cooper and his friends talked excitedly about nuclear war. They decided it would be cool, provided Naterville wasn’t a target, of course. It didn’t seem likely it would be, unless enemy bombers and missiles missed Indianapolis or Camp Atterbury. The boys spent lunchtimes and recesses discussing bomber types, fighter aircraft, rockets, warships, and megatonnage with the same fluency they once had reserved for dinosaur nomenclature. They made colorful pencil and crayon drawings of warplanes and mushroom clouds, and showed them off to each other.

There was a special place in Cooper’s heart for the Mach 3 XB70 bomber. Cooper had assembled a model of one in the basement recreation room at home. It was gleaming white with wicked decals. It now stood on a clear acrylic stand on the bureau in his bedroom. He often told his friends the Defense Department had made a grave error by cancelling the aircraft. They didn’t argue with him, but Freddy usually commented that the B58 was nearly as fast. Freddy had built a model of it and kept it in his bedroom.

As the week had worn on, the excitement had worn off. Nothing of importance actually seemed to be happening in Cuba. By Thursday even war talk with the boys became boring. By Friday he didn’t want to hear another word about Cuba or missiles.

Cooper walked away from the buses and toward the woods that flanked the school grounds.

“Hey Coop! Where’re you going?”

The source of the question was a freckled redhead named Katie. She seemed to like Cooper, which mystified him. She was cute in her own way, but he was unsure how to act with her. He was at the peculiar transition age when associating with a girl would catch him grief from the boys, even though the boys sometimes shared stolen Playboy magazines and snickered over them together.

Cooper looked nervously around and was relieved that none of his friends was in sight.

“To Balboa,” Cooper answered.

The woods next to the school were called “Balboa” by the kids for as long as anyone remembered. He never met anyone who could tell him why, but he had an idea of his own. Cooper knew from Social Studies class that Balboa was an explorer who had discovered the Pacific Ocean. A small pond was located some 50 feet inside the tree line of the woods. Coop guessed that some long-ago student had stumbled on the waters and named the whole place after the fellow. The name passed down the same way the ditty about “no more teachers, no more books” does.

School administrators forbad students from entering the woods during school hours, but, of course, they did it anyway. At recess the woods teemed with them.

“Why are you going there?” she asked.

Cooper had explained why to Katie many times before.
“You know I like to walk home through the woods sometimes,” he said.

The school bus ride to his house took only five minutes, but Cooper preferred to walk through the woods whenever it wasn’t raining or snowing. On inclement days he would climb the bus even though the driver would yell at him about his frequent absences. Cooper ignored her complaints. Had the driver explained, “Look, I’m required to do a head count, so at least tell me when you’re walking,” he would have understood. She never deigned to explain, so he never bothered to appease.

The walk through the woods was easy thanks to an old abandoned railroad bed that ran through it. The tracks had been sold for scrap years earlier, but the bed still made a fine walking path. Best of all, it ran directly in back of his backyard a few miles from the school.

“Want me to walk with you?” Katie asked.

Cooper thought about it. The idea was appealing on one level, but the news would be sure to get out and he would take a ribbing from the boys.

“Nah, I don’t want you to get in trouble with the bus driver.”

“OK, I’ll tell her you’re walking.”


“Do you have a costume for Halloween yet?” she asked.

“Uh, no.”

She paused for moment before saying, “Well, OK. See you Monday, Coop.”

“Yeah, sure.”

Cooper walked away. He had almost forgotten about Halloween. He’d have to think of something cool instead of some stupid kid’s costume.

Cooper entered the woods, circled around the pond to the railroad bed, and strode along the path with his thumbs hooked in his pockets. A breeze rustled the tree branches and stirred up leaves matting the path. Few of the leaves were left on the trees, and all of those were brown and dry. Only a week earlier they had been red and yellow. Cooper picked up a stick and wielded it like a sword, stabbing at foes in the form of bushes and slicing off twigs as though they were fingers. He swished the stick as he walked.

A rabbit hopped into the path ahead. To Cooper’s surprise it didn’t leap away as he approached. He was nearly upon it before it hopped a few steps into a forsythia bush. Cooper poked his stick into the bush, which was a tangle of bare twigs in this season. He held the point of the stick less than an inch away from the rabbit. It didn’t move. Cooper decided not to prod the animal. He withdrew the stick and walked onward.

The wind picked up and the sky darkened. Cooper always liked a menacing sky. It was cool-looking. He hoped the rain would hold off until he got home. He quickened his pace. The sky continued to dim for the next mile.

Through the trees to his right he caught a glimpse of a brick Cape Cod. This was Katie’s house. Cooper stopped and looked. He wondered if she was home already. He then wondered if she was looking out her window toward the woods. He resumed his walk.

A bright flash startled Cooper. He jumped when a loud boom followed a second later. The lightning strike had been close. The thought ran through his mind that an H-Bomb would look and sound much the same. He pretended the war had come. His stick morphed from a sword into an M14 rifle. He was a soldier on patrol in the aftermath of nuclear war. He lived off the land, sometimes venturing into empty cities like the ones in the movie On the Beach. What was missing from the simulation of a Bomb, he reflected, was a shock wave. He had seen film clips on TV of A-Bomb tests. The shock waves were wicked. They bent trees and destroyed houses filled with dummies.

The leaves stopped swirling as the air went still. Cooper felt a change of pressure in his ears. The wind sprang back suddenly. Airborne leaves and other small debris swatted him in the face.

“Shock wave!” he pretended happily.

A low rumbling sound intensified quickly into a deafening roar. Cooper left the ground. He flew through the air and was caught by a bare bush like the one in which the rabbit had hidden. A dogwood tree toppled onto him and pinned him there. Nearby trees tore out of the ground and flew away. Cooper screamed but couldn’t hear his own voice. Then, suddenly, he could.

Cooper stopped shouting. The woods were quiet. Whistles went off in the distance. He squirmed from the dogwood and out of the bush, tearing his trousers in the process. He was scratched and sore but not seriously hurt. Cooper hurried down the path, scrambling over fallen trees. The route seemed much longer than it ever had before.

At last he approached his backyard. Would his house even be there? It was so unfair. What had the idiots with their Bombs done? He wondered if Katie’s house was destroyed, too. He pushed through the brush next to the rusty swing set that stood at the rear edge of his parents’ property. A Labrador named Goldie ran up to him enthusiastically. His house looked intact. So did the neighboring houses.

Cooper’s mother looked relieved when he rushed in the back door and shouted “Hello!”

“I’m so glad you’re home. Do you know what happened?” she asked. “What happened to your pants? Are you alright?”

“I was knocked into some bushes. I tore my pants.”

“Oh, that’s too close. Are you sure you’re OK?”

“Yeah. How bad is it? Do we have to go to the basement?” he asked.

“No, they’ve passed.”


“The tornadoes have passed. The radio says there is still a watch, but that could last for hours. We’re not likely to get another one.”


“Dinner will be ready in half an hour.”


Cooper went to his room to change his pants. He figured he could brag at school about being in the tornado. He could dress up the story big-time for Katie. He could say he flew for hundreds of feet. The scar in the woods was proof enough. It wasn’t as cool as surviving a Bomb would have been, of course. He imagined being a sole survivor after a war – or maybe Katie could be there, too, like in the movie The Last Woman on Earth. There would be no boys to tease him about it.

He picked up and fondled his XB70 model. The Defense Department made a real mistake when it canceled the project.

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