Thursday, February 24, 2011

My brush with atomic death

My Brush with Atomic Death 

Or, Duck and cover.

© Joel Baumwoll

Most of us don’t think about death in a literal sense, until we are pretty far along in years. I doubt that anyone has looked into the jaws of total annihilation and talks much about it.


But if you’ve had the experience of believing you and everyone you know was about to be obliterated, completely, totally and utterly, you don’t forget how it felt.   

When I was a stripling of fourteen, my life revolved around school, after school and weekends.  After school afternoons were spend at DonEl’s; a classic “candy store” on Bloomfield Avenue, about six blocks from Hillside Junior High School in the leafy village of Montclair, New Jersey.
Candy stgore

In a scene that set the stage for “Happy Days,” ten or twelve of us would pile into booths, shouting orders to El, who knew from long practice what each of us would have.  Nickels went into the jukebox and refrains of the Penguins’, “Earth Angel” or the Moonglows’, “Sincerely” floated into the air like thick chocolate syrup.  

We’d mouth the sounds we’d sung and heard about nine hundred times…“Bop badow badow, badow, bedoo doo, hoyeet..Sincerely, ohho yes sincerely, cause I love you so dearly, I’ll do anything for you.  Please say you’ll be mine.”

A fierce game of table-top matchbook football would start in one booth, while the girls filled another, tight sweaters and white fluffy balls of rabbit fur around their necks, circle pins gleaming in the fluorescent lights.  A few of the guys would get up and start dancing with Joanie, or Pixie or Dania.  Mostly we’d sit, looking cool with our collars turned up, smoking Chesterfields, one in the mouth and one behind the ear for later.

Somehow, two, three hours would go by, hamburgers would get eaten if we had the money, and plans would be made for the weekend.  The weekend!  “Whose house would have the party?”  “Who was coming?”  “Could we get any booze?”  “What girls would come?”  “Were you gonna ask one?”  At fourteen, life’s issues were not very complex.

A big part of my fantasy life revolved around cars.  I had gotten so expert that a mere glimpse at a tiny part of any car would reveal its make, model and year to me. I could tell The slant of the windshield, or the curve of the fender, was all that was necessary for me. Like one of those sailors they always showed in war movies, who could tell in split seconds from a silhouette if it was a Jap Zero, German Stukka or British Spitfire. 

The horsepower, displacement and zero to 60 acceleration of every new car on the market were recorded in my brain.  The Chrysler 300 and the Buick Century coupe were the current street champions, at 9.6 and 9.8 seconds respectively.
My dream car was a 1954 Corvette, of course.  But a close second was a 1949 black Mercury coupe, nosed and decked, lowered, with dual glass packed mufflers and so many coats of black lacquer, it seemed you could plunge you arm into the surface.  I think there was one like it in James Dean’s anthem, Rebel Without a Cause.

My father was a loyal car man, always buying a used version of one of the “low priced three.”  Except for an unexplained lapse when he came home in an ill-fated ’48 Kaiser, we always owned Plymouths.  I was mildly excited when he decided to buy a new, 1953 Plymouth.  He picked out a sky blue model, and the thing I remember most was that it was our first car that had a one-piece windshield.  We were movin’ on up!

All our cars were stick shift, since my mother didn’t drive, and my old man was a truck driver, and considered himself an expert behind the wheel.  Of course, I could mime the motions of shifting and using the clutch from first to second to third and down in my sleeps.

There was much excitement one day when my father came home driving a new snazzy Chrysler New Yorker sedan. In those days, the car and exact model with features told all you needed to know about how much dough-re-me a family had. That model was not one, but two stations above our place in the socioeconomic pecking order! 

Turns out, he was given this boat by DeCozen Motors as a loaner since the new Plymouth had to have some factory warranty repairs.  I remember my old man talking about how people (women, heh heh) were eyeing him at stoplights, and how heads turned when he turned into our driveway.  My mother, unimpressed, said something like “That’s nice dear” and returned to her fantasies of being taken off to a romantic rendezvous with Dennis James, a handsome TV announcer who advertised Old Gold Cigarettes (my old man’s brand).

Another part of our lives in 1954 was the atom bomb hysteria.  People were building fall out shelters, school kids were taught to roll under their desks at the first sign of a blinding atomic flash, and duck and cover.  It was not unnoticed by the boys, that girls were told to pull their long tartan plaid skirts as far over their heads as possible to protect them from flying glass and debris.  Of course, the sexiest girls wore tight skirts with narrow hems, so this was impossible.  But some tried.  (heh heh).


Once a month or so, there was a civil defense drill. We paid little attention to these antics, thinking an atomic attack was about as likely to happen as an earthquake or volcano eruption.  We all knew that we would flatten the Ruskies before they could get their planes off the ground.  Curtis LeMay had told us that in the Air Force films they showed us in school.  Why, we even had B 52’s with huge bombs in the air 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  They wouldn’t dare try anything.

It’s been my experience that every once in a while, a kid gets an inspiration that just knocks you for a loop.  One afternoon, my friend Mark Anderson had one.  He slid into the booth next to me at DonEls.  “Want to go for a ride?” he asked me furtively.  “A ride?  Whaddya mean, ride?” I couldn’t comprehend what he was offering.   “In a car, dummy.  My old man’s car.”  “Uhh, sure.  How you gonna do that?”

“He comes home from work every day at 3 and takes a nap until nearly 5.  I take the keys from his coat, roll the car out of the driveway, start it up and off I go.” 
The sheer simplicity of the plan stunned me.  “What if he wakes up?”
“He never does, especially after he drinks a big bottle of beer.”  Mark’s father was a big Swedish carpenter, gangly and strong, who could suck down a quart of Ballantine like it was apple juice.  “I already did it three times myself.  Wanna come?”

Oh boy.  A ride in a car, driven by a kid, unsupervised by a parent.  Who could resist?


“Now, this afternoon.”

“Who else do is gonna come?”

“How about George?”  Of course!  George Gugliotta, my best friend who lived across Clarement Avenue from me.  “OK, you ask him.”  Of course George said yes.  

Mark’s house was just a short walk from DonEl’s, on Mountainview Place, a tree-lined dead end street, just off busy Bloomfield Avenue.  George and I crouched behind the bushes at the end of the gravel driveway as Mark went into the house through the back door.  His old man’s Dodge sedan sat in the driveway.  Just as he promised, Mark came out of the screen door holding a bunch of keys up in his right hand, waving them back and forth with a big grin on his face.

He slid into the Dodge and released the brake, letting it roll quietly over the crunchy gravel and onto the empty street.  “Get in,” he whispered, and the two of us opened the doors and stealthily slid onto the seats.  Mark turned the key and the car, still warm, kicked over immediately.  I remember it was a fluid drive transmission, and I watched push the gear shift on the steering wheel column up and back, and with a practiced move, he stepped on the gas and swing the wheel sharply around and down the street, heading for Valley Road.  

“Where ya wanna go?” he asked.  Having never faced a decision like that before, we looked at each other, and I blurted out, “let’s go past the bowling alley.”  Bellaire Lanes, on Valley Road, was another of our hangouts. I set up pins three or four days a week, making 11¢ a game, plus occasional tips.  League nights were big money and tips.  But even better, we could bowl for free when no one was in the place.  I became an ace bowler at the age of 13, and was well known among my gang for my personal high game of 245.  

Pin spotting was a tough job, in the days before totally automatic machines put us out of business.  We’d have to jump into the pit, lift the ball onto the return ramp, pick up all the downed pins and put them in the open slots on the holder and jump up on the wall behind the lane before the guy sent the next ball whizzing down the alley.  

There were a few wise guys who liked to roll the next ball before we had gotten out of the pit.  We spotted them pretty quickly, and secretly used our toes to prevent teetering pins from falling, messing up their game.  Screwed out of a couple of spares, they wised up and stopped playing chicken with us.

The three of us lit up our Chesterfields and cruised by the building, hoping one of our friends, or better yet, some of the girls from tony Montclair Academy would see us.  “Now where do ya want ta go?” Mark asked, as he smoothly drove the ’53 Dodge down Valley Road.  “Go around Edgemont Pond!” was George’s brilliant idea.  “Cool,” we said and off we went around the elegant park that stood at the end of Valley Road, just before entering Upper Montclair.   “Wanna go to Bond’s and get an Awful Awful?”

I said hopefully, now fully caught up in the excitement of being able to get places in a few minutes it took a lot longer to reach on our Schwinns.
“Nah.” Mark nixed the idea.  “We gotta get back.”  Reality set in. The spectre of getting caught by Mark’s father gave each of us a bit of a scare.

As we drove up Claremont Avenue, a wide street lined with large Victorian houses and white picket fences, a strange sound startled us.  Suddenly, the large steel columns that stood every few blocks in the town and contained huge and very loud sirens, began to wail.  Through the open windows we heard the sirens deep, vibrato


 coming from every direction.  These were the air raid sirens.


Cars pulled over to the curb, drivers got out, according to the instructed procedure, lay down in the street, faces pressed against the curbstones and hands covering the backs of their heads.   “HOLY SHIT, IT’S AN AIR RAID.’  

THE RUSSIANS ARE ATTACKING!” we screamed at each other in total panic.
Immediately I thought of my mother, working at Sears Roebuck on Bloomfield Avenue, my father in East Orange delivering milk, my kid brother somewhere.  What to do?  Would I see them again?  Could I find them after the bombs went off?   Where to go?  Were we all going to die?  

Photos of the bar-b-qued Japanese in Hiroshima flashed through my head.  The TV films of the houses in the Nevada desert being blown to bits by a huge shock wave were vivid images.  I imagined our house on Vincent Place being reduced to a pile of splinters.
C121 civil defense test

In total, absolute fear, Anderson floors the car and heads for home.  Forgetting any pretense of secrecy or concealment, he tears up the gravel drive, slams to a sliding stop and leaps out of the car, heading for his back door.

The sirens are wailing ceaselessly 

In a fog of fear, George and I follow him into the house through the screen door.  ‘MOM, DAD,” he yells, ‘WE GOTTA GET IN THE BASEMENT.  IT’S AN ATOMIC ATTACK.”

Mark’s father and mother are standing in the kitchen.  I remember the two of them standing by the door like a reception committee; he, in a sleeveless undershirt, suspenders and denim work pants and she in a floral print dress.  Mark got two feet inside the door and his old man hauled off and hit him with a haymaker to the jaw, sending him flying across the kitchen smacking into the refrigerator door and collapsing in a heap on the floor. 

“WHAT DID YOU DO!” his father screamed.  “WHAT DID YOU DO!” he kept shouting, obviously enraged by the theft of his car, and unconcerned about the impending doom of the atomic attack. 

Fear of atomic obliteration suddenly became less immediate than the prospect of getting my block knocked off by Mark’s furious father, and I turned and ran like hell. 

As I ran down the street toward my house, the sirens changed to an intermittent “whoop whoop whoop.”  The “all-clear signal.  Drivers rose up from the curbsides, like so many corpses come back to life, wiped their clothes, and continued on their way.  

Another air raid drill successfully carried out, giving the clueless population the confidence that they could survive a nuclear attack if they heeded the instruction to duck and cover.

The whole episode remained a secret between Mark, George and me.  I never went to his house again. And we drifted apart, finding new friends.  I do remember Mark very well for one other thing.  He introduced me to the HiLos, jazz oriented singing group that I loved to listen to.  I bought a couple of their LPs and have CDs in my current collection.

Some ten years later, I saw Mark on 42nd Street, near the Public Library. I called to him, said hello and we spent a few awkward moments reviewing what we had been doing with our lives since Montclair.  

We made no effort to get together.

I guess once you share the fear of being obliterated with someone, you don’t feel like spending much more time with them.


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