I listen in a dark room as the sound gets closer. Clear skies through the window allow me to see the hard glitter of stars as they stare down on me from the safety of distance. My feet and hands are as icy as freezer burned meat, and the prickling of my skin makes the hair on my arms start to rise. The distant purr turns to a rumble and I feel my insides turn to hot liquid. There is nowhere to run. There isn’t a safe place in all the world to hide.
It was the late sixties and the deadly shape of a mushroom cloud didn’t scare me as much as the sound of an airplane in the night. At a young age I became an expert at picking them out from a long distance. There is a distinct vibration which distinguishes their engines from the wind, or a far off vehicle.
I didn’t know the word as a kid, but as the waves built and then eventually stretched out, I had become adept at identifying the Doppler Effect. Inevitable death as they approached – a second chance for life as they moved on.
We spent a lot of our vacation time in the bush; Dad, being a forest ranger, was always dragging us to isolated places that probably hadn’t seen a human being in centuries. Dinner was almost always fish. This meant the whole family would sit in a boat as we waited for one to taste our dangling lures which lurked under the cool dark waters. Listening to the hollow echoes of resonating waves splashing against the hull and chatter of the family, I was contented.
In my mind being in the bush meant that if World War III started then our chances of survival were good. At least we wouldn’t starve to death immediately.
Going out of town to shop, or to far off places on vacation was another story. We were out of our element. During the day the trips were exciting, fun even. The rushing traffic of Chicago, the thick acrid smog of Gary, Indiana, with its burned-out cars and black stumps of buildings, remnants of the American struggle with racism: these were scary but exciting. Even the long, hot, stretches of concrete highway with their borders of endless fields of green corn were new to a girl used to dense bush and blue lakes.
Yes, it was fun during the day, but when the hot days turned into hot nights, even if the cities were far behind, that was when the black skies turned dangerous. That’s when the planes were the most perilous, and hope of survival turned to a wish for a quick end.
We couldn’t survive here. With no fishing rods, no hunting rifle, and with no one to help us we would be doomed when the bombs fell.
“I wish I was born in 1920,” I say to my mom.
Her eyes widen and she stops kneading the dough to look at me. “Why 1920?” she asks. “You would be older than me.”
I shrug my shoulders and shuffle my feet. “Because I’d already be old. Really, really, really old. So if I died right now I’d have lived a long life.”
Her eyes linger on my face for a few more seconds before she turns her attention back to manhandling her dough. “You have lots of years to grow old. Don’t wish your life away so soon. It will be over fast enough,” she says. Her hands pull the cream coloured ball; it makes a “hoomph” sound every time she slaps it back into the bowl.
I inhale the tangy odour of yeast and wish I could stop time right now. The warm kitchen with racks of dough in various stages of rising, the sound of far off laughter, and the frenetic yapping of a happy dog. A book waits for me in a sunny living room. Its pages full of the promise of distant lands and exotic people.
It’s a happy moment, I feel safe and contented; the spoken wish was a night thought seeping into my day. I hear the sound of a small plane in the distance and cock my head. “Just a bush plane,” I say.
“I don’t know how you do that,” Mom says. She doesn’t question my analysis of the plane, and begins to roll the dough into small balls for the buns.
Years later I close a book I’ve just read about the Cuban missile crisis; I put it down and I tap the cover. My fingers sound rat-a-tat-tat as I have a real live epiphany. My lifelong fear of the sound of flying planes in the night unfolds like a red carpet inviting me to stroll down its crimson pile. I must have listened to radio reports about school children who practiced huddling under their desks, about newscasters endlessly yammering on about the effects of radiation on people and animals, and the standoff between Russia and the US. It was a clash between two bullies which brought the world to the brink. It terrified a young child, even one who no one suspected was listening.
Now on those nights when I can’t sleep, between the time where the old day dies and the new one is born, I still listen. I listen to the soft sounds of breathing, the cracking and popping of a settling house, and perhaps to the sound of grumbling planes far overhead, and I revel in my epiphany. I revel because I no longer have to stand sentry and guard against the end of the world.
“Experimenting on Children” by Truthout.org. www.flickr.com. Some rights reserved.