The other day I drove by my old elementary school. It brought back a half-century-old memory causing the palms of my hands to sweat and my gut knotting up. I was nine years old at the time and it amazes me how old experiences are still fresh in my mind as if it had been yesterday. I have one such experience that surface from time to time, whether I like it or not.
In the early sixties, we moved to San Antonio, TX. My mom enrolled me at Bonham Elementary School that was a few blocks from our home. The first years at the elementary school were rough and very challenging, but that is another story. I did not speak English and I had to rely on my classmates to translate what the teacher said. Asking fellow classmates for help was a dreadful challenge, and frequently painful.
Back in those days teachers freely spanked, paddled, smacked kids in the head with their yardstick, which frequently landed on mine. Before being struck in the head the teacher would say not to speak Spanish; which was difficult for me since Spanish was the only language I knew. I was new at the elementary school and I felt lost and alone.
One day, the teacher spoke and classroom was dead silent. All the kids just stared at the teacher in disbelief. Besides the utterly quiet classroom, what troubled me most were the facial expressions of my classmates. Even the class bullies looked scared. I had never seen the class so attentive, to the teacher, and that worried me. Not sure what to do I took the chance and asked a boy sitting next to me to tell me what was going on. He feared the teacher’s yardstick as much as I did and told me he would tell me later. Therefore, I sat there listening and understanding nothing. One think I did understand was it was not good. All my classmates looked worried and some of them looked like they wanted to cry.
Later that afternoon I asked several bilingual kids to tell me what the teacher said in class. They said San Antonio was a target and was going to be destroyed. I did not understand what they meant about San Antonio being target, so I asked them to explain it to me. One little girl said that Fidel Castro had some nuclear missiles, in Cuba, pointed at San Antonio would launch them to destroy all the military bases in the surrounding area.
I did not believe the boob story. It sounded awful. The kids at school harassed me a lot and used to make fun of me all the time. I did not believe the atomic bomb story, but something did not check out. Why were they so worried? Even the older kids in other classes looked uneasy and scared. I was not convinced my classmates were telling me the truth.
After school, I looked for Senior Martinez, one of the school’s custodians. Senior Martinez was always nice to me. He once gave some cake he brought from home and I figured he would tell me the truth.
I found him in the cafeteria mopping the floor. He understood Spanish just as well as I did so I asked him. He was a cheerful man always smiling but not that day. Indeed he confirmed what all the kids had told but in much detail. Senior Martinez said there would no time to run from the nuclear missiles. Several military bases surround San Antonio were targeted for destruction. The nuclear blasts would valorize the bases as well as the city.
When I got home, I sat on porch waiting for mom. She worked at a sewing factory downtown. It seemed forever before I saw her walking down the street towards the house. I ran to meet her and told her what I learned at school that day about San Antonio targeted for destruction by nuclear missiles.
Mom looked nervous and that scared me. She knew all about Castro, Cuba, the Russians, and the missiles. The factory owner where she worked had informed all the employees of the Cuban missile crises. He also said when they hear the factory siren; they had to go to the building basement, to protect themselves from the bomb explosions. I did not know what to think. The only experience I had with blasts had been with fireworks. I burnt my finger once with a sparkler which cause a sever burn. The pain lasted for days and it had been just a small burn.
Two days later, I was next door with my friend watching his television set. The man in the television talked about atomic bombs and about their destructive abilities. To demonstrate he showed an atomic bomb detonated in the desert somewhere. The atomic blast pulverize houses tossed cars like toys. The man in the television explained that we had witnessed a small atomic bomb test conducted by the military. The missiles that Fidel Castro had pointing at the USA were larger, nuclear, and considerably powerful. The devastation I saw on the television, of the test bomb, shocked and frightened me.
That following Monday the teacher talked about the bombs again and the boy sitting next to me told me that we had to practice a bomb drill. I had never hear of a bomb drill and asked for an explanation. Fearing the yardstick, which I surely understood, he said to watch him and do as he did. The teacher spoke and all the kids got up, they cleared the desks, got under the desk, and pulled in the chair hind them. I watched and did as they did. The boy next to me said that I had to hold my knees together, put my face against my legs, and close my eyes tight. I asked him why do I had to close my eyes. He said per the teacher’s instructs they had to close their eyes to prevent blindness or having the eyes burnt out. The said the intense brightness and heat would blind you.
The teacher gave another instruction; everyone got out from under the desks, and sat back down on the chairs again. I asked the boy what was next. He said that we had to practice the bomb drill again but this time we had to wait until the school sounded the alarm. I asked him what alarm. He said that when you hear three long siren blasts that meant that the bombs are going to hit San Antonio, and we had to do the bomb drill just as we had been practicing.
The teacher asked the class if they were ready. I was nervous, I wanted to do the bomb drill right, and did not want to make any mistakes. I saw waiting then I heard three long siren blasts. Every one cleared off their desk again, quickly got under the desk, pulled in the chair behind them, held their knees together, put their face against their legs, and closed their eyes. I did the same thing, but as I was doing the bomb drill, I noticed that I had been faster than most of the class. It had been my first bomb drill. Everyone in class had practiced the bomb drill before, and I had been faster than most of the class. I felt good about that because I was good at something especially something as important as a bomb drill.
Later that afternoon I sat on my porch anxiously waiting for my mother to come home from work. I wanted to tell her all about the bomb drill, how good I had done, that I was faster than most of the class, and that it had been my first bomb drill. It seemed like hours and hours before I saw my mom walking around the corner. I ran down the street to meet her and began telling her all about the bomb drill, how good I had done, that I was faster than most of the class, and that it had been my first bomb drill. I told her that I cleared off my desk, quickly got under the desk, held their knees together, put their face against their legs, and closed their eyes.
Mom let me talk and talk, she was good at letting me talk. I was feeling good about myself because I was good at something. That night I remembered the bomb drill and thought ways how I could improve and be faster. Back in my head, there were doubts about the school bomb drills. What I saw on the television not long ago lingered. The television announcer said the filming was a small test boob. The atomic bomb tested, in the desert, flattened large brick buildings, and pulverized wooded buildings. Senior Martinez was right when he said there was no use in running San Antonio would cease to exist.
A week later mom was nervously gathering all the loose change that she found in the house and began counting the money that she had saved. She heard President Kennedy urging the people to stock up on food and water in preparation for the Cuban missile attack. Mom said that I had to go to school and that afternoon when she came home, we would go to the grocery store to buy what food she could. On my way to school, I walked by a newsstand stand and on the newspaper cover I read the words Cuba and missiles. I could not read the rest but I did recognize the words Cuba and missiles.
Later that day at school, the teacher was giving a lesson when all of a sudden the school alarm went off. It was loud and it shock me. All the kids quickly jumped up and from the corner of my eye, I saw the teacher moving fast across the classroom. I felt a panic and chill run down my back. My legs felt like led and the faster I wanted to move the slower my legs responded. I felt desperation because I thought would not make it under the desk, in time, before the missiles struck. I stumbled mostly because I had my eyes closed tight.
I remembered what the teacher said; the bright light and intense heat caused by the bomb blast would burn your eyes out. It seemed like an eternity before I made it under the desk. I held my knees together, put my face against my legs, and I already had my eyes closed. I was shacking with fear. My thoughts were of my mother and my sister and that we would never see each other again. Fearing death and the pain associated with it frighten me. The words did not come out, but I called out for my mother, I did not want to die alone. I wanted to be with my mother and sister. The loud screams in the background made me fear even more. I forced my mind to ignore the screams and closed my eyes even tighter. A loud slam, on top of the desk, just above me startled me. The chair next me flew out from under the desk. I held my knees tighter and shoved my face against my legs as hard as I could and dared not open my eyes. I felt something strike my head. It was painful and thought it was the beginning, of the end. I wanted mother. I wanted to see her once last time. I did not want to die alone. Next, I felt a sharp pain from my right arm; my body come off the floor, and flew out from under the desk just like the cars I saw in the television.
I listen to the kids screaming an imagine them burning. I tried my best not hear them but the more I listen the more it sounded like laughter. I listen more carefully and yes, it did sound more like laughter. I heard the teacher screaming, but I did not understand. I wanted to open my eyes but I was afraid my eyes would be burnt out. I felt I was being dragged across the floor by my arm. The pain on my arm was unbearable and I was forced to open my eyes. It was the teacher and she was angry. All the kids were in the hallway watching us through the door laughing. The teacher pulled me off the floor by my arm and walking me out of the classroom.
The class walked single file out of the building. I saw all the other classes doing the same. We were the last class to exit the building. All this time the kids laughed and called me all sorts of things. Some things I understood and others I did not. I felt very confused, I felt so stupid, and extremely humiliated. The school principle stood in front of all the classes and said a few things then all the classes started to go back into the building one by one. When it was my class turn to go in, I hid and stayed behind. From my hiding place, I watched every one go back into the building. When schoolyard was clear, everyone had return; I walked out of my hiding place, and headed home.
I sat on the porch waiting for mom thinking of what had happened at school. I did not go back to school for a few days, and I never told mom what had happen. It was later that I found out that the school also had fire drills.