Heavy wooden seats exploded against the backs of chairs across the room. They punctuated the din of 30 eight-year-olds suddenly freed from artificial order to live joyously in the chaos of the moment. Somewhere a high-pitched voice, first stern and commanding, then cajoling, then imploring for, of all improbable things, silence. We knelt beneath our desks, arms pressing our heads down to our chests. A classroom rehearsing for an airline’s instructional video of what to do in the “unlikely event” of a crash landing? Not us. We were preparing not for the unlikely but for the inevitable, for the imminent even. This was destiny.
We were protecting ourselves not from the danger below, but from above. Moscow’s bombers were droning in our ears overhead. And if not today, they would certainly be tomorrow. It was scary. It was exciting. So we closed our eyes and hunched down to protect ourselves from the flash, and the shower of glass from the blast that would follow.
But that day, at least, fate intervened. Moscow must have had agents on the ground, maybe in the school yard. They discovered our drill, and realized we were invulnerable as we crouched, protected by our ink-stained, pocketknife-initialed and bubble-gum-bottomed desks in class 3C, PS90. In the end they never dropped The Bomb, the planes turned back. There was no Third World War that day. Hostilities were averted.
If we were protected during the day by old oak and layers of ancient shellac, the Russians might come at night. So night after night as the drone of approaching airplanes reached maximum decibels directly over Apt 32C, 1166 Grand Concourse, loaded with A bombs, bringing the blinding flash that would obliterate the Bronx and the world—- which I could see in my mind’s eye burning from frame edge to frame edge like old silver oxide film—-I fought back with a secret weapon. Lying in bed, chest tightened, breath held, face turning scarlet and eyes tightly closed, I visualized the flying phalanx of Tupolev TU—95s, aka “The Bear” (speed 550mph, range 7000+ miles), and made intense machine-gun-like sounds at the back of my throat, aiming at each plane’s four engines. Ack, ack, ack, ack! I started with the lead plane so the rest of the squadron would know they were under attack. Eventually, the psychic barrage began to have an effect. One by one the planes dipped their enormous wings, turned and headed for home.
But relief was temporary. Soon there was another small buzz on the eastern horizon coming from Long Island and the Atlantic. Then it was not so small, getting closer and closer and louder and louder. As always, they were coming straight for me, ignoring Idlewild and LaGuardia, Yankee Stadium and Lindy’s on 52nd Street. Once again I had to go into rapid defensive mode, under the covers, eyes shut tight, keeping focus: ack, ack, ack, ack! In that blackness I could see everything: the fleet of planes in the moon-lit blue-black sky, the empty, unsuspecting street below, almost white in the moonlight, my borough, my building, my bedroom. I was at the epicenter and had to remain vigilant until the light of dawn crept through the blinds.
I don’t know how many sleepless nights I personally saved New York from complete annihilation before getting up and going to school. Nobody does. I like it that way.