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Terry Davis

The Paper Bombs

It was the summer of ’56 in the era of the home bomb shelter; I was ten. I creek- fished, shot with my .22 most things that moved, camped with my scout troop and played baseball. We lived on twenty acres across a two-lane blacktop from the Spokane River, close enough to Nine Mile Dam that I could throw a baseball-size rock and hear it hit the concrete. Our little unincorporated town was called Nine Mile Falls; we were nine miles downriver from Spokane. I walked to school in twenty minutes, which was where we played ball. I bused into Spokane for junior high and high school. My mom was librarian of the tiny Nine Mile Falls Library, and she forced me to read, especially the Old Testament, knowledge of which she contended was necessary to understand our fellow Americans. She reached back into Genesis for my nickname: Nimrod. When I got older she made me study Slavery, which she contended was necessary to understand America. I whined for them to give me our little Farmall tractor so I could run away and become a baseball player and fishing guide in the off-season. I didn’t hate reading enough to actually run.

My dad was Service Manager at the Dodge-Plymouth dealership in downtown Spokane, and we raised alfalfa and sold it to our neighbors for their horses. Along with playing baseball and fishing, I played war; a great source of pride for me was that I drove our Dodge Powerwagon—a ’46 Army-surplus 4x4—as Dad forked hay onto the flatbed trailer. I dug foxholes at the edge of the garden and flung rocks and apples at bottle-and-can Russian soldiers I set up on the dirt bank across the road. I drove the loader as needed, too, but Dad nixed me using it to dig foxholes. “You dig foxholes with a shovel,” he said, “just like we did.” He was an airplane mechanic in the Army Air Corps, and I doubted he ever dug a foxhole; I didn’t approach him on the subject, however. Digging the composted soil kept me in fishing worms, and I told myself that the popping up, throwing hard at the small targets, then ducking back down helped my throwing accuracy.

One day after I’d used up all my worms, I was two feet down into a fresh hole when I realized that if I dug deep enough and wide enough I could collect worms enough to last the rest of summer, and that in the process we’d have a bomb shelter. These were the days of the Strategic Air Command, and Fairchild Air Force Base was only ten miles west of Spokane, so everyone in Eastern Washington knew plenty about the Russian threat.

With shovel and mattock I dug myself out of sight. Provided you’re still alive when you get down there, being in a hole in rich earth is enlivening. The air is moist and smells of growing things. You throw a shovelful skyward and it spreads like water and the sun shines the colors of the rainbow through it.

I’d dug down six feet, deep enough that each shovelful of dirt I threw up left me with half a shovelful in my crew cut. I sat down and hunkered back against the dirt wall, calculating how I’d tunnel under the lawn and into the basement of the house, when the sky went dark. I thought it was the shadow of our big black, brown and white mutt Yogi. I loved looking up to see him looking down at me; no matter how many times he found me at the bottom of a hole, he always looked surprised to see me there. But when I looked up this time, all I saw was gray sky, the color it turns just before dawn, and then the gray turned into tiny shadows fluttering down. I heard them. Paper bombs. Seven landed in the hole with me: black bombs stamped on two-inch-wide white paper strips the length of a legal fish. On the body of the black bomb, in white, was ATOM BOMB, and across the tail fins was THIS COULD BE REAL. In a corner of the white part, in small black letters, was the frequency of the civil defense radio station. I stacked the seven paper bombs, folded the stack and slid it into the back pocket of my jeans; then I cut steps up the wall and climbed out.

Hundreds of paper bombs hung in the trees and spotted the grass and garden like little, dead magpies. I grabbed a handful and ran in the house to show Mom.

I banged through the screen door just in time to see an officer from Fairchild on TV explaining that the paper bombs were part of a Strategic Air Command-Civil Defense exercise. He urged citizens to participate by constructing home bomb shelters or storing food, water and first-aid supplies in their basements.

Mom walked outside with me and looked at the paper bombs all around. I ran back in the kitchen, filled an empty cider jug with water, carried it back out and stood with her at the edge of the garden. We turned a circle, and everywhere we looked—on the roof of the house, in the shrubs, in the driveway, all over down around the shop, in the alfalfa that had matured to gold after the Fourth, and in the pines where the woods began—paper bombs fluttered in the breeze. Yogi lay under the big rhubarb leaves with his head down.

Later in the afternoon I sat in the bomb shelter waiting for Dad to get home from work and take me fishing. I thought of the paper bombs and wondered if the Air Force would drop more. I looked up through the cool shadow to the blue sky. I lay my head on my arms and closed my eyes and listened for the thunder of a B-52 Stratofortress. I remembered that I hadn't heard the plane, only the flutter of the bombs. I looked up again and spotted a single tiny thread of cloud, thin as a strand of spider web that could have been the bomber's contrail. Then I remembered we’d need food and first aid besides water. So I climbed out of the hole and ran in the house again and grabbed a box of Vanilla Wafers and a handful of bread sacks and my Boy Scout first-aid kit from my fishing bag that sat with my pole next to the kitchen door. I ducked back down the hole, pulled the paper bombs from my pocket and stuck them between the gauze pads at the bottom of the kit. I’d started stuffing the cookie box into a bread sack to make it waterproof when I heard Dad calling for fishermen.

Mom and Dad wouldn’t let me fish the Spokane there by our place because it was too swift and the banks too steep. So most Friday evenings Dad drove me and Yogi to Marshall creek—where signs said only kids were allowed to fish—four miles south of Spokane.

All along the path from the road to the edge of the steep bank above the creek, we kicked up paper bombs. The wind blew and paper bombs fell from the trees and bushes like big flakes of dry snow. Yogi leapt in the air and twisted like a gigantic, white-nosed, shaggy black pinto trout after a fly and caught them in his mouth. Below us, paper bombs clotted the willows and birches and the water, backing up against rocks and tree roots, making shadows where fish would hide. “They must have dropped a zillion of these goddamned things,” Dad said.

“If there's a war,” I said, “I hope the siren blows when we're all home.”

“There's not going to be any war, son,” Dad replied.

Yogi and I both looked up at him. “But if there is,” I said, “and I'm at school or playing ball, I'll run home. You don't come get me—okay?”

“That's quite a ways,” Dad said.

“I know,” I said. “But I can run it faster than you could drive. All the traffic's got to go north and you'd have to come back south.”

“If the siren blows we'll be coming to get our boy,” Dad said. “But don't worry about there being any war, Son. You worry about base hits. Worry about catchin’ a fish.” He headed home then to start the first cutting of that golden hay. I should note that alfalfa is hay and boasts the highest feeding value of all the common hays. Actually, I never heard that field of alfalfa boast of anything; it was a humble field. Yogi and I would fish downstream until dark to where the creek ran under the road by the Japanese truck farms, where Dad would pick us up.

I know what you’re thinking, and I can’t blame you: “It’s a high—and maybe lethal—act of irresponsibility for a father to leave a ten-year-old boy along a highway in the dark.” But this was fifty-seven years ago. People my age and older like to say it was a different world, and I look back as thoughtfully as I can and have to say it, too. We kids went alone everywhere; we rode our bikes into Spokane to see a show. Nobody even thought about danger in that, let alone said anything about it. We hitchhiked, for gawdsakes: Four of us would line up by the road with our thumbs out, and somebody in a pickup would pull over and tell us to pile in back. It was a different world then; we listened for the air raid siren, and we looked up in the sky and saw Russians.

I slid down the bank on my butt to the trail just above the creek, and Yogi bounded beside me. In the deep shade there in the gully, and in the deeper shadows of the broadleaf trees that grew along the water, and with the sun behind the hills to the west and the breeze blowing over the water, I felt the same cool sensation on my skin as when I sat in the bomb shelter looking up at the sky.

Marshall Creek was seldom more than four feet wide, but there were plenty of good holes and good fish. Because the land rose and fell, the current was fast in some spots and slow in others. That first spot was the widest in the creek: dark water swirled deep in under the roots of a big willow and sucked the floating paper bombs out of sight. It would have been a great hole, but we never fished it because it was deep enough for Yogi to swim and fetch pinecones, after which the fish would hot-fin it for parts unknown, of course.

To Yogi fetch meant: “Go get it and bury it as soon as possible; either that or fight like a rabid badger while the young Nimrod fights to wrench it from my drooly jaws.” Yogi was not a genius among canines.

I scooped a couple handfuls of pinecones and lofted them into the water one at a time like grenades at a concealed squad of those wily Rooskies. “Ker-boom!” I stage-whispered when a cone splashed in. The greatest explosion, of course, was Yogi launching himself like a crazed bazooka round into the water from the trail in the bank. I couldn’t help but laugh when a subsequent pine grenade landed on his head. “What could that have been?” his bemused expression asked. He swam and gathered them in his mouth; he’d get three if they were big and four or five if they were the little, hard, green cones of spring and early summer, and the water ran into his open mouth. His expression said, “What a fine mess I’ve gotten myself into now.” And he’d sink.

I think this is funny, too; but he wouldn’t come up again when he did this, and he did it every time. I jumped in, grabbed him and pulled him back to where he could stand, at which point I would defeat him in our Battle of the Fetched Pinegrenades. I stashed them in my fish bag until I tossed them away when he wasn’t looking. He bounced up the bank to the trail, shook, and off we went.

I caught a fifteen-inch Rainbow in the next hole that day, and two ten-inch Eastern Brook in the current farther down—all on pieces of the same nightcrawler from the bomb shelter on the treble hook of my Colorado Spinner. I was proud that sometimes I came home with as heavy a stringer from this creek where only kids could fish as any a man’s stringer from any of the creeks around Spokane.

It was after ten when we got home, and the night air was heavy with the fragrance of cut hay. Dad climbed right back up on the little Ford tractor and Yogi walked along beside. I cleaned the fish at the garden spigot and was hanging the guts on the fence for the crows when Mom called me in and handed me a plate warm from the oven.

That night I dreamed the nuke dream for the first time. I’m at school when the siren blows. I don't know what day it is, but it is not noon Wednesday, so we know it is a real air raid. My stomach falls and I look over at my friend Tom Sears. Tom's face is white and his eyes are big and his mouth is open. Nobody says anything. We all turn and look at each other. I see the faces clearly: Tom, Pat Henshaw, Janice Fluman, Earl Overlie, Carolyn Haganson. Every mouth hangs open and all eyes are big. All heads turn toward Miss Dicus, and we see that she looks just like us.

I explode into tears and run out the back door of the classroom and across the playground. I pump my legs but they only float; I lower my head and pump my legs and arms, but each step only floats me in the air.

Then I’m out on the highway, standing on the white line. Cars inch past me northward in both lanes. The cars of all the kids in school pass me. Donna Reed and her TV family go by. I grab onto the tailgate of a pickup and vault up into the bed. My legs are so heavy it’s like my pants are full of sand. I ride that way in the stream of cars till we reach our road and I jump off and fall into the gravel.

The dream is exactly like life. The sky is as blue as it is in life, and the clouds are as white and gentle looking, and the gravel stings the palms of my hands exactly as it does in real life so that when I bring my hands to my face I see pieces of gravel stuck in them and red indentations where other pieces fell out.

My legs are even heavier now, but our house is in sight and all I want is to make it home before the bomb drops. Living or dying doesn't matter. All I care about is being with my mother and father. With both hands I swing one leg and then the other and move up the road. I can’t see our old Dodge Powerwagon, but that’s okay because Dad almost always parks behind the house. Yogi isn’t in flight across the field to meet me, but he’s probably inside. All of them—my mother, father and dog—are probably inside, waiting for me in our house.

Then I’m up the steps and in the front door. I yell but no one answers. My legs work okay now, and I run to the kitchen and look out back. But the old Dodge 4x4 isn’t there. A feeling rises up in me that the bomb’s about to go off. In my mind I see the white flash from the newsreels, then the wind ripping through the clapboard houses, the windows exploding, blowing pellets of glass in slow motion across the Nevada desert. I run down to the basement and into the bathroom where there are no windows. I sit down on the little oval rug and lean back against the toilet bowl. I position my head between my knees and my arms over my head in a duck and cover like they teach us in school. I listen for the sound of a door opening upstairs and Mom and Dad calling my name. But the door never opens. And the bomb never blows. The dream ends with no sound and only the darkness and the vacuum feeling of being alone.

I woke up the next morning still scared. I stuck close to Dad till he left for work, then close to Mom in the kitchen while she made a cake. She handed me the wooden spoon, and I took a lick from the top and held it down for Yogi to lick the bottom. I put on the yellow rubber gloves, washed the dishes and rinsed them in scalding (the word my mom and grandma used) water; then Mom got back to John Dos Passos’s 1919, book two of his U.S.A. trilogy, and I rode my Schwinn down over the dam to the park to play ball.

It rained that night, and the air was still full of mist. I walked through the grass to the garden and watched the wet blades leave shiny stripes on the toes of my tennis shoes. In the hole I’d dug as a bomb shelter but hadn’t thought of going to in my dream, I found the cookies damp but edible and the metal first-aid kit with the seven paper bombs in it beaded with rain and already rusting. I ate cookies as I filled in the hole and mixed grass clippings with the dirt for the worms to grow fat on.

Terry Davis wrote three novels years ago. The first, Vision Quest, published by the Viking Press and Bantam Books, Warner Bros. made into the film of the same title with Matthew Modine and Linda Fiorentino in 1984; the second was Mysterious Ways, also published by Viking; the third was If Rock and Roll Were A Machine by Delacorte Press and Bantam Books. The books are still available in university press paperback editions. Davis taught in MFA writing programs for thirty years and was forced into retirement by a matter of health. He misses teaching. The story “The Paper Bombs” is excerpted from a new novel titled Falling One Long Time.


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