The Bomb

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Sather Gate, UC Berkeley, 1969

The evening started as a typical weeknight evening in winter. The rainy season was just ending so most evenings were cool and damp. For those of us in Berkeley, Ca, winter was the rainy season. David, my boyfriend was out for the evening at a political meeting and Chara, my six year old daughter, was sleeping. I was planning on an evening of reading and studying.

The house was a small, older brown shingle house quite common to the Bay Area and part of the area’s charm. It was close to the center of downtown near Provo Park known officially as Civic Center Park, the library and my daughter’s school. It was also right across the street from the Berkeley Police Department. We felt as if our house would probably not be burgled so we took the extra traffic in stride. In reality, it made no difference in our daily lives. The front porch was shaded and covered with vines so thick that we could not see the street or the police station from our front windows even in winter.

The interior of our house was just perfect in my eyes. The main room of the house had a bay window at one end of room that caught the morning light. There was a fireplace at the other end of the room to warm the evenings. Around the room, there was shoulder high red oak wainscoting with a plate rail. There were built in bookshelves on both sides of the fireplace mantel. We had a worn burgundy print Persian carpet on the floor. The couch was covered with an orange Indian striped bedspread that was common to the era. There was a worn comfortable black leather chair with an end table next to it and was perfect for reading. It was the the usual beat up eclectic style favored by students in 1970.

On that evening in February, I was sitting in my living room in a nightgown and robbe is tending to Earth, Wind and Fire and finally catching up on the reading I needed to do for class. It was the day before Valentines Day and I wanted a clear evening for a celebration. The crackling fire in the the fireplace was taking the dampness out of the air. My dog, Stoney, was lying by the fire contentedly. Our two cats were roaming around the house and occasionally draping themselves on the mantel to catch the warmth of the fire.

I had my usual cup of coffee by my side and thought this was a perfect night without interruptions so I could get all my work done. As I was getting up to refill my coffee cup, there was an explosion so deafening that all the windows in the house rattled. Stoney jumped up and barked frantically. The cats fled towards the back of the house. I dropped the coffee cup in my hand spilling the last drops of coffee on the rug.

I stood in the middle of the home I considered a refuge from the world not knowing what to do. My mind was frozen. My blood seemed to stand still in my veins. Everything stopped for a moment.

Next, I ran. I’m not sure what possessed me but I ran to the front door. I threw the door open and raced to the street. All the street lights were still on. The Berkeley Police Department had all its light blazing and looking just as it usually did. I looked up and down the street and saw nothing that could explain the deafening noise I heard. There was no smoke or fire. I did see about ten of my neighbors in various stages of dress out on the street. All the dogs in the neighborhood seemed to be barking or howling.

“What happened?” Asked Nancy, my next door neighbor.
I came back with “I don’t know.”

None of us in the middle of the block had any idea do what had happened. Then we all turned towards the police department when we heard screaming and shouting. We saw over a dozen Berkeley police officers racing out of the police department building. All the police officers had their guns drawn and were running every which way waving their guns wildly. Some ran towards the parking lot. Some stayed in front of the station. One ran towards the bushes. And one ran back inside. They all looked just as scared as I
and all my neighbors were.

Then, there was another thunderous roar. This time it was so much louder since we were outside. All of us, the neighborhood, who were still on the street, turned and ran for our homes as If we were one body and slammed our doors. I still had no idea what had exploded. I could hear the sounds of activity and chaos outside. There was yelling and there were sirens. And I was still in the dark.

Being in the dark has never been easy for me. I remembered seeing two of my next door neighbors outside. So, I went out the back door after checking on my sleeping daughter and walked through an opening in the hedge to get to my next door neighbors house. I knocked on the door and heard a muffled squeal.

“Whose there?” Barb asked.
“Marsha”” I said.

Barb looked from side to side to see if anyone was with me and opened the door. We found after a short conversation that neither of us had any clue as to what had happened. I asked her if she wanted to come over. I couldn’t stay at her house because of my sleeping daughter. Barb decided to stay on her home. So I crept back through the hedge to my home.

At that point, any pretense of studying or reading was out of the question. My mind was racing a mile n minute with nowhere to go. And I still didn’t know what had happened. At this point, I thought I knew some bombs had exploded. I didn’t know if anyone had been hurt or who had done it.

I went back to check on my daughter. I checked the clock and it was only 9:00 p.m.. I began to busy myself around the house. I picked up the coffee cup off the rug and wiped up the spill. I got another cup of coffee and it tasted terrible. I felt as if I had been up for two days. My curiosity was out of control and I went to the front porch to see if I could catch sight of anything through the vines. After all, curiosity only kills cats. The vines on the porch made it impossible to see anything. Stoney came out fto survey her domain and after a brief inspection returned to the warmth of the fire. I followed her back inside to wait for David to come home. He had planned to come home early so now I began to wonder where he was. I called a couple of friends and found out he was not there. The friends were far enough away so that they had not heard the explosion. I told them that I thought a couple of bombs had exploded. We speculated on who might bomb anything and we thought maybe it was a splinter group of SDS(Students for a Democratic Society) called the Weathermen. But, we didn’t know.

Another coffee didn’t appeal to me so I opted for a beer. I hoped the beer would calm me. I tried reading and couldn’t. My next stop was the TV for the 10:00 p.m. news hoping the news had the story. At they moment, someone knocked at the door. I looked through the window and saw two very large cops. When I opened the door, one of the cops wanted to know if I had seen or heard anything before the explosion. The other one asked if I had seen a stranger in the area who looked out of place in Berkeley. I really hadn’t. I mentally wondered what would look it of place in Berkeley – maybe a pin stripe suit. They did tell me that the explosions had blown up two police cars in the police car parking lot and there were no injuries. They told me they would be searching my yard.

It scared me to think the “bomber” could be in my back yard or my crawl space without me knowing about it. They noticed my reaction and told me to lock the doors. My reaction must have been visible. They told me not to worry because the neighborhood was sealed and no one was getting in or out. With that piece of information, I knew why David wasn’t home. After the cops left, I looked out the bay window and could see the beams of two flashlights moving around the yard. I felt like a prisoner in my own home.

Another sound on the steps and I was on my feet checking to make sure the door was locked. This time it was David. He had been stopped at the end of the block. Both he and the car were searched. The cops had not found anything but made the comment that they were sure they could find something if they really looked. I told David all about my evening before we went to bed.

For the next week, everyone on the block was searched when ever we left or came home. They never found the bomber and no one claimed credit. It was attributed to the SDS splinter group called the Weathermen. All I can remember is how scared I was at the time.

Life Going Upside Down

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The house in the picture above is the first house for our family. At that time, the family was my mother, father, brother and me. It was one of the small suburban bungalows going up after the Second World War to house the “baby boom”. The house was in Richfield, Minnesota which is a suburb of Minneapolis. This photo was obviously taken in the winter. My story is about the summer of 1949.

There were so many children in the neighborhood that it was hard to be lonely. We played the usual childhood games of the era like “cowboys and Indians”, “cops and robbers”, “house”, tag, hide and seek and so much more. I was also allowed to go to the corner store which was about 3 blocks away without having to cross any busy streets to buy things for my mother. We played from morning until the street light came on which could be as late as 9:00 at night.

I remember on rainy days, Mother would play some music on the phonograph so we could dance in the dining room. Se liked to play the “Beer Barrel Polka” and would pick us up in her arms and whirl us around. She walked with us. During the winter, we went skating with her.

One of the neighbors got a TV and everyone in the neighborhood went over to see it. It had a tiny screen. It was so small that I could barely see it in the crowded room.

About the middle of summer, I noticed that Mom would listen very carefully to the news telling me to shush when certain things came on the radio. It was the report of the number of polio cases. I was too young to know what that meant. Mom told me that it was the number of sick people with polio in Minnesota.

I didn’t know what polio was. I had measles the year before and was quite sick. Mom said polio was worse. A little boy down the street was taken away in an ambulance. Mom said he had polio and I knew Joe. As the summer went on, the kids weren’t allowed to play together any more. We were all confined to our yards. We could sit on the edge of the property and talk to other kids. We didn’t play in each others houses any more.

Mom scrubbed and washed all the food. She peeled grapes. She peeled the tomatoes. Sometimes she let me help. My brother got sick and my parents got worried. Dr. Robb came by our house to see my brother. He got better and my mother got sick.

My brother and I were not allowed in her room. Mrs. McDonald from across the street came over and got our lunch. My Aunt Darcy took us to her house. We went home at night when my Dad got home. I knew things were so very wrong. My Dad cooked us breakfast for the first time in my life and didn’t smile.

After a couple of days, Mom went to the hospital. They said she had polio and I couldn’t see her. They told me she was in an iron lung.

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After some time, she could breathe without the iron lung. They told me she couldn’t move her arms and legs very well. She was still in the hospital. My brother and I were not allowed in the hospital, so Dad drove us to the hospital and pointed to Mom in a window. We waved at her.

Some days we were with Aunt Darcy and my cousins. Some days we were with Aunt Betty. And some days we were with Mrs.McDonald. It was a crazy time where things changed every day. Everyone changed. Mom was in the hospital with only day visits for about six months.

Very slowly, Mom got better but never fully recovered. She needed help doing some things and had difficulty walking. And slowly, the world righted itself again while we all got used to a new reality.

In 1949, there were 42,173 cases of polio and there were 2,720 deaths in the United States. The epidemic was also in Canada and the UK.

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My brother and I on the front steps of the house. I recently got a lot of pictures of my childhood and memories are being revived. I have also found that some of the memories have changed a bit when I see the pictures.

Joe, Where Are You?

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I walked into the kindergarten class of Ms. Sawyer in Pontiac, MI where I was going to tutor kindergartners who were not “kindergarten ready”. In other words, the kids did not know colors, shapes, identify numbers and letters and sit still for about 10 minutes. About 95% of the kids qualified for both free lunches and breakfasts. Sometimes this was the only food they got for the day. I was told not to give the kids any gifts so as not to create a classroom problem.

Ms. Sawyer introduced me to the five kids I would work with once a week for about a half hour per child. Joe was a large chubby little boy who would be one of my kids. The first week, we sat down and just got to know each other in a separate space right outside the classroom. Joe was charisma personified and wanted to take me on a tour of the school rather than sit still. He could not sit still for any amount of time. I asked Joe to tell me about his life and he squirmed. When I took him back to the classroom, the kids were sitting on the floor waiting for a story. Several kids shouted for Joe to come and sit next to them.

I worked with Joe all year and found ways to help him sit still learn a little. I found when I was teaching him about animals and singing “Old McDonald had a Farm” with him that singing had an amazing calming effect. So, we sang songs about shapes and colors. I knew this was not going to work in the classroom but Joe was catching up. And his home life was getting worse.

One week I came and Joe had been suspended. He was under a table for story time and lifted a table with his feet which turned and landed on another child. It was termed violent.

The next week I changed things a little. I got permission to let Joe visit the therapy dog at the end of the half hour if everything went well. Joe and I got a lot done. Each week he hugged and snuggled with the large Golden Retriever therapy dog. His dad got out of prison and things improved a little. By the end of the year, Joe was up to speed.

During the year, Joe found his way into my heart and now after fifteen years I wonder where he is and how he is doing.

My Sweet Summer….

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When I was sixteen, I visited a girlfriend in Wolf Point, Montana for the Wolf Point Stampede(rodeo). The picture above is the parade for the stampede. My girlfriends mother was mostly absent so we were left to our own devices. Her mother owned the hotel so you can imagine how midnight snacking was a step above what I was used to at home.

A lot of the rodeo people were staying at the hotel. I was from Minneapolis, MN so it was such a different way of living. The town in normal times had a population of about 2,500. Within two days, I was being greeted by name and found out about communication in small towns. I was amazed that all the stores could be on one street. It was a place where the only elevator in town was in the hotel.

We spent a lot of time at the Stampede. Not only did I see my first rodeo. I got to meet many of the riders. The rodeo people all knew each other and saw the Wolf Point Stampede
as a warm up for the Calgary Stampede. There were real cowboys and Indians everywhere thwt did not look like any movie i had ever seen. I got to try barrel racing and had fun with it.

My friend was called a breed meaning she was half white and half Indian. She had told me but I saw that it meant that some people didn’t talk to her. It also meant that amount the kids she was friends with both whites and Indians.

During that brief summer so long ago, she introduced me to my first love. A handsome tall Assiniboine Sioux young man with piercing blue eyes who was a year older than I was. We fell in love and saw a world in each others eyes. We went to the Sweet Shoppe and talked for hours. He showed me his home on the reservation so different than my home. I met his parents and they were so nice to me.

They both has Masters degrees in English and weren’t allowed to teach so they were wheat farmers.

He was a bright young man and when I talked, he listened. I had a new friend. We walked by the banks of the Missouri River saying nothing just walking. We sat by the river with our toes in the water. I got sunburned and he showed me a plant that took away the sting. When the sun went down and it got cold, he gave me his jacket. He told me of his hopes and dreams and I believed him. We wanted to get married.

Instead, I took the long train ride home.

My mother hid all the letters he wrote. She told him I wasn’t home when he called.

We got in touch twenty years later and he had realized many of his dreams. I learned today that he passed away and I found I still had a piece of my heart that was his.