by Emmett Smith
When I was a small boy in the 1950s, we knew that there were some real unnamed dangers around, but we were kept from it all pretty much, except that there would be from time to time a classmate obviously being hurt by their grownups in one way or another. And there was the usual ration of playground bullying, and bullies. Also, on Tee Vee there were loads of black-and-white programs about what to do in case of atomic attack (at least when the Andrea Doria wasn’t busy sinking after ramming the Stockholm off of Nantucket, and we weren’t watching Mickey Mouse Club and Axel And His Dog.) In school we’d practice hiding out from radiation under our school desks and in the long gallery beside the gym (under big steel beams two storeys up!) But in south Minneapolis there were spacious avenues of elm trees, too, and in Wool, in Dorset, lovely beeches. Somehow with all the trees in my life, I felt hidden away safe anyway. Especially when the great B-36 atom bombers would galumph along high overhead the treetops, climbing away from Norfolk and North Dakota, way high up and leaving thrashing contrails. My father showed me with a string on our globe how far it was from England to Germany on RAF and Air Corps air raids in WW II — a little short distance, not even two inches — and how far in a great circle it was from Siberia to Minnesota, maybe eight inches. So I felt real safe then alright. On picnics south of Fort Snelling, on the south bluff of the Minnesota River, we could see the downtown Minneapolis skyline to the north, seven miles away, just the Foshay Tower in those days. Pop reckoned the blast and fire would take a mile a second, so he would let off an unnecessary flashbulb with his camera, and my friend Mark Bergquist and I would duck for cover in the sunlight behind the WPA-built limestone walls of the picnic ground, whilst Pop counted (like Lawrence Welk): “A-one-and-a-two-and-a-three….” My mom said: “Just don’t get caught by your first one in the bathtub!” If we made it to cover before Pop stopped counting we’d be safe. (Sometimes though, Pop said, the Russians just might drop their H-bomb on the airport instead of downtown, and only just a mile away from the picnic ground and Mark’s and my houses in opposite directions across the mile-long Mendota Bridge, “that’d be a close call!”) Then, on Saturdays, we’d sit on the walls with binoculars and watch the F-80 Air National Guard fighter jets do scrambles from the USAF fighter station across the river. Our house was at 40th Av S and E 50th St, in south Minneapolis, and one day in 1958 or 1959, the summer after Bergquists moved to Omaha, I was hanging around on the steep cityside embankment above the the air base, on 48th Av S, with Sandy Beno — I really liked her! — and Georgia Ramstad and some other kids, when a kid called Greg Zornes I remember flew a box kite into a landing transport’s fan jet. He went to Morris Park Elementary I think, but we all were from Minnehaha School. That’s what we said to the cops coming down the streets after, “There were Morris Park kids flying kites!” The wire fishing leader on the kite smashed the turbine all to pieces, the transport plopped down in the brush short of the tarmac and there was a loud bang and fire. No one was killed or hurt though, they had time to get away to safety and so did we, biking like Hell in every direction across south Minneapolis. Our parents mostly said, “Oh, for Christ’s sake!” when maybe they heard we’d been around the scene of the crash. Most dads had been in the war, and Mrs Schwarzbauer and Mrs Egolf had been in the Army and drove trucks on the Alcan highway. Mary Brustad’s dad was in the Navy on the Indianapolis and used to call us kids “sharkbait!” It was a joke, only I read now just a few years ago about the needless sinking of that battleship in 1945, sixty-three years ago now. “Hey, you sharkbait kids, don’t go flying any more kites by the air base then!” Willy Nelson, next door, was in the Signal Corps in New Guinea and jumped by accident into a souse hole on some beach during a landing. He lost an eighty pound radio rig when he paddled up for air, and the Army took it out of his pay. Whenever we heard these stories we felt real safe alright, all of us kids. And, anyway, even if your folks were jerks, we all had a pretty good idea about Later On….
[Emmett R Smith all rights reserved 2 December 2008]