“Mr. Bell has cancer of the spine,” my mother announced after the last PTA meeting she ever would attend. In six weeks,I would be finished with sixth grade and move on to junior high school where mothers began to specialize, becoming band boosters, football fanatics, or cheerleader chums.
Mr. Bell was the music teacher. He had a raspy voice and used a small round tuner he blew into to get us searching for the correct pitch twice a week when he visited our room while Mrs. Sowers disappeared for forty minutes.
We sang “Dixie” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “The Marine Corps Hymn” from the stapled book full of uplifting songs we stored in our desks. Mr. Bell told us we were all blessed to be born under a fortunate flag. For our first music exam in October, he’d listened to us sing, one by one, “The Star Spangled Banner” from memory, placing us exactly under the flag for our performances.
There was more to it than moving our mouths, he’d explained, showing us the proper posture for singing the national anthem, his back as straight as a soldier’s. All of us had kept eye contact with a spot slightly above his head so we looked patriotic and proud, working our way through the a cappella praise for home.
In January, for an earlier PTA meeting, he’d chosen four of us sixth graders to sing “America the Beautiful” and “Over There” for a room full of mothers. By September, my voice would crack and turn into something embarrassing, but on that January night I could carry a tune in close harmony with Paula Phelan and Nancy Housel and Jimmy Dunmire, all of us soprano and alto. Mr. Bell had introduced us, and we were a hit.
Upstairs, after we’d finished to applause and been allowed to leave so we wouldn’t have to sit through the “business meeting,” the four of us watched the Tennessee Ernie Ford Show on the television that was kept in our classroom because Mrs. Sowers was also the principal. Tommy Sands was the guest. He sang “Teenage Crush,” and Jimmy Dunmire and I sang along while the girls stared at Tommy Sands. “I wish Tab Hunter was on,” Nancy said. “‘Young Love’ is my favorite song, and he looks so cool.” Jimmy Dunmire said he wished Mr. Bell would hand out a rock and roll song book instead of one filled with the second, third, and fourth verses nobody ever sang to all of those patriotic tunes.
Three months later, when my mother said Mr. Bell was as good as dead, she added, “Isn’t it something that he always has such good posture, and here he has it in his back?”
We finished sixth grade without any more music classes. Mrs. Sowers stayed in the room all day except for Friday afternoon art and taught us something she called “enrichment social studies.” We learned all of the Presidents in order from Washington to Eisenhower. We learned the names and dates of our country’s wars right up to the Korean (1950–1953). She taught us Democrats and Republicans, Federalists and Whigs. She had us memorize the states and their capitals, beginning with Albany, Atlanta, Annapolis, and Augusta. We needed to know everything about the United States, she said, including the names of the national parks and their spellings, or we’d become bad citizens, ones that the Communists could brainwash.
Now, more than ever, she explained, we needed to take care of our bodies and minds, and that summer I finished getting my polio shots, my mother smiling as I walked out of the doctor’s office. “There’s one less thing that can jump up and get you,” she said, but shortly after school began, the Asian Flu cleared out half the students in every class I had. “We don’t have a quorum today,” Mr. Wargo said in history, but nobody knew what he was talking about, even when he shook his head as if a quorum was something to be taken seriously like Communism.
Millions of people around the world died from the Asian Flu, but everybody in my school returned within a few weeks. In October, just after I stopped singing in seventh grade music class, moving my lips like the rock stars on the Saturday night Dick Clark show, the Russians put Sputnik into orbit, and nobody at school cared about music anymore, or art, or even English and history. Everybody in the seventh-grade took a test, and by January thirty of us were assigned to advanced math and science, the chosen ones out of the three hundred or so in the seventh grade.
Our math book had letters as well as numbers in it. We said algebra instead of arithmetic and carried slide rules and copies of the Periodic Table. In ten years, we were told, we needed to be in charge of outer space, because if we weren’t, the Communists would be, and they would be certain to make our lives miserable from “up there.” “Somebody better learn something quick,” my father said, “or we’ll all be under the red boot.”
It didn’t look good. One American rocket had blown up on the launch pad; one had just sat there until it toppled over. “We have Elvis Presley,” our science teacher said. “The Russians have Sputnik.” In November, the Russians sent a dog up in Sputnik II. “Laika,” the newspaper said. “The dog’s name means barker in Russian.” The dog spinning around the world made us study harder, but after a week it died when the oxygen ran out. “Just like the Communists,” my mother said, “to let it die like that.”
“How do we know it was inside?” my father said. “How do we know that dog didn’t die as soon as it blasted off?”
My parents gave me a microscope for Christmas. By the end of January, when the police were hunting for Charles Starkweather and his fourteen-year-old girlfriend Caril Fugate because he’d killed eleven people, I was tired of looking at bits of dust and strands of hair and drops of my saliva. By the time the police caught both of them in Wyoming, the United States had launched Explorer into orbit. “Our first satellite,” the science teacher said. “We should all be proud.” Except in science and math class, all we talked about was murder, how Charles Starkweather looked like a hard-nosed rockabilly singer, somebody with a haircut like the high school boys who didn’t take any science classes at all. And Caril Fugate was only a year older than we were. What girl did we know in eighth grade who would ride off with the boy who killed her parents? Vanguard, the next satellite, went into orbit in March. “Now we’re cooking with gas,” my father said.
In April, my old grade school building was declared hazardous. Its fire escapes were unsafe, something we’d all known the year before, but now a corner of the roof tore loose and fell into the playground ten minutes after recess ended. Jimmy Dunmire and I still played basketball there, stuffing balls through the eight foot high baskets we’d been happy to grab with our hands the year before.
We looked up at the missing corner and talked about where we’d stood for nut fights during fifth grade, when it was a craze to slap drilled buckeyes threaded through a shoestring against each other until one of them split and fell to the ground. It looked as if those bricks would have fallen right about where everybody stood around to watch the short, small duels.
I knew from listening to Mrs. Sowers that the window sills on the second floor were twenty-five feet above the asphalt playground. I guessed it was another fifteen feet to the roof. If you jumped from the windows, I said, you’d break your ankles. If you jumped from the roof, you’d probably die. We’d looked down from those windows from fourth to sixth grade and not once had either of us said he would jump for a dollar or even for five dollars. You could tell, just from looking, that twenty-five feet was too far for safety.
I started to calculate the velocity of the bricks when they hit the ground. I knew the formula, and Jimmy Dunmire nodded as if the numbers I cited meant I couldn’t be wrong. He wanted to see more bricks fall. “That would be cool,” he said, brushing his hands across his new flat top haircut. “I bought ‘Kiss and Make Up’ yesterday. It’s so cool I played it fifteen times in a row.”
Mr. Bell, my mother heard, had returned to teaching. “A miracle,” she said, but we didn’t see him because he only taught music at the grade school, and by May the talk of miracles had dissolved because Mr. Bell suddenly had “retired.” Jimmy Dunmire stopped going to the school playground with me. He joined a singing group called The Coachmen who dressed in black and red and sang doowop songs like “Come Go with Me” and “Speedo.” The other three guys were a year older. None of them were in advanced math or science.
Starting in July, I played “Summertime Blues” by Eddie Cochran over and over. “Now you can’t use the car ‘cause you didn’t work a lick,” I’d sing along in my deepest voice. I bought Chuck Berry and Little Richard records and had a flat top pasted into shape with some pink gunk that came in a tube I twisted up like lipstick. When I heard a doo-wop song like “In the Still of the Nite,” I thought of Jimmy Dunmire and the rest of the Coachmen singing it, how they would sound.
The nuclear submarine Nautilus sailed under the North Pole, something that was sure to scare the Communists, and the first nuclear power plant at Shippensport, less than an hour away, was cranking out electricity. “See?” my father said. “See what America can do when it puts its mind to things?”
When eighth grade began, we learned simultaneous equations in algebra and created graphs that took on shapes besides straight lines. In science, we stood beside Bunsen burners and wore goggles and followed directions, no exceptions, in order to see, first-hand, how the world worked. “Science is war,” our teacher said. Soon enough we’d see what he meant by that as he marked the map of the world hanging from the back wall with a flag that represented our class. When everyone had mastered how to calculate the lifting force of levers, he advanced our flag toward Moscow. When one of us mislabeled the water cycle, the Communists moved closer to our homes.
During the battle of electricity, AC and DC and the reason our light bulbs let us learn in the dark, the Soviets swept across Europe while he repeated “Filaments, incandescence, amperes, ohms.” When he returned our unit tests, he smiled and moved the Communists back into Poland where they’d begun. The room was an atlas. We all drew accurate diagrams of a battery, ready to invade.
Outside of class, I didn’t say one word about algebra or the intricacies of an electric circuit to anyone. I memorized all the verses to “Stagger Lee” and sang them to myself while I practiced my jump shot on a regulation basket another boy’s father had put up on a nearby street.
On the first day of December, there was a huge fire in a school in Chicago, so big that it was on television. For once, I watched the news, and my mother even bought a newspaper on Tuesday, something she never did, to read the story and look at a page full of pictures. There were more pictures the following day, and though that school, Our Lady of the Angels, was three times larger than my old grade school, it looked, from the side, to be identical. It had the same tall windows. The newspaper said the second-floor windowsills, like the ones at my old school, were twenty-five feet from the ground. The outside was brick, but the inside, like ours had been, was all wood that was dry and brittle from years of service. In fact, my old school was even older. Our Lady of the Angels had been built in 1910; Glenshaw School had been constructed in 1899. I remembered that date from the cornerstone close to where the roof had fallen because anything from the nineteenth century seemed so old it was like it had never happened.
There were almost one hundred dead students and nuns. “God have mercy on their souls,” my mother said.
“And the ones burned and still alive,” my father said. “They’re in for it.”
“Why didn’t they all jump?” my mother said, but I didn’t say a word about acceleration and what it was like to hit the cement from twenty-five feet up. Though the windows weren’t as high off the ground at the junior high school, I had most of my classes on the third floor. That Tuesday I looked down from the windows of each room I entered to see where I would land if I had to jump. Two of the drops led to cement. Some of those nuns had told their students to pray while they waited for the firemen to arrive with ladders, even the eighth graders like me who surely, I thought, would have ignored that advice and rushed for the windows no matter how far it was to the ground.
By then, Mr. Bell had been dead for three months. My mother found out a week after he died, two days after he was buried. Except for days of big news like the Our Lady of the Angels fire, we didn’t get a newspaper except on Sunday when it was thick enough, my mother said, to be worth it, and his death notice had run from Wednesday through Friday. Since the beginning of school, I had spent less time with Jimmy Dunmire because he wasn’t in the accelerated classes, which were filled mostly with boys who lived near Mt. Royal Boulevard, boys who’d attended the new grade school that was slung low like the houses they lived in, ranch style with big lawns that never had dandelions. On December 1,the day of the Chicago fire, we started junior high basketball practice, and I felt like I was playing alongside a stranger.
Just before Christmas vacation, Jimmy Dunmire sang with The Coachmen in the school talent show. They took first place, and girls crowded around them in the hall, the four of them in matching chinos and shirts. In Cuba, Fidel Castro was winning a war my science teacher was worried about. “He’s with the Communists, just you wait and see,” he said, “and here he’ll be right next door to us.”
I got a chemistry set for Christmas from my parents. Between Christmas and New Year’s, I made up my own experiments and stunk up the house when I started a small fire. “Don’t you know what you’re doing?” my mother said. “What are they teaching you over there?”
I listened to the radio from noon to six on New Year’s Day to hear the Top One Hundred songs of 1958. I sang “For Your Precious Love” and “Little Star” in my head where I sounded exactly like Jerry Butler and the lead singer of The Elegants. I played air guitar to Duane Eddy and Link Wray. “Rebel Rouser” sounded like the South would rise again; “Rumble” sounded like the world would end in a gang fight. When school began again the following day, I walked out of the locker room after basketball practice with Jimmy Dunmire, making fun of the whiz-kids in my science classes, boys who didn’t even try out for basketball, boys who, even now, couldn’t touch the rim of the eight-foot baskets at our old school playground.
Gary Fincke’s fourth collection of short stories, Sorry I Worried You, which won the 2003 Flannery O’ Connor Award for Short Fiction, and Amp’d: A Father’s Backstage Pass, his nonfiction account of his son’ s life in two signed rock bands, were both published in 2004.