“It is insane that two men, sitting on opposite sides of the world, should be able to decide to bring an end to civilization.” — John F. Kennedy, commenting on the Cuban Missile Crisis, 27 October 1962
I wake to a hand on my shoulder. Dad’s voice is urgent, “Get up, Scott!” The light in the bedroom is on and I squint up into his face. Dad’s eyes are wide and he’s shaking me hard, not gently, the way he usually does when he wants to wake me.
I rub my eyes. An inner clock tells me that it’s the middle of the night. Already my hearts starts to race with alarm. “What . . . ?”
“We’re being attacked.” He swivels to my little brother Sparky’s bed. “Edward!”
Attacked? As my brain claws toward alertness, I hear sirens wailing in the distance. Not the melodic bursts of code directing volunteer firemen to a fire. These are shrill swooping wails.
Sparky groans and tries to roll over. Instead of arguing, Dad scoops him up, blankets and all. “Put me down!” Still half asleep, Sparky kicks as Dad cradles him and turns to me. “Come on!”
Barefoot, heart heaving with panic, I hurry after him out onto the cold hall tiles where we nearly crash into Mom, who’s carrying an armful of things she’s just gotten from the kitchen.
“Hurry!” Dad barks, and we scurry down the hall. In the dark playroom he opens the closet and, with a loud clatter, sweeps away whatever toys and games lay on top of the square metal trapdoor. Outside, the sirens continue to blare.
“What’s going on?” Sparky cries, awake now.
Mom dumps the things from the kitchen on the floor and pulls him close. “It’s okay. Don’t be scared.”
But now loud banging comes down the hall from the front of the house.
I gasp. “What’s that?”
Without answering, Dad yanks the metal trapdoor up and points down into the square of darkness. “Go!”
I can’t see a thing. “How?”
Crash! Glass smashes somewhere in the house.
“What’s happening?” Sparky wails.
“It’s okay,” Mom soothes. Then to Dad: “Hurry!”
I feel Dad’s arms pick me up and lower me into the emptiness. My feet dangle in the dark air. Frightened that he’s about to let go, I dig my hands into his arms. “I can’t see!”
“Feel the rungs with your feet!” he commands.
I find a cold metal bar with my toes just as footsteps slap into the playroom. It’s Janet, our maid who stays over one night a week. She’s pulling a light blue robe closed and her eyes are moons of terror.
“Go down!” Dad barks at me.
“Richard!?” From somewhere in the house, a man’s voice echoes through the dark.
The metal rungs hurt the bottoms of my bare feet as I lower myself. The dark air in the shelter is cool and damp and smells like mildew. Suddenly boxes and bags of things shower down, bouncing off my head and arms, and falling into the dark below. I cry out in surprise even though it doesn’t really hurt. Already Mom’s feet are on the rungs just above me.
“Hurry!” Dad yells.
“Ow!” Sparky cries, and I wonder if Dad accidentally banged him into something as he tries to lower him through the trapdoor.
One of my feet touches the cold concrete floor, the other steps on a box that collapses with a crunch.
“In there!” a man’s voice shouts.
Above me Mom yells, “Careful, Edward!”
Suddenly there’s scratching and grunting overhead. Sparky cries out and Mom gasps loudly. Something big is plummeting down and I barely have time to jump out of the way before Mom crashes to the floor with a horrible, crunching thud, Sparky on her chest.
“Mom!” A terrified cry tears through my throat. “Sparky!”
“Me could eat horse, Kemo Sabe,” Freak O’ Nature said in the diction of Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s Indian sidekick. Freak O’ Nature’s real name was Gordon Freeman, but his friends called him Freak O’ Nature because . . . well, because that’s what he was.
It was the last week of fifth grade and he, Ronnie, and I were lounging on his lawn listening to Freak O’ Nature’s black transistor radio, which lay on the grass broadcasting the game between the Yankees and the Cleveland Indians. Mickey Mantle, in his first game back from a month on the disabled list, had just smashed a come-from-behind pinch-hit home run to put the Yanks ahead 9-7.
“Who wants to bet the Yanks still lose?” asked Ronnie, wearing a colorful Indian madras short sleeve shirt that was the current height of style.
“Me hungry,” said Freak O’ Nature, who sat cross-legged, all sharp, bony angles, with brown hair, freckles, and thin metal wires across his upper and lower teeth from his bite plates. He wore a white V-neck tee shirt and chinos.
Lying on my back, feeling the grass tickle my neck and ears, I gazed up at the puffy white clouds in the blue sky. The June sun warmed our faces and arms. In a few days school would end and we would have all summer to play baseball and swim and have fun.
On the radio the Indians’ pitcher Gary Bell got Clete Boyer out on a ground ball and Bobby Richardson swinging. But it didn’t matter. The Mick was back and the Yanks were winning.
“Want a Sara Lee cheesecake?” Ronnie asked as he sucked on a stem of clover he’d plucked from the lawn. He was a stocky, muscular kid with black hair greased back on the sides of his head into a ducktail, while the front hung down in a spit curl.
The thought of sweet creamy cheese filling and graham cracker crust made my stomach rumble with anticipation. Even though it was only an hour before dinnertime, and a sure bet to ruin my appetite, I asked, “How?”
“There’s a million of ’em in Linda’s garage.”
Ronnie might have been exaggerating, but we got the point. The houses in our neighborhood didn’t have basements so people put freezers in their garages and filled them with food.
“You mean, steal it?” I sat up and tugged nervously at the hair behind my ear. I’d never stolen anything . . . except for the stuff you were allowed to steal, like cookies from the kitchen when Mom wasn’t around, and Halloween candy from the shopping bag Dad hid in his closet so Sparky and I wouldn’t eat it all at once — but really, we suspected, so he could eat some of it, too.
“We know Linda, so it’s not stealing,” Ronnie insisted. “Besides, you ever looked in their freezer? It’s so full they’ll never notice if one cheesecake is gone.”
Linda Lewandowski had four brothers and sisters so it made sense that there might be more food in the freezer than her mother could keep track of. But even if there’d been enough cheesecakes to fill Yankee Stadium, that still didn’t make stealing right.
Freak O’ Nature gave me an uncertain look. “What you think, Kemo Scott?”
“What if we get caught?” I asked.
Ronnie yanked another clover from the lawn and sucked on it pensively. “What difference will it make? We could all be dead tomorrow.”