Organic mixed media artwork by Kay Sexton
Friday before Thanksgiving was a sunny, mild day in Kansas City. The temperature reached 69 degrees. The heads of Mrs. Meyers' sixth-grade students visible over the backs of the school bus seats were enjoying a field trip. The Nelson Atkins Museum was a short ride from school, and there was a rumor we might stop at the Dairy Queen on the way back.
The number 58 bus had the bumpiest ride in the fleet. My brother said it was because a third grader was hanging too far out an open window on a trip to Swope Park. The bus hit a hole, and the kid fell out of the window. The back tires rolled over him. His bones were crushed up so small, the bus company couldn't get them all out of the wheel hubs. That was why Number 58 had a rough ride. I had no bank of information from which to pull a contradictory explanation. My brother was five years older than me, and I had no reason to doubt him. He gave me the nickname Gia when he insisted on pronouncing my name with three syllables: Georgia.
It was the perfect day for a field trip. Kevin Irvin was home with the chicken pox, so the ride was quiet. It must have been tough to have chicken pox at Thanksgiving. I thanked God Kevin was not with us to pull some dumb stunt to get us kicked out of the museum. I knew for a fact some of the women in the paintings upstairs were 100% naked. Although our tour was of the Egyptian exhibit on the first floor, Kevin was always a risk for disaster.
Another benefit of the bus ride was sitting next to my best friend, Alfreda Gibson. She was so smart, she read library books from the adult section. Her laugh was like an explosion, deep but not dopey like a boy's laugh. She was the first Negro in our entire school. All Mrs. Meyers' students had to take a note home telling our parents a Negro student was joining our class. My parents told us to be nice to the new girl or else.
I fell in love with Alfreda right away. She was exotic. I knew every experience, every thought of my classmates. We all lived close to school. We all walked home to similar houses, with similar families. But, Alfreda came from another place. I wanted to know about that place and the people in it. She accepted my intrusive interrogations with a good nature.
In the front lobby of the art gallery, Mrs. Meyers told us to line up in four columns and went to speak to the guides huddled around a small desk. We must have looked like a bunch of cymbal-playing wind-up monkeys trying to scurry into the columns next to our friends, then scurry to another line if a kid outside our comfort group—such as a stinky boy or a mean girl—pushed into the line. Mrs. Meyers turned and clapped her hands. The clapping ricocheted around the huge room, setting the flags fluttering.
We held our formation for several minutes. Mrs. Meyers and the guides remained at the table, their heads together and slightly cocked as if trying to hear something. Alfreda stood on tiptoe to see what was on the desk. "It's a transistor radio," she said. We all sprang to silent attention when the huddle broke up. The guides walked away from us and disappeared around the corner. Curiosity turned to a fear, making my stomach clinch like an internal fist.
"Students, please turn around and walk calmly and quietly to the bus." No one moved. "Now, please," Mrs. Meyers' voice cracked. She walked around our formation to lead us outside.
"What happened?" we asked.
"We are returning to school, now. The tour has been unexpectedly cancelled," Mrs. Meyers replied.
"What happened?" we asked again.
Mrs. Meyers turned her back to us and started walking. She was not angry; we knew our teacher's angry posture. She pulled a tissue out of her jacket pocket and wiped her eyes. "She's crying," I whispered. Alfreda nodded.
The bus driver parked at the end of the parking lot. He sat on the bottom stair of the bus, the door open to let in fresh air. He leaned forward with one elbow on his knee. He held a transistor radio in the other hand, up close to his ear.
The students broke ranks as soon as we left the gallery. We talked in normal voices. A teacher can not shush students outside; everyone knows that rule. Same for parents and kids outside of church after mass.
The driver stood when he saw us charging toward the bus. Mrs. Meyers made a quick headcount. As each of us mounted the first stair onto the bus, the driver repeated to us in a low voice, "They shot the President." It reminded me of communion at church. The priest repeated "Body of Christ" so many times, the words melted together into one. "They shot the President" became "eysotaprezent" by my turn.
"Driver, please," Mrs. Meyers said. "We are returning to school. We will give the students the information they need when we get there."
Too late. The news left us silent and nauseous, like the cafeteria line on Harvard beets day. Mrs. Meyers sat behind the driver, listening to his radio.
Alfreda cupped her hands around her mouth and whispered in my ear, "The Russians shot President Kennedy."
Her breath tickled inside my ear, but I did not move. From the seat behind us a boy asked, "Why?"
She turned around to face him. "To start the war."
Alfreda was the most credible kid I ever met. She read adult newspapers, and if she wasn't certain about some topic, she said nothing. The students sitting around us leaned over the backs of the bus seats. We formed our own kneeling huddle. One boy stationed himself in the back seat to monitor the clear November sky for planes, bombs, and particularly for a mushroom cloud.
I had not a shred of doubt there would be a war with Russia. We had nuclear bomb attack drills starting in fourth grade. We watched films about nuclear bomb tests showing the blast, the wind, and the mushroom cloud in that order. I recall the fire came last, burning down everything. I think most of my friends considered war a certainty. Our only hope was to grow up before it happened so we wouldn't die at school, away from our parents.
My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Doyle, told us about the bomb shelter under the school. "We will not be able to leave the school," she said. "Not for three weeks, until the radiation is gone." Mrs. Doyle voted for President Kennedy. We found this out after the election. She spoke with conviction and certainty about how a war started by the Russians would play out.
"How big is the bomb shelter?" one of the students asked.
"Big enough. People from the neighborhood can get into the shelter, if they run," she answered.
"What about our parents?"
"They will have to stay home. If your father is at work, he will have to stay there."
"Why can't we go home?"
"You can't go outside for any reason after an atomic bomb hits anywhere near Kansas City. You have to stay inside, wherever you are when it hits, for three weeks. So, if you are in school when it happens, all of us will have to stay in the shelter together for three weeks, until the radiation outside is gone," she explained.
"What will we eat?"
"There is food and water already stored in the shelter."
"Crackers, I think," Mrs. Doyle said. We waited for the rest of the menu, but she did not mention anything else.
"Why can't we eat in the cafeteria," Kevin asked.
I knew the answer to that question. "Because the cafeteria ladies will be skeletons from the bomb," I pronounced. "It turns people into x-rays and then they disappear. My brother told me."
"What does he know?" Kevin asked.
"It's what happened to the people in Japan when we dropped the bomb on them." I had no reason to doubt him, so I repeated what he said.
"Why just the cafeteria ladies and not us?" one smart girl snarled in disbelief.
Kevin took this question. "Because of their metal hair nets, stupid. The radiation gets caught in their hair nets like lightning. Zzzzzzzz."
Mrs. Doyle said hairnets were not made of metal but elastic thread. She did not respond to Kevin's follow-up question about why the cafeteria ladies would not be in the shelter with us. She went to the blackboard and drew the division bracket, and we started arithmetic.
After leaving the art museum parking lot, Bus No. 58 turned onto 47th Street. At the Troost stop light, I stood in the aisle. "Mrs. Meyers, let me off the bus, please. My house is only four blocks away. I can walk from here."
"Please sit down, Gia," she said.
I walked up to the front of the bus and tried again. "Now, it's only three blocks. If the Russians attack, I want to be home."
"Sit down. We are going back to school to get more information."
I turned and looked out the bus window. Mrs. Meyers was at the end of her patience. Her cheeks flushed under her freckles when she was annoyed by a student's behavior. Still, I had to try. The bus would turn off 47th Street at the next intersection. "I don't want to die at school, away from my parents. Please, it's only two blocks. I can almost see my house from here."
"Is your mother home?"
"Oh, yes, she's always home." I thought Mrs. Meyers's resolve was cracking. "I'll run all the way."
She pulled me onto the seat beside her and spoke close to my face. "You are upsetting the other students. I can't let you go home and not the others. Please sit down. We have the rest of the school day to finish. I would hate to give you misbehavior points today."
Mrs. Meyers stood and faced the students. She told us to remain calm. She had been listening to the news on the driver's transistor radio, and we were not in any danger from Russia or anything else. She said the best thing we could do is carry on and be good students and good citizens to honor our dear President.
I sat beside her for the last few blocks to school. I did not feel relieved by her words. All I could think about was if I had to die at school, away from my family, I would hate Mrs. Meyers for the rest of my life.
Back in the classroom, we sat in our seats, waiting. One of the boys asked if we should go to the basement. Mrs. Meyer looked out the window and said, "I don't see a tornado, do you?" She was clearly frightened, too. The principal came into our room. She and Mrs. Meyer talked in low voices in the back of the room. Mrs. Meyers nodded several times and the principal left on her rounds to the other classrooms.
Of all the horror scenarios I had created in my mind over the last hour, or borrowed from whispered conversations on the school bus, I was not prepared for the announcement Mrs. Meyers made next. She wrung her hands, lifted her chin, and chose her words with care. "Children, our President has been killed in Dallas, Texas. Your parents will tell you more when you get home. We are closing school for the rest of the day."
She paused, expecting some inappropriate response. She looked ready to tell us to settle down or even to shut up. But we were too numb to make a noise or even a move. Mrs. Meyers continued. "The principal has called your parents. You are to walk home quickly. Some parents are coming to pick you up and drive you home. I will call the names of those students in a moment. Remember this: America is safe, and you are safe. Please remain in your seats while I read the names of the students being picked up."
Mrs. Meyers read a few names. She dismissed the rest of the class to walk home "quickly but carefully." Then, she said, "Gia and Alfreda, please remain behind." The rest of the class went to front of the school to wait for their parents. Mr. Hamm, the gym teacher and only man in the whole building except for the custodian, met them outside and waited with them as the cars pulled up to the curb.
"Your mothers did not answer the phone when we called," she said.
"My mama's at work," Alfreda said.
"Can we call her at her job?"
"No, she works at the apartment building where we live. She helps my daddy. He's the maintenance man."
"So where is your mother?" Mrs. Meyers asked me. This was 1963. Few mothers had jobs, and those who did rarely had their own car.
"She's always home, all day. Unless she walks to the grocery store or goes outside to hang clothes on the line. Sometimes, she walks across the street to visit Kevin's mother. They are good friends. Of course, now that Kevin has the chicken pox..."
"I see. We will call her again. For now, both of you stay here. Since this is an emergency dismissal, we can't release you to walk home unless we know a parent is present. I'll go down to the office and try to call both your mothers again."
Alfreda and I walked to the windows. "Look," Alfreda said. We watched as Mr. Hamm walked each student to their parent's car. "Tracy is getting in Debbie Miller's mom's car."
"So?" I said.
"Maybe Tracy's mom said she could go to Debbie's house."
"So?" I said again.
"Let's get downstairs and get a ride with someone, stay at their house a while, then walk home later."
"Come on," I said.
Alfreda stopped at the side blackboard. She wrote in very large letters: "Gia and Alfreda got a ride home." She ran to catch up with me. We flew down the front staircase and out the front door. I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw Kevin's mother parked at the curb. He wasn't at school, so why was she here?
"There's Kevin's mom," I said to Mr. Hamm. "She's waving at me."
Mr. Hamm walked me to her car. She explained my mother was with Kevin and his chicken pox. "I volunteered to come for Gia. Her mother doesn't drive." Mr. Hamm nodded his approval of the arrangement.
"Alfreda is coming, too." I said. We were holding hands on the curb.
Kevin's mother leaned over in her seat and looked at us though the passenger window. "Just Gia," she said.
I looked at Alfreda. Her chin was not wobbling, but mine sure was.
"Why not?" I asked.
Kevin's mom looked at Mr. Hamm. "I'm sorry. My husband would have a fit if he came home and found her there."
That made no sense. "But, she will go to my house, with my mom and me."
Kevin's mom shrugged and apologized to Mr. Hamm.
I felt Alfreda's hand loosen around mine. She stepped back. I stepped back. Who would leave one child on the curb in wartime? As if we planned it, Alfreda and I ran back to the building. Mr. Hamm turned to another student whose father was standing by his car at the curb.
Alfreda and I scrambled through the school doors and looked out the window. "Your mother will be mad," Alfreda said. Neither of us had a reason to doubt it.
We looked up the stairs to the main hallway. The lights were turned off. Mrs. Meyers would have seen the note on the blackboard and gone home. Alfreda pulled on my arm. "This way," she said. We turned right and followed a little hallway to the cafeteria. It was empty and dark and smelled like Pine Sol. Our shoes hitting the floor echoed in the big room. We sound like a herd instead of two scared children.
That's when I realized we were the only two kids—only two people most likely—in the whole building. The stories I would tell my brother, if we survived.
Alfreda was looking around behind the counter where the ladies worked. "What are you doing?" I asked.
"Looking for a telephone. Must be one in the cafeteria," she said.
Of course, the cafeteria needed a telephone to order food or to call for an ambulance if some kid got poisoned. I joined Alfreda in her search. I opened the refrigerator and found a pan half full of apple crisp, my favorite cafeteria dessert. We were unaware of any school rule against students raiding the cafeteria refrigerators. We helped ourselves to big bowls of the delicious treat.
We were two friends having a snack in a deserted cafeteria in an evacuated building. We owned the school. We could make our own rules. Today, the Kansas City School Board was providing every chair and book and every mouthful of apple crisp to Alfreda and Gia, personally. I made a promise to myself that wherever I might be in the future, if I had a chance to be the only person in a building, big or small, I would stay by myself as long as possible.
"Are you mad?" I asked Alfreda.
"Kevin's mom not letting you go to her house?"
"No. I am glad you stayed, though," she said.
I could not leave the discussion alone until Alfreda admitted she was hurt or angry or at least aware she had been insulted by a mother who made peanut butter and gherkin pickle sandwiches for her daughter's school lunch. "You don't think it was because you are a Negro?"
Alfreda scrapped the sides of her bowl with her spoon. "Maybe. I guess if I'm going to die this afternoon, or even later this evening, I prefer to be with my mama and daddy. If I can't be, then here is just as good as any place."
I leaned forward on my stool. Even though there was no one to hear me left in the building, I felt I needed to keep my voice low. "Let's look for the bomb shelter. Then, we'll come back here and call our folks again."
"I don't want to see a bomb shelter. Let's go to the library."
A loud voice called from the cafeteria door. "What's going on in here?" The man's voice filled the cafeteria. "Do I hear rats in here?"
Alfreda and I quick ducked under the table. Was this a Russian? Were they in Kansas City already? How many soldiers were coming behind this commie scout? The sound of heavy boots grew louder as he came closer. We could see his legs next to our table. He was wearing overalls. Neither of us knew much about Russian soldiers, especially details about their uniforms. We were about to find out.
"What kind of rats eat out of bowls with spoons?" he growled. "Big ones. I'll need more than this broom to get them."
Alfreda placed an index finger on my lips. "Is that you, Mr. Curtis?" she said quietly.
"Come on out, girls," he chuckled. "I've been watching you for ten minutes."
"Sorry about the apple crisp," Alfreda said.
I added, "We were looking for a phone."
"It's hanging over there, on the wall. Get up off the floor and rinse out these dishes."
"We can't go home if there isn't a parent to receive us," Alfreda explained to Mr. Curtis.
"On whose orders? Well, dead president or not, I have to clean up after 200 messy kids. You can wait in my office. I have a phone and you can keep trying to reach your folks. Don't touch anything else besides the phone."
We followed Mr. Curtis out of the cafeteria and around the front staircase to a door behind the stairs. He unlocked the door and flipped on a light. The room behind the stairs was full of cleaning equipment and supplies: mops, a big bucket on wheels with a squeeze handle, toilet paper, and towels stacked in a corner. Against one wall was a big sink, at least three feet deep. Beside the sink, a small cluttered desk with a creaky rolling chair completed the custodian's office. The telephone sat on a pulled out desk drawer. "Help yourselves, ladies," he said pointing to the rotary phone covered in greasy dust.
"I'm off to finish cleaning the restrooms," he said. He rolled out the mop bucket, tucked a few rolls of toilet paper under one arm, and rattled off down the hall.
"Let's ask him to show us the bomb shelter," I said.
Alfreda stared a hole through my forehead. "Why would you want to see that?"
"I'm curious. Aren't you?"
"I've seen basements before," she answered.
"Oh, come on. Just a quick peek from the door. We don't have to go inside. At least we will know where it is. We can be the first ones there when we need to go there."
"So you want to go to a basement room with Mr. Curtis? That may sound safe to you, but it sure does not to me."
Alfreda looked around the room. She pulled a paper towel from a dispenser over the sink. "He could drown one of us in that sink," she said. "Or lock us in here and go home for the weekend."
"He's a school custodian. The PTA and the school board would never let him work here if he was a child murderer," I said.
Alfreda wiped off the phone receiver with the paper towel. She wrapped a corner of the towel around her index finger before inserting it in the rotary dial. "Watch the hall," she said. I poked my head out the door and listened for the sound of Mr. Curtis's heavy footsteps. He would not sneak up on us again.
Alfreda waited, holding the receiver away from her ear. "No answer," she said. "Your turn."
With a fresh paper towel, I called my mother. She had been washing and hanging wet clothes outside on the clothes line. Taking advantage of the unusually warm Friday. "The school must have called every time I went outside," she said. "Walk on home, now. I have the television on and your dad's coming home early."
"I'm bringing Alfreda home with me," I said, not asked. "Her mom's working."
I waited for the answer to come, expecting it to be "no." I looked at Alfreda on guard by the door.
"Well?" I asked mom.
"That's fine. Your daddy can take her home if she needs a ride. We'll eat a little early, so she's welcome to join us."
We held hands as we walked on tip toe around to the front of the stairs. We stopped at the front door. Mr. Curtis had chained the two doors together and locked the chains with a padlock. Did he always lock the front doors this way, or was it just to keep the two of us inside?
Alfreda grabbed my shoulder and turned me to face her. She pointed to her feet and slipped out of her shoes. I nodded in understanding and removed my shoes. We walked as silently but as fast as we could through the cafeteria. On the other side of the hall was the girls bathroom. By the sinks was a little hall and a door opening onto the back playground. There was no chain, but even if it was locked, the push bar would open.
We ran across the back playground in our socks and down a flight of stairs to the sidewalk on Forest Avenue. From there we could run to 47th Street and then down Virginia half a block to my house. We were so close to safety, as long as the Russians did not fly over.
I stepped into my shoes and checked the sky for vapor trails.
"Are you still looking for the Russians?" Alfreda asked. She struggled to force her feet into her shoes without untying them.
"Aren't you afraid of war?"
"No. If war comes, we'll all be equally dead. I'm more afraid of things that actually happen, like girls being molested by weird men," she said.
We started walking quickly down the street. When we reached 46th Street, Alfreda stopped. "I live that way," she pointed toward Troost Avenue.
"We're not supposed to go home if there is no one to receive us," I said.
She reached down and straightened one of her anklet socks. She stood up and held a key in front of her face. "I'm not afraid of breaking that rule. I am afraid of a driver throwing something at me as I walk down the sidewalk. I'm afraid of a white boy blocking my way. I'm afraid of those things because they have happened to me. That's why I keep my eyes focused down her on Earth."
I nodded, but it would be years before I really understood.
"Want to meet me at this corner and walk to school together?" I asked.
"Not as slow as you walk." Alfreda threw back her head and rustled the leaves with her laughter.
After supper and the dishes, our family watched television for the rest of the evening. The next day, I told my brother about being locked in the school by Mr. Curtis, and running through the girls' bathroom and down the stairs with Alfreda in our stocking feet. "We saw the bomb shelter, too. It was huge, all set up with sofas and cots, tables and stools. There was a big refrigerator and a stove with six burners like at church."
"I don't believe you went to the bomb shelter," my brother scoffed.
"But you can't be positive, can you?"