My classmates and I had finally reached the fifth grade, our final year at Yorktown Elementary School. We were now the big shots of the institution, strutting around as if we were the owners who ruled the place.
My classroom’s teacher, Mrs. Trempala, was, perhaps, the most multi-layered teacher I ever had at Yorktown. She was nice but often exhibited a very straightforward, no nonsense manner as an instructor. Mrs. Trempala had a way of sensing when we were getting too full of ourselves as fifth graders. She had a knack for giving us a stern look that could freeze the hearts of the strongest of men as she reminded us all that we would be back at the bottom of the scholastic food chain in less than a year. Most of us learned to laugh it off as we grew to know her better. Not out loud laughter, mind you. We were idiots, but not complete idiots.
Still though, Mrs. Trempala did manage to instill a modicum of fear in us by not always writing her lessons on the chalkboard. We protested like crazy, but to no avail, every time she practiced this insane form of educational torture.
“How are we supposed to take notes?” someone would ask.
“You’ll have to write them down as I’m talking to you,” she told us. “You’ll be in middle school next year. Not all of the teachers write their notes on the board. Almost none of your teachers in high school will write their notes for you and none of them will when you get to college. So you better start getting used to it.”
“But college is so far away,” a kid named Bill shot back. “Why should we worry about that today?”
“Bill,” Mrs. Trempala retorted, “if you don’t change your study habits, you’ll never need worry about taking notes in college.” Mrs. Trempala’s acerbic wit was another layer of her classroom persona and had quickly become the stuff of legend. We loved it. This occasion was neither the first nor the last time she brought the ceiling down by cracking wise that year.
Whether it was a fifth grade thing or something new to the entire school that year, Mrs. Trempala had what had to be the unenviable task of leading us in occasional nuclear attack duck-and-cover drills.
Drills, in general, were nothing new to us. Every year the entire school went through tornado drills and fire drills. The fire drills came in handy one year as we had to evacuate the building for what was rumored to be a bomb threat. We kids stood outside for what seemed like the longest time as word spread of the potential destruction of the school. To our dismay, the threat turned out to be false.
The nuclear attack duck-and-cover drill was nothing more than us crouching down on our knees and covering our heads beneath our desks. Seemed like a perfectly safe and sensible plan to all of us in the room. That sensibility was later crushed as we learned the ugly truth of such an attack.
A few of us boys were talking one day about what little we knew about nuclear attacks. Jeff, one of my teammates on the Expos team that summer, told us he had heard that Muncie was one of the top targets for the Soviets. When asked why, he told us he heard that all of the manufacturing and the dense collection of railroad tracks made Muncie so important to our nation. It gave us all a sense of pride that Muncie was such a high priority target. That pride was later crushed as we learned the ugly truth of such an attack.
One day Mrs. Trempala showed us a government film about the devastation wreaked by an A-Bomb. We were transfixed by the immensity of the detonation and the resulting mushroom cloud. Next came the wider damage as the blast wave knocked down virtually every building in its path. The visual damage was horrifying enough. The description of the effects the bomb has on human beings left many of us catatonic.
The narrator informed us of how the initial fireball instantly kills everyone at ground zero. The blast wave killed a large percentage of people close to the blast zone. The further away one was from ground zero, the better their chances were of surviving the blast wave. They had the pleasure of a slow, lingering death from radiation poisoning. The ones at ground zero may have, in fact, been the “lucky” ones.
I, myself, was one of the students in a stupor well before the film ended. I longed for the “birds and the bees” film we watched the previous school year. That film, while kind of shocking at the time, seemed like a Disney featurette compared to the film we were currently watching.
When the film ended and the window blinds were raised, many of us looked outside across the parking lot and the playground towards the entrance to downtown Yorktown. It took no imagination to realize we were all picturing the same thing – the utter destruction of our little hometown.
The next nuclear attack drill had a different feel to it. It seemed ridiculous and worthless to me to cower underneath a desk in the face of the destruction that was to come. If the necessity arose, all I would be doing is protecting the floor of the classroom from damage incurred by the desk.
Thankfully, it never came to that. The flooring in that room was old and a few years shy of needing replacement. I was happy to have not wasted my life protecting it.