In Civil Defense of Root Beer Floats

After the events of the past few days, I was thinking…I don’t remember feeling so vulnerable as an American as I have since 9-11, but that isn’t true. In fact, I remember the Cold War era of my childhood and the air raid drills at school. Duck and Cover. It was an odd game to young children, but one look at stern Miss McDonald chilled even the most innocent heart. Bombs were never as scary as she was.

Then there was the day the Civil Defense ran an air raid drill in downtown Auburn just as I was leaving the dentist’s office. I was 12 years old and felt pretty wise for my age. Didn’t I go to the Saturday movie on my own? And ride the bus by myself! I just went to the dentist. On My Own, for heaven’s sake. But the adults were run-walking to the shelters with such a look of anxiety on their faces. It was a drill. Right?

Well, I turned away from the bus stop and began to walk home…the opposite direction from the shelter that was in the basement of W. T. Grant’s. Somehow heading toward that black and yellow sign and down into a basement with fearful adults made me want to go home to my mother. I was twelve and could take care of myself and besides old Miss McDonald wasn’t there to scowl at me. W. T. Grant’s was where I liked to sit at the soda fountain and savor a root beer float. They gave you two straws and you could make springs out of the wrappings. I would swing my legs while I sat on the stools at the counter and watch the hot dogs go round and round on the grill. Somehow root beer floats with two straws and air raids just don’t belong together.

Fallout ShelterAfter just three or four steps of my westward journey on Genesee Street, two firm, gloved hands had clamped down on my shoulders and put me back in the path of the scurrying grown ups. Turning my head I glimpsed up at the hard hat with the Civil Defense logo and figured the old man under it must be Miss McDonald’s twin brother. He wore the same look on his face…”This is not a game, little girl.” It was like being in rapids and I was pushed along despite my dread. Funny how I still remember the sound of leather soles on the steps in the echoing stairway and shiver.

Since at 12 the concept of time revolves around…time for school…time for church…time for breakfast, lunch and supper…time for bed…and I was too young for a watch…it seemed forever that we stood among the stacks of ’emergency supplies’. Boxes and boxes with that terrible logo. No danger of a root beer float down here. As if we were hiding from some unseen invading force, the adults stood in small clusters and spoke in whispers. Their faces were oddly lit with a sickly yellow wash. There was a faint and unpleasant smell of floor wax, sweat and a light lavender perfume.

I felt homesick. I wanted my mother and HER clean smells of fresh starch and perfume. I wanted to laugh OUT LOUD and jump rope and to sit on the front porch when it rained. And I wanted to run up the stairs and sit at the soda fountain where everything smelled right.

The “All Clear” siren wailed and like salmon we swam upstream…up the steps…to the light…to Genesee Street where I broke away and headed west…homeward…and the adults found their original paths and assumed their light strides as if they hadn’t stood in a fallout shelter…in the semi-dark and with an uncertain boogeyman lurking in the shadows. Adults were baffling to me then. Maybe they still are…I know I wonder at myself sometimes.

I never spoke of it to my mother. A young widow doesn’t need her daughter’s fears added to the big worries she already had. So I adopted the behavior of the adults. I worried in the basement and headed for the sunshine when it was All Clear. But I never sat at the counter at W. T. Grant’s again. I took my root beer float reveries to the counter at F. W. Woolworth’s across the street and learned to ask for an extra straw.

They didn’t have a bomb shelter there.

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2013.  All Rights Reserved


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