Hidden scars that should be revealed



We did do atom bomb safety drills in grade school. We did. No one today can believe that kids actually practiced huddling under their desks or huddling in the hallway, but indeed we did practice huddling in places that even then we knew would not protect us at all in the least.

We could talk for a while about how crazy this was, to practice huddling, and how silly it was for figures of authority who surely knew that we would all be roasted instantly no matter how well we huddled to insist in no uncertain terms that we practice huddling, or even get annoyed when some kids did not huddle very seriously or silently, and actually no kidding mete out punishment for kids who were not huddling at all, but I would rather consider the actual act of huddling, because rarely do we think about huddling, not to mention collective huddling, and huddling in straight lines, and huddling by gender and age, all of which we did, some years ago, in grade school, not far from the very ocean over which the atom bombs would travel.

I don’t know about your school’s atom bomb drill, but our school’s atom bomb drill began with a crackling announcement over the public address system, and as soon as we heard the words bomb drill we were required to kneel under our desks and huddle with our heads between our knees, resting either on our forearms or on the cold linoleum floor, our choice. No, you could not squat, and no, you could not sit cross-legged, and no, you could not curl up as if you were taking a nap, and no, you could not sprawl supine with your legs poking into the boy huddled under his desk in front of you. Unbelievably there was a proper position in which to huddle during atom bomb drill, and that position was enforced by our teacher, who twice that I remember patrolled the aisles correcting huddling form and kneeling down herself to exhibit proper form for those children who were just not getting the idea.

If by chance you were not in your classroom when the public address system crackled with the principal’s grim voice saying the grim words bomb drill, you were required to huddle along the walls of the hallway. No, you cannot huddle in the bathroom. If you are in the bathroom when you hear the words bomb drill, walk, do not run, walk out into the hallway and join your classmates in huddling along the walls of the hallway. If you cannot immediately find your classmates, huddle with whatever students of whatever age are huddled along the walls of the hallway. Older students will make an effort to be attentive to younger students, who may be frightened, and should be calmed gently. If by chance you are outside the school when you hear the words bomb drill, you are to huddle along the nearest walls, be they the walls of the school, the convent, or the rectory. Do not leave the school grounds under any circumstances. Avoid open areas. Again older students should pay special attention to younger students, who may be frightened, and should be calmed gently.

Never that I remember did any student or teacher or janitor or secretary or librarian or nurse or assistant principal or principal or pastor discuss geopolitics, or the morality of war, or the actual physics of being roasted instantly. We just huddled when it was time to huddle. I am sure that there is much to be said about the lies of our leaders, and the hypocritical demonization of the Other, and our own national culpability in roasting enemy cities, but here at the end of the page I just want to remember the rustle and scuffle of children huddling under their desks and in the hallways and out along the walls of the rectory, the almost-silence, the thrill and the fear, the whispers, the snickers, the ache of your knees, the cold baptism of the linoleum floor, the deep private squirm of terror that this time it was not a drill and never again in this life would you see those you loved. A moment later, the public address system crackled again and we stood up and that was that. You can say that we never were bombed, and you would be right, but how many children carry scars from all those moments when they huddled with their heads between their knees? No one ever talks about that, do they? We laugh about the idiocy of atom bomb drills in the old days, because of course huddling was stupid and each child and desk and stone and teacher and wall and roof and crucifix would be vaporized instantly, but it isn’t actually funny at all, is it? Millions of children carry those hidden scars. We never talk about hidden scars like that but maybe sometimes we should, just for a moment, like now.

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Brian Doyle, an essayist and novelist, died on May 27, 2017. To read Epiphanies, his longtime blog for the Scholar, please go here.


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