A Brief History of Drills
When I was in the fourth grade, I was certain the world would blow up in its entirety. The Soviets had nukes—we all knew that—and the prospect of it would send my ten-year-old mind into recurring panics. At night, when I was supposed to be sleeping while Mother and Father watched the television, I would lie awake and imagine a group of men in hats standing over a control panel ready to nuke us. The government must have been serious because they put up signs leading to underground safe rooms in courthouses and hospitals in case the bombs dropped. The signs were yellow and black, and they were everywhere you looked, dotting the walls like a bunch of carnival posters. I remember all the warnings, telling us to be prepared, to have food and shelter, to have somewhere to go. And at my school, there were drills—the once-a-month drills prompted by air-raid sirens blaring out across the city. I hated them like I hated my plaid skirts and my bucket lunch.
“Duck and cover,” my school teacher Ms. Willman would say, and we’d all get under our desks and crouch face-down on the floor with our hands clenched behind our necks.
I sat behind Tommy Lorenzen. His black Oxfords would knock me in the head during drill, and we were supposed to be quiet but I always said “ouch” and he’d look back at me and crack one of those dimple-faced smiles of his. I had never seen such craters in a face, and I finally understood it later in life when someone said how dimples were the devil’s passageway. Ms. Willman would come by with the ruler if we dared speak, and after drill, a crack across the palm was the general remedy. When she whacked the thing down, she would clench her jaws and purse her lips. The ruler stung like a hornet and l learned to fear her more than I feared the Soviets.
“Margaret, put out your hand,” she would say.
* * *
My father was in the US Army, and he fought in World War II from 1942 to 1944. He met my mother two weeks before the enlistment and they said there’s such a thing as love at first sight, which I believe to be true. They married in a little church in a little Iowa town surrounded by corn on all sides, and then he was shipped out to Italy. I was a product of their several days being married, and I was born in a little apartment in that little Iowa town where Mother had gone to work with her sister Ida at the ammunition factory, until she had to stop at eight months pregnant.
Ida was with Mother when I was born, and they told me about the blackout drills and how the drills had put Mother into labor. They were renting an apartment above a barbershop, and that evening, Ida was making dinner because Mother was too tired. It was humid out—the kind of humid that makes your shirt cling to the arch of your back. Mother said the townsmen had planned a drill and everyone had to follow it. What you did was you drew your curtains, turned off all your lights, and sat in the dark until the drill was over. Outside, they would cut the streetlights with the objective of not becoming a target, because the enemy could not bomb what the enemy could not see.
Mother said that night, when things went black, she tripped over something and fell hard onto her side. A few minutes later, her water broke and the birth pangs started in. Ida turned the apartment lights on and ran outside with a lantern yelling for help.
“This is the warden,” a man said. “You’re in violation of your order.”
The warden stomped into the apartment and froze still when he saw Mother on the rug with her skirt up and her legs spread wide apart. She didn’t figure he knew what to do, and I guess I came out so fast he had to catch me in a towel.
The day I was born, the Allied Forces bombed Italy. Mother found this out weeks later in a letter from Father; he had to pull bodies from the rubble afterward. Soldiers, mothers, and children. He talked about it once.
* * *
Growing up, we didn’t have sirens like the ones that go off nowadays when the storms come in. We just knew things were bad when the air turned green and the clouds and thunder rolled around like an angry stomach. That’s how it was in the spring of 1958, when I was a sophomore at Brixton High School. It was a Wednesday in late May, and the air could cut your lungs like a sauna. The principal said “tornado” over the loudspeaker and the teachers made us line up in the hallways and crouch into fetal positions with our heads down.
The storm came in and it dropped a twister as wide as a city block and the thing clipped the school and peeled off part of the gym roof like a tin can. I remember just before it hit, how the boy next to me put his jacket over my head and held it over me.
“Margaret, here,” he said. “Don’t worry, I’ll keep you safe.”
I shook like I did when I was ten years old, under my desk, waiting for bombs. As the tornado bore down on the school, the boy shielded me with his body. He didn’t want me getting hit by debris, he said. His name was Carl.
I married Carl ten years later, and we moved to St. Paul, MN, where he got a job at the Deluxe Check Corporation. We bought an old bungalow house and we had two children. I was never in the middle of a tornado again. But they still had drills once a month during storm season, which always started two weeks after they removed the winter street parking signs. At ten a.m. on every first Monday, the sirens would blare. I would look outside to make sure the sky was clear and not green. Sometimes, I could feel a little ping, as if Tommy’s shoe was hitting my head. Duck and cover.
* * *
Like I said before, Carl and I had two children, Robert and Madeline. We raised them in St. Paul and when they grew up and graduated from college, Robert signed on with an engineering firm and moved to Fargo while Maddie took a teaching job at Northbrook Middle School, about an hour east of us.
“Growing up, we didn’t have sirens like the ones that go off nowadays when the storms come in. We just knew things were bad when the air turned green and the clouds and thunder rolled around like an angry stomach.”
One day in 2005, just before Thanksgiving, Northbrook went on lockdown. Maddie called me and said some seventh grade girl left a note in the bathroom about shooting up the school. The girl confessed a couple hours later and got expelled. I told Maddie “good riddance” and that if we’d have done something like that back in our school days, they’d have beaten our palms raw.
When we got off the phone, I searched “school shooting” on the internet. According to reports, at least one US school was receiving a threat every single day. Bomb threat, gun threat, sword-as-long-as-your-arm threat. Written on the side of a school bus or scribbled onto a note left on a desk in the math room. A phone call. An email. Even a fax.
I told Maddie maybe she should take some self-defense classes, but she assured me she was prepared. She told me about ALICE, and that ALICE was not a person; ALICE was defense training for dealing with an active shooter. She said it all started after Columbine.
A few months later, Northbrook went on lockdown again. Maddie was halfway through an English lesson when the warning rippled across the intercom. She locked her door and pulled a shade down over its rectangle window. Then she and some students put a desk in front of the door. She studied the outside windows and plotted an escape route. She told the kids to stay seated, and if there were shots, to get down and crouch under their desks with their hands over their heads. If they had to, they would pop screens and crawl out the back windows.
I found out about Northbrook from a friend who lived near the school and then I did what any scared, protective mother would do: I got in my car and sped toward the school, as if I could do something about it. I drove too fast and I almost clipped a couple cars as I weaved in and out of the lanes on the highway. I got to Northbrook twenty minutes earlier than usual, but couldn’t get onto school grounds; the police had blockaded the streets. I parked next to a man and woman standing outside their cars and asked them what they knew.
“It was a toy gun,” the man said. “They got the guy.”
* * *
I was sixty years old and had worked for the federal government over twenty years, minus the shutdowns. The original plan was to work twenty-five years and then retire with Carl and we’d winter in Florida and go fishing every day. That didn’t happen. Carl died of cancer the day after our wedding anniversary, and that pretty much ruined everything. My therapist encouraged me to find a hobby because of my depression, so I started volunteering in the fourth grade classroom at Central Heights Elementary, a school just a few blocks from my house.
* * *
The levitations started in the fall of 2009, somewhere in Massachusetts or Rhode Island, and spread quickly across the world. The outdoors would turn blood orange within a specific perimeter and a low humming sound would start, like a radio stuck between frequencies. If you ended up “in the orange” while hearing the humming, you’d float upward—or levitate—as the experts would say. You’d go far up until you were a little black speck on the horizon, and then you’d be gone. No one would see you again. And of course they developed a drill for the levitations at all the schools and the public buildings and hospitals. The public service announcements about the drill were everywhere you looked. They called it PASS, which stood for Plug your ears, Assess surroundings, Step out of the orange, and Seek shelter.
* * *
It was Saturday in mid-October, and red and gold leaves had dropped from the trees and blanketed the yard overnight. As I sipped my coffee from the deck, I watched the last of them float down like feathers and drop to the ground. It was time to rake, so I decided to spend my day getting things cleaned up for the season. This would be my fifth winter at the house without Carl, and probably my last. In the spring, I would sell the place and get an apartment. I put my cup in the sink and went outside. My neighbors were already out working, chatting across the fence lines.
“Green men from Mars,” said Bristol, the neighbor to my right.
“No, War of the Worlds,” said Marnie, the neighbor to my left.
The two of them were busy discussing the latest end-of-the-world scenario. As I stood there with my rake, I imagined long tentacles reaching for me as I crouched face-down in a ball, waiting to be snatched. There would be a knock at my head just like Tommy Lorenzen’s shoe, but instead it would be a tentacle snout.
“Whatever’s going on,” I said, “it’s probably not what you think. They always make it out like it’s worse than it really is.”
“This is the end,” said Bristol. “This is the end,” said Bristol. “It’s in the Book of Revelations. Does that have an ‘s’?” Anyway, something in there about seven signs and beasts. I’ve seen signs already. That chapter, it’s all metaphorical, you know—but it’s real. The horsemen are coming.”
“Are they sure it’s not just some country?” Marnie said “You know, with Russia, things have been kind of shady. What if the government’s taking people as prisoners?”
I scratched my rake hard across the grass until I reached dirt. I had to agree that the latest world events made me consider the second coming of Christ, but the whole scenario was becoming quite tiresome. Understandably, the younger generations—they didn’t understand. They were all scared and heading toward mass panic. My son Robert told me there was an international effort underway to build safe boxes for sheltering; engineers were reconstructing masses of shipping crates, and test models were being delivered to public centers everywhere. If you had $5,000 lying around, you could even buy one off Amazon. And companies couldn’t manufacture earplugs fast enough to meet demand.
The PASS drills were in operation across the world. You were to put in ear plugs and then run to the nearest enclosed area you could find. I wondered if one day we would just build tunnels and no one would ever go outside again. Or we would all just carry mobile shelter units.
* * *
I was on playground duty. It was Friday, just after lunch hour, and I was looking forward to the weekend. I would start cleaning out the house, letting go of things I should have let go of long before. All of Carl’s things.
“Ms. Baldwin! Ms. Baldwin!” A kid was shouting at me from the jungle gym. It was Lucy. “I hear a buzzing. It won’t stop. Is this a drill?”
“No, we’re not doing a drill,” I said. “What does it sound like, Lucy?” And then it came to my ears, low and shrieking.
I shouted at the kids, “Everyone inside, now!” They all stopped. “This is an emergency. PASS. Remember PASS?” Some of the kids screamed and others started crying. But they listened to me and they put their earplugs in and filed into a single row, grabbing one another’s hands like they were supposed to. They started toward the school’s entrance. And Lucy was such a good helper. She counted everyone and went to the back of the line, telling kids to get inside as she walked.
“Mrs. Baldwin, are there thirty-five or thirty-three?” Lucy made out the numbers with her fingers.
“Thirty-five, but Austin is sick, so it should be thirty-four.” I made out the numbers with my fingers.
In all, I counted thirty-three children. “We’re missing someone,” I said.
Thinking I possibly miscounted, I scanned the playground and saw a girl huddled under a play gym, sitting on a bench with her hands over her ears. The buzzing was loud now, and the sky was beginning to turn.
It was little Ellen. She was crying for help and wouldn’t move. I ran across the playground to her and pulled her from under the gym. “Ellen, where are your earplugs?” She didn’t have any. She must have lost them. I took my earplugs out and I gave them to her. “Put these in, and do not take them out.”
Everything around me turned orange, and in a second, I scooped Ellen up in my arms and took her to a garbage can nearby. I pulled the lid off and luckily, it was empty.
“Ellen, you have to get in here or you will rise up.” She screamed that she didn’t want to go, and I told her to be brave. I took off my jacket and laid it at the bottom. I took off my sweater and wrapped it around her and lifted her into the can. “Now stay in here until they come and get you. Everyone at school knows you’re in here. They will get you out when it’s safe.”
“Mrs. Baldwin, don’t go,” she said. I told her everything would be fine, and she whimpered as I put the lid back on.
The sky was orange for at least a city block. Realizing how I might not make it back to anywhere safe, I made peace with my situation. When you get enough decades on you that you stop remembering which birthday it is, I think you actually start accepting the probability of your own death. And then once you start losing all the people around you, a curiosity sets in, and you start yearning for time with all your ghosts.
* * *
I hadn’t ever floated before, unless you count bobbing up and down in a swimming pool or that time Maddie and Robert begged me to ride the Gravitron at the county fair and I thought I was floating but it was just centripetal force and then I puked when the ride was over. When I started to rise, it felt like an invisible force was pulling me up. It was exactly how I floated in some of my dreams, actually. I kept going up at the same speed.
I wanted to shout down to all the people and tell them it was okay and to please tell Maddie and Robert I loved them, but I wasn’t able to speak. I wasn’t able to move my arms or legs, either. It was as if the light and the sound had frozen me still. It was calm like the time they put me partway under in surgery and everything was rolling around me. I wanted to tell people they didn’t have to be so scared, but I couldn’t. They would have to find out for themselves.
I saw people at the windows of the school and at the windows of the houses nearby. They were staring at me and pointing. In the distance, others were rising up too. As I continued my ascent, things were becoming smaller and smaller, like when you take off on an airplane. The world around me was silent, and the buzzing stopped. The sky was changing from orange to white, and I was passing through the clouds. Way above the clouds, there was a clearing and a road with people standing in the middle. I was getting closer.