Growing up, Nikita Khrushchev was the man of my dreams. He crept into my bedroom via the late night news my parents watched after I had gone to bed. My sleep was filled with scenes of fiery explosions and mushroom clouds.
During the day, Khrushchev filled my thoughts as I crouched in my school hallway, hands over head, during regular air raid drills. Through the crook of my elbow, I saw the ragged rows of my kneeling classmates bordering the brown linoleum that defined the school corridor. I strained to hear the roar of planes approaching. I thought breathlessly: Maybe this time, it’s the real thing and Russian planes, on Khrushchev’s orders, were flying past American defenses and over my school, planning a direct hit on Camp Avenue School in Merrick, Long Island. There would be a flash, and everybody in the school would be dead. We’d never see the people we loved again.
But soon, the “all clear” signal was given. Just moments before, the day had appeared like a cloth with children’s folded bodies along the rippling edge. Now, it unfolded like a length of seamless satin, smooth and without a wrinkle. We trooped back into the classroom and resumed our lessons. Our teachers had assured us that America had the edge in this nuclear age. Further, God would never abandon our country. The air raid drill was “just in case.” I was a Brownie in the Girl Scouts so I understood: “Be prepared.” Khrushchev’s Kremlin was no match for Kennedy’s White House.
Lunch period came, and I saw my best friend, June, in the cafeteria. June and I wondered, how could an evil man like Khrushchev live in such a fairytale setting? The Kremlin, with its colorful domed roofs enchanted us. We knew the Kremlin domes were called onion domes. But June and I preferred to think of them as soft serve ice-cream, like the kind we got at Carvel on summer week-ends. “This one has chocolate sprinkles,” said June, “and that one has strawberry and lime sprinkles.” “He’s like the witch in Hansel and Gretel who lives in a house made of candy,” said June. We imagined ourselves to be nuclear age characters in a Grimm’s Brother fairy tale. We joked about how we’d like to lick off the sprinkles and catch Nikita Khrushchev, in his underwear, inside the ice-cream Kremlin. We’d be heroes, saving America from his evil plans.
In our Long Island town, air raid drills were signaled by a siren that wailed from the local fire station, the Merrick Volunteer Fire Department. We knew that fire station very well as it was half-way between our two houses. We would call each other saying “meet you half way,” and find one another in front of the huge white firehouse doors.
On week-end evenings, we used to meet in the parking lot behind the firehouse. Along with the other kids, June and I would come to listen to the Fire Department marching band practice. That year, for some particular reason, they chose La Cucaracha as their set piece.
The band was really bad, especially Frank. He played trombone. Really, really badly. At times, the exasperated band leader would announce: “Everybody from the top, except Frank.” All us kids would blast wrong notes from our clenched fist trombones, braying into the air “I’m Frank. I’m Frank.”
In between renditions of La Cucaracha, June and I would get Good Humor from the ice-cream truck, crouch by the fence, and discuss some serious topics. The most important was love. We discussed different kinds of love. We talked about how we loved our parents. We admitted that we really loved our sisters, even though we fought a lot because they were sometimes mean and nasty. We spoke endlessly about the love we would feel for our husbands when we would finally meet them, sometime during college. We knew this meant leaving our families, and we often posed questions to one another about “what if.” “What if you met the man of your dreams and he was from California and he wanted you to move there?” What if you fell in love but the man didn’t love you back?” “What if you met somebody and he was a different religion?”
These discussions were cut short when the band began to play again. We would join the other kids and turn our attention again to La Cucaracha. One summer evening, crouching by the fence and eating Good Humor, June again brought up the subject of love. “What if,” June asked “the air raid whistle blew on a week-end evening? Would you go home and die with your parents? Or would you stay here with me at the firehouse so that we could die together?” Because, “ she continued “we’re best friends.”
It was the first time in my life that somebody had made a declaration of their love to me, and asked me to do the same. It was a serious moment in my life. We weren’t little kids anymore.
June and I vowed to stick together. We would comfort each other during those few moments before the world came to an end in the nuclear attack launched by Khrushchev’s orders from the ice-cream domed Kremlin. “Don’t worry,” June whispered, “we’ll see our parents in heaven after we die together.” I wasn’t so sure, but I didn’t want to make June feel bad. We didn’t say another word. We just looked at one another and smiled, eating our Good Humor ice-cream and knowing that our friendship was strong enough to survive a nuclear bomb.