The paperboy wire leads to another time and place.
By the time I was eleven or so, we had moved to Portland. My mother and father had divorced. Annie had gotten some sort of initially undiagnosable malady. She had had exploratory brain surgery which had yielded no diagnosis. We had moved temporarily to Seattle to live with my mother’s parents so that a chiropractor that the grandparents knew could try to cure Annie with chiropractic adjustments. She had died. The autopsy had revealed that she had died of brain cancer. If the cancer had been diagnosable it wouldn’t have made any difference because the cancer once found was identified as having been inoperable. My mother and father had remarried and had a baby girl named Mary.
Having a “baby” sister, as opposed to a “little” sister lifted some of the weight of grief I felt for the loss of Annie. I was at an age and in a psychological state that made me an ideal baby sitter. It wasn’t as if my parents officially charged me with taking care of Mary for some discrete period of time on some periodic basis. I wasn’t paid for taking care of her. It was more as if, except for my school hours and highly infrequent engagements with friends – I basically didn’t have any friends – I was Mary’s shadow, her keeper, her mentor as she grew, and her earliest best friend. And she was probably my only friend; I had a few acquaintances.
So I took care of her a frequently. We lived at the time in a duplex in northeast Portland. It was a duplex, but it was old enough to be quite large and charming. It had one of those asymmetrical floor plans that were used when they built duplexes in the old days. The two sides were different. They weren’t the same size. Our side, although quite large, was smaller than the other unit. We even had a basement. The building was on a corner lot, at the corner of 17th and Clackamas, so we looked out on two heavily treed non-arterial streets.
My bedroom was on the second floor looking out on Clackamas Street, which was the side of the house. Mary’s bedroom was at the front of the house, also on the second floor looking out on 17th Avenue.
One evening my parents were out and Mary and I were home alone. It was about 9 or so in the evening, and I was playing with a radio I had, putting a newspaper binding wire antenna on it. My antenna, while lacking the grandeur of the cat’s cradle, was much longer than the ten or twelve inch piece of wire that most people using such antennas employed. I had gathered as many of those small sized pieces as I could find in the street and had twisted them together into a joined group of pieces that was fairly long. It was so long it needed to be hung out the window to be deployed. I had been at this activity for some time and had heard what I had thought was foreign language on one station, and country music on a station in Idaho. We called it hillbilly music then, and I didn’t like it. As I was playing around with this contrivance there was suddenly a blinding flash that completely lit up the room.
At that time I had a deep and ever present fear of nuclear attack; we called nuclear devices “the atom bomb” at that time. I really lived on a daily basis with fear of the atom bomb very near my conscious thoughts or actually in them when some sort of news about the Russians acted as a trigger.
That flash caused me to hit the floor because somewhere I had learned that hitting the floor was the first thing to do when attacked by an atomic bomb. That was my first, action. It was totally reflexive. My next action was to try to figure out what to do next. I was frantic. I knew I needed to get Mary and me somewhere other than where we were, but I didn’t know where that might be or how I was going to get us there. I got up off the floor, and fearfully looked out the window, intensely worried that my eyes might be incinerated by what I had expected to see. Everything was dark. I thought that maybe it had been a strike far enough away from the city that its effects would take a little time to get to us. I had time. I ran into Mary’s room expecting to find her awake and hysterical. She was sound asleep.
Later in life it became almost impossible for me to believe that I could have really believed that we had been attacked by an atom bomb. But it happened exactly as described. The description could never begin to describe the terror that I had felt.
But even in the face of my complete and total conviction that we had just been hit with an atomic bomb and the stark terror with which I was overwhelmed, there was a whole second level of conscious intelligence at work. I hadn’t yet gotten to the “maybe this isn’t going to be so bad, because it isn’t yet” stage of my thinking, but that was beginning to come into my thoughts. That viewpoint would almost certainly have quickly led me to the obvious conclusion, that since I was alive and not incinerated, the flash wasn’t an atom bomb at all, but something else. But I hadn’t gotten there quite yet. I was frantically analyzing what to do with Mary, where we should go and how, when at the window of her bedroom an amazing image appeared. It was a flash of beautifully defined chain lightning. I had never seen chain lightning before. I hadn’t seen many thunderstorms, and those that I had seen didn’t have chain lighting, although I knew what it was, but I considered it a “back east” sort of phenomenon. No, all I had ever seen was lightning that just made a giant flash from nowhere in particular, like the flash that I had been sure had been an atom bomb.
As I saw the chain flash, and knew what it was, I was surprised to actually finally have seen something that I had always relegated to a sort of myth. At that time I still believed in a personally involved God; I felt that I had just been given a personal message, a revelation that we hadn’t actually fallen into the nuclear abyss. The relief that swept over me was beyond description.