Montreal – Wednesday, October 17, 1962
Sixth grade was an armed camp, riddled by rumours of puberty.
At recess, us girls were getting our first detailed reports about sex from older girls who had learned about it from even older girls. At the far corner of the schoolyard, the boys pretended to throw a ball against the wall, but we knew what they were really thinking.
Kids we’d known all our lives were sprouting hair and starting to bulge in embarrassing places. Boys who’d sung soprano in choir now goofed around in the back row, laying bets on which girl would be the first to wear a bra.
It was the Day Three of the Cuban Missile Crisis and we were living under a mushroom cloud. As the days grew shorter and prospects for peace darkened, my brother and I decided to throw our first party ever.
My brother and I were twins. Fraternal twins. Having shared a womb we often saw eye to eye. We drew the line at speaking in unison. We were not freaks, after all.
After supper we took turns telling our mother of our plan to celebrate Hallowe’en in the recently renovated basement, with a few friends. She looked worried. “Ask your father.”
He was in his chair in the living room, hunkered down behind the headline: “KENNEDY READY FOR SOVIET SHOWDOWN.”
We positioned ourselves on the nearby couch and waited until he looked up.
“Dad, we want to have a Hallowe’en party and invite our friends. Is that OK with you?”
After a while he looked up again.
“Are you planning on inviting boys?”
“Boys and girls, Dad.”
Our father rattled his paper and cleared his throat. “When I was your age, I went to a party where boys and girls were both invited. The girls prepared the food and the boys ate all of it. After that the girls just sat and cried. And everybody went home saying they wished they’d never gone. Not much of a party!”
Not much of a story, either. It was the saddest, stupidest thing we’d ever heard. “What year was that?”
We stared at the bald old relic who had survived two world wars and the Great Depression, but had never got over his first party.
“Dad, that was the olden days! It was wartime. You lived on a farm! Our party won’t be like that! We’ll be dancing the Locomotion, not some polka!”
“You’ll be dancing the what?”
In the end we decided my brother would invite his friends, and I would invite mine.
The Cold War was heating up: it had now spread to the Caribbean. More missiles were detected in Cuba. America and Russia started testing hydrogen bombs.
In English class we added another new word to our vocabulary: “annihilation.”
Soon armed warheads would be flying back and forth over the North Pole, and our streets and backyards would turn to rivers of radioactive sludge. Rumour had it that if you built a family bomb shelter, you could survive in it for weeks on canned food and soda biscuits. But once it was all over and you crawled back outside, there’d be no one left to play with but mutants. To make things worse, our leaders had decided to blow up the whole planet by Christmas. Who’d be better off after a nuclear war: the living or the dead?
Dave Nuttall, aka Know-It-All, our Sixth Grade class pundit, predicted we could all be dead before we got our first taste of teenage love. The boys would die before their first shaves; the girls would go flat-chested to early graves.
If we survived war and puberty, we might end up looking like Miss MacIntyre, our Sixth Grade teacher, who in contrast to our other teachers was young and pretty. When she stood on duty in the school yard, the girls always crowded around, admiring her nails, trying to guess her age, begging to know what her middle name was. We jockeyed for the privilege of holding her hand so we could scan them for any engagement rings. Rumours of her imminent marriage flew. We needed details!
The day she coached us on air raid procedures, a new diamond glistening on her left ring finger, the girls in the front row nearly fainted for joy.
When was the Big Day? Who was the Lucky Man? Miss MacIntyre maintained her secretive smile. Even the boys loved her because she was blonde, and set aside class time for heated discussions on topics that mattered, like puberty. Behind her back, Dave mimed her sexy curves until she swung around and rapped his fingers with her pointer. Then she made him stand up and use the same pointer to locate Cuba on the map of the world.
Cuba was that island, just off Florida, which hung down into the ocean like a You-Know-What (snorts from the boys, looks of disgust from the girls).
“You may sit down now, David. Cuba is where President Kennedy has set up his naval blockade.”
But Fidel Castro, whose bearded face reminded us of beatniks and “Ban the Bomb”, had responded by mobilizing his army of peasant soldiers. So then the Russians detonated a hydrogen bomb over Siberia, just to let everybody know they were ready to go to war to defend their missiles.
If we kids had acted like that, we would have all got sent to the principal’s office and expelled from school.
On the bright side, though, annihilation meant we’d never get old like Mrs. Farquharson, well into her eighties, who taught the “slow” children and looked like a big, fat toad that had hopped out of the Book of Revelations. She sometimes visited our class to lecture us on Religion.
It was the week before Hallowe’en and if we didn’t grow up fast, we might miss out on life altogether.
Overnight, a siren had sprouted on a telephone pole next to school, and we had our first air raid drill at 10 a.m. In the halls, alarm bells were ringing. In every classroom, children stood up and formed a line, moving in single file as if the Russians were attacking our suburb with nuclear missiles. We clattered downstairs in our boots to the basement to await orders from our principal.
We fidgeted in silent rows as our teachers formed a line next to Mr Campbell, who started to mumble a speech. It was all about following orders, and defending our way of life, instead of giving into communism. A fate worse than death. Better dead than red, like the man said.
Suddenly it was Thursday and our Hallowe’en party was only two days away. While President Kennedy met with members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to iron out the last little details of the coming nuclear war, my brother and I realized we had forgotten to send out invitations. Maybe it was not too late to call this party off.
We pretended not to look as kids started opening the little envelopes we’d handed out at recess to our select guest list. We were shivering with a strange anticipation, the way first-time soldiers might as they headed into battle badly prepared.
Our record collection was minimal. The Beatles hadn’t been heard of yet. However, my brother and I had a new 45 or two we were planning to play at the party. That night, down in our basement, we practiced doing the Monster Mash. You had to move your feet as if mashing bugs into the linoleum, while pumping your arms and wiggling your hands.
I was working in the lab late one night
When my eyes beheld an eerie sight
For my monster from his slab began to rise
And suddenly to my surprise
He did the mash
He did the monster mash
With its new knotty-pine walls, our basement looked nothing like a laboratory. Loaded with dust and family secrets, it lacked the squalor of a real dungeon. Behind one wall was an unfinished room with a cement floor, a washing machine, and an oil furnace. Under the stairs were shelves for storage and an open area where my brother and I performed small Vaudeville acts for our mother from time to time. Our piano also was down there, next to the door. On a small chest was a turntable, and on the shelf above it a large walnut-lacquered short-wave radio, covered with dials. It was my father’s, and dated back to the last world war when he had been in the RCAF Signals Corps, scanning the airwaves for Nazi code.
Looking around, I saw it as if for the first time. Why were our possessions so obsolete, why were our lives so uninteresting, why were my parents so much older than everyone else’s parents, why was our drab bungalow devoid of European knickknacks like the ones I had seen at another girl’s birthday party? Why, why, why?
It was too late to back out now. On Saturday, October 27, a U-2 spy plane accidentally flew into Russia. Another was shot down over Cuba. Then an American B-52 dropped the biggest hydrogen bomb yet over Johnston Island in the Pacific. The bomb was named CALAMITY and weighed 800 kilotons.
With the world hovering on the brink of nuclear war, we ran out to the store to buy more soft drinks and snacks. Paralyzed with fear, at 4 p.m. we opened the door to the first guest. Soon they were arriving every five minutes, kids I saw every day at school, who now acted like strangers. We got them through the door and past my huddled parents, who waved from the living room as we all trooped into the basement the way we’d done it at school the week before. We were a well-trained army heading into annihilation.
A party starts with pop and chips. That much we knew. After that, it is a series of embarrassing seconds, followed by minutes, adding up to hours, which have somehow to be filled with fun and excitement. If you failed, your girlfriends would talk about you in the schoolyard behind your back for a week.
I hoped the assembled guests would just get up and dance. Instead they separated into two groups and headed for opposite corners of the room. The girls sank into chairs and complimented each other’s hair. Soon the boys, clustered together in a giggling, squealing mass beside the piano, were shooting darts at the dartboard on the wall. My father had been right. History would always repeat itself.
Then I remembered the Locomotion.
Everybody’s doing a brand new dance, now
Come on baby, do the Locomotion
I know you’ll get to like it if you give it a chance, now
In seconds they were all on their feet. Rosemarie Boucher led them in line–who would have guessed this conservative girl was a wild dancer? The next kid hung onto her hips for dear life. And the next one, and the next. We were really doing the Locomotion. Upstairs my parents watched television and tried to ignore the rock and roll blasting up through the floor and the ventilation system.
So this was puberty! Only last week we were just sixth graders. Now we were teenagers doing the Locomotion and other dances we were learning at the time: the Twist (we had that one down pat); the Hully Gully, the Monster Mash. Then we ran out of records. In the lull, some guests started squinting at their watches. Something else was needed to resurrect the magic.
The previous Christmas, we had asked for a Ouija board, and gotten it. After a few failed attempts at contacting the spirit world, we gave up. The little three-legged table refused to zoom around the board, its little felt-cushioned feet remained rooted to the spot, and every time my brother or I nudged it forward, the other of us would yell out “No fair! You’re pushing the pointer!” Ever since then, it had stayed in its box, inert. Until now.
Everyone gathered around the card table and hauled up chairs. Two kids were selected to be “mediums”. After a few minutes of nothing happening, suddenly the little heart-shaped Ouija table slid forward.
“I didn’t push it, I swear!”
A chill crawled up the back of my neck.
“Ask it something!”
“What should we ask it?”
Certain questions weighed on our minds, such as the middle name and exact age of our teacher, Miss MacIntyre. The Ouija moved, and headed for the letter J. after which it spelled out the rest: O – A – N – N – E, and from there it went to the 2 and then the 6.
“But she looks much younger.”
Could we trust this Ouija, though? “Who’s there?” We spelled out the question, cautiously, holding our breath.
The pointer began to move, until it came to the letter S. From there it went to A, then to T, then back again to A. It floated over to the N, where it rested for a moment, before shooting down to the square that read “GOODBYE”.
We quickly folded up the board and the card table and the party. Everyone rushed upstairs, to go to the bathroom, and call their parents. On their way out the door, they thanked my mother.
“Thank you, Mrs. McLean. That was the best party I ever went to!”
My Dad was in his chair in the living room when the last kid left. While we were dancing the Locomotion, he had opened the basement door. He must have seen us dancing, all together, boys and girls.
The night we had our party, President Kennedy stood firm, Khrushchev backed down, and the standoff ended without anybody getting annihilated. When I came to say good night, my mother congratulated me on my party. I kissed her goodnight and went to bed. We might get to grow up, after all.
The following Monday at school, we crowded around Miss MacIntyre and told her the news.
“We found out your name! It’s Carole Joanne MacIntyre. You were born 1936 and you’re 26 years old!”
Her face darkened to an adorable shade of pink and she looked ready to start handing out detentions.
“Who told you that?”
“Satan,” said Dave Know-It-All.
The Ouija board was right. Later that week, some boys snuck into class during recess and opened her desk drawer, rifled her purse, and found all the same information written right on her drivers’ licence. They got in a lot of trouble over that.