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Once, when I was in the second grade, Jeff Johnson talked me into saying swear words with him. It was not difficult to convince me. For a second-grader, any second-grader, swear words are mystical incantations, special words of power which, when pronounced to the open air, could summon forth the secret powers that lay hidden behind them.

Like most children, I had learned the basic canon of swear words from listening to my parents and their friends. By paying close attention to how they were used, I had worked out a basic hierarchy of the most common curses.  Terms like “crap” and “hell” were hardly treated like swear words at all (the kid up the block once said crap in front of his parents accidentally, and they hadn’t even punished him for it, so he said). “Shit”, “ass”, and “goddammit” seemed to occupy a sort of middle ground. These would get you in  trouble, but parents would often use them in front of the kids and not feel too  guilty about it.

Something called “fuck” seemed to occupy a place of particular significance.  This word was reserved for extreme situations or when the speaker wanted to emphasize a point. I wasn’t entirely sure what a fuck was. In fact, it was difficult to tell, because this word, alone among the words I was aware of, could mean almost anything. One could use it as a verb, as in “he fucked her”. But fucks were also apparently something that could be given or withheld, as the situation required. For example, “nobody gives a fuck about that asshole.” In another context, fuck could function as an adjective and help clarify something in greater detail, like “that was fucking loud”. I was excited to learn more about these strange words, and jumped at the chance to try them out.

We walked out onto the dusty, unused baseball field where we could be safe from the sharp ears and eyes of Mrs. Manna, the lunch lady, who ruled over the midday recess with an iron fist. Then, we said all the swears we could think of from “hell” to “fuck” with great gusto. We challenged one another to combine the words in byzantine permutations ( “yeah and then she craps on his face and shits on his ass.”). This was great fun, and I was getting ready to put together another when Jeff gave me a strange and mischievous look.

“Ok. Now I’m telling on you for saying swears,” he said. He began to jog off the field and make his way toward Mrs. Manna, who was making some kids stand against the wall for something they had done (probably a lesser offense than swearing). I immediately panicked, and began to chase after him. This was my first mistake. Had I simply laughed and told him to go “shit” himself to “hell”, he would have just moved on and tried his little entrapment scheme on some other kid. But Jeff was inherently quick and dominating, whereas I was inherently malleable and slow-witted. I couldn’t match him in terms of fortitude. So, Instead I chased after him and pleaded with him not to tell on me.

I chased him out of the baseball field and across the blacktop. I chased him past the swings and the slide and around the three cottonwood trees.  The whole time, mewling in a high-pitched voice.

“Come on, pal. Buddy. Don’t tell. I thought we were friends.”

“Sorry,” he laughed, keeping just out of reach. “I have to tell.”

“No. You don’t have to tell, man. Pal. Aren’t we buddies?”

“Yeah, I’m gonna tell.”


It went on like this for the entire recess. Me chasing him around the playground. He always kiting me, always just out of my grasp. A couple of times, he stopped and told me he had changed his mind. I would sigh in relief and we would both have a good laugh. Then he would make his threat again and take off running and I would dutifully follow him begging and bleating at him. like a little lost lamb.

Looking back, it seems incredibly stupid of me not to figure out what he was doing. Dude!, I want to shout at my second grade self, he isn’t even running toward the lunch lady. What are you, retarded?” But the idea that somebody would mess with me like this simply didn’t exist in my brain. If he said he was going to tell, then he was going to tell. People don’t say one thing and then do something else. That would make the world a horrible place to live in. Even if he was just having fun, what if he told her anyway? It would mean a trip to the principal’s office for sure; it would mean a phone call to my parents, that or a note home. My panic reached a fugal state as I contemplated the multitude of punishments that might lay in store for me.

At one point, I thought I had found a way out. I tried threatening him with mutual retaliation. If he told on me I’d tell on him. “So what?” Jeff laughed. “We’ll both get in trouble. My parents don’t care.” At that point, all my hope faded. He had me over a barrel. What could I do but chase him? I tried every plea that I could think of, which mostly amounted to saying “c’mon buddy.” or “don’t tell pal…buddy?….buddy pal?” But rhetoric fell on deaf ears. He could not be swayed.

Recess was drawing to a close. A few kids were already lingering near the door, getting ready to line up. Jeff grew tired of torturing me, and made straight for for Mrs. Manna, who was giving the wall standers a final harangue. I followed at a distance, completely defeated in body and soul. He sauntered up to her and told her, “Matt said swears,”

“What?” She growled.

“Matt said swear words. I heard him.” This was it. I was down to the wire.

Mrs. Manna made an angry face, but to my surprise she directed it at Jeff. “So what?” she asked him. “I didn’t hear it, and I bet you said them too.”

Jeff had a surprised look on his face, as did I. He started to say, “yeah but-”

“Nobody likes a tattle-tale, kid,” Mrs. Manna grumbled. “Now get in line.” She looked at me for a moment that seemed to stretch a little. “You too,” she told me in no less harsh a tone. Then, she turned back to the wall-standers. “You kids had better shape up or next time I’ll…” But I wasn’t listening. I had been reprieved. I couldn’t believe it. After all the panic, It was simply over. My life could go on as it had done without the specter of punishment.

I got in line. Jeff had already forgotten about the whole incident, He was laughing and joking with some other kids farther up the line. But I felt different. Sadder, yes. But also elevated somehow. I had been keyed up for so long that something had happened to my brain. I felt carefree, like I was floating. The colors of the changing leaves seemed to burst forth in vivid orange and red. The low October sun seemed almost to set the air on fire.  In my transcendent state, I followed the line inside feeling older, though not necessarily wiser.


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        The Berlin wall was torn down a few weeks before my eighteenth birthday. I can still remember the news footage of jubilant West Berliners tearing the wall down, some of them with nothing but their own hands. It was a joyful time. The cold war was over. It was finally over. This event made me sad and I feel that I should try to account for my reaction, since it was not typical.
        In the early nineteen eighties, at the same time that I first discovered girls, I saw a lot of movies and television specials depicting the effects of nuclear war. Adults, it seemed, were concerned about Reagan’s tough talk and defense spending, and Hollywood was tapping in on the prevailing mindset.
        When The Day After was broadcast on November 20, nineteen eighty three, it was a nation wide event. Across the country, families gathered around their television sets and watched as the United States duked it out with the U.S.S.R. Even my hyperactive step brothers sat still to watch Jason Robards and Steve Guttenberg slowly die of radiation poisoning. The Wagnerian scope of the devastation in this movie was just the thing to captivate an imaginative and introverted twelve year old. I had already learned, from my parents’ divorce that the world could change. It was only a small step in my mind to picture the world being destroyed in a brilliant white flash.
        If you have ever seen The Day After, you will know what I’m talking about. In fact, almost every movie about nuclear war (and I have seen most of them) contains a scene where the screen goes white. This technique is probably used to its greatest effect in the film, Testament, where, in order to simulate a nuclear attack without using special effects, the director had the screen fade to white while Jane Alexander and her kids hide in the corner. When the camera fades back in, the old world is gone, and everything is different.
        The point of the white was to simulate the intense flash of a nuclear warhead going off, but to me it was something more. It was an intervention; it was a moment of grace. There would be a heat so intense that it would block out everything. There would be a white intensity that you would feel coursing through your body. You would become sanctified, purified by the white fire that burned away your past and left you feeling new and reborn. The former world would have passed away and a new Earth would be yours to inhabit. It was like having sex, or so I imagined at the time.
        I thought about sex a lot when I was thirteen and atomic destruction played a prominent role in my nacient fantasies. These fantasies would often include a fallout shelter or a submarine escape pod (for I was very interested in submarines at the time. I assume that all seventh grade boys are). The only two survivors of the holocaust would be myself and a girl named Rene, who had the desk in front of mine in language arts class. Rene was a pretty blonde who had a way of inclining her head and looking at you from underneath her bangs. I was deeply in love with her in the way only a seventh grade boy can be. Rene did not notice me. She was attracted to an athletic kid named Bobbie.
        In order to avoid the nuclear attack, we would have left in such a hurry that Rene would have nothing to wear except for a matching set of pink bra and panties. She would sulk around the submarine in this outfit and treat me badly at first. Slowly, it would sink in that her handsome athlete, Bobbie, had been burnt to a cinder along with everyone else. She would finally warm up to me and we would kiss on deck. It would be a deep soul kiss, with the moon shining over the South Pacific, much like the couples would do on an episode of The Love Boat.
        Eventually we would reach an island. The island would be a heaven on Earth. There would be blue-green waves crashing on a white sandy beach. There would be palm trees. Beyond the beach there would be a dark jungle that was lush with a wild and beastly life. There would be colorful birds. The air would be clean and free from contamination. We wouldn’t need our submarine any longer. My beautiful blonde lover and I would clime out through the conning tower and embrace in the warm, salty air. Then we would walk up the beach, hand in hand, ready to repopulate our brave new world. Of course that is not how things ultimately turned out. There never was a nuclear war and I certainly did not have a submarine. i never found out whether or not Rene had pink panties.
        A couple of years later, when I was in high school, I crossed paths with her at a party. It was new year’s eve Nineteen Eighty Nine. She was stoned and I was pretty drunk. We said hi and made small talk for a few minutes. I thought about telling her the story of my fantasy and asking her whether or not she had pink underwear. I decided not to. I didn’t really know her very well and I was afraid that if anyone heard me asking her about her panties, I would get beat to t pulp by a gang of jocks. So I just told her happy new year and moved on. Eventually we all counted down from ten and cheered. It was Nineteen Ninety. I drove to Denny’s. I sobered up. I drove home.

        It was some time after this time, the following October, when I heard that the Berlin wall had come down. I don’t really know if the cold war was over right then, but that was the prevailing zeitgeist in the autumn of my senior year. The Soviet Union was collapsing very quickly. East and West Germany had been unified. Poland would probably be next. There would be peace, and there would be a peace dividend.
        The end of the U.S.S.R. seemed somewhat less important to me because I had lost my virginity just a week before and I was largely preoccupied with replaying this event in my memory. I suppose I was trying to figure out how it happened. Who am I kidding? I was a seventeen year old American male. It was bound to happen sooner or later, and it was a pleasure to recall the event. It was exciting to know that I had beaten most of my friends in the race to get laid.
        The girl with whom I lost it didn’t have pink panties, as far as I could tell. It was dark. There had been no white flash, no moment of grace or sanctification. There had only been a slight going away for a moment, and a slight returning. The girl (a curvy brunette named Jeanine who I would go steady with a year later) hadn’t even had an orgasm as far as I could tell.
        And now there would be no thermonuclear flash either. There would be no atomic destruction, no need to escape and repopulate the planet. It was a new beginning, but not one that was particularly brave or hopeful. There would only be graduation, then a job (or college and a job), marriage, kids, then a slow diminishment, retirement, death. I thought about the children I would probably have someday. They would go through the same experiences I had gone through. Then I thought about their children and the children of those children. Just living their lives. Trying to get laid and dreaming of something they can’t quite define. And on into infinity, where all colors run and fade into the pure and sanctified white background of the universe.

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