I attended public school in New York City in the 1950s. Brooklyn to be exact. The Fifties was an outwardly serene time in America. Just below the surface, however, paranoia reigned. Polio was rampant, trapping children who couldn’t breathe on their own in cylindrical iron lungs. Premature babies were dying in hospitals for some undetermined reason; and although Fascism had been defeated less than ten years earlier, the new scourge, Communism, was on the rise. Some people saw Red in the flouridated water, on the screens of Hollywood, under their beds, and in the “Bomb,” which could be dropped on us at any time.
Once a week, all public schools throughout the City conducted air raid drills. When the alarm-bell rang, everyone in my kindergarten class--wearing our mandatory issued ID dog tags--filed out of our classroom and into the school hallway, along with everyone else in grades one to six. We were told to sit on the floor and face the wall with our hands over our heads. At the time, none of us thought about or understood what we were doing. It was just another part of the school week. Looking back, I now have to wonder who decided that placing our hands over our heads was going to save us from nuclear attack; or how they were going to identify what was left of us from the, presumably, unmelted dog tags.
It was in this atmosphere that I first came face to face with the heavy hand of officially sanctioned authority. I was in the afternoon session of my kindergarten class. My twin cousins, Joni and Judi, who lived next door to my family and were in the sixth grade of the same school, picked me up at the end of every school day and walked me home. On one particular day, we were held back after the last bell and lined up in front of our teachers, Miss Flynn and Miss Day. It seems that a bracelet one of my classmates wore to school that day was missing. Our two teachers were convinced that it had been stolen; and that if it wasn’t taken by some Commie infiltrator, it had to have been one of the twenty-five terrified five year olds standing in front of them. None of us would be allowed to leave until the thief came clean.
While my cousins waited at the open class door, Miss Flynn and Miss Day, looking as severe and ruthless as ever, walked up and down the lineup of trembling boys and girls, staring intently at each of us.
Finally, little Barbara Rotelli, one hand over her mouth--no doubt to hide the shame of her crime--raised her other hand and stepped forward in front of Miss Flynn. “Miss Flynn,” muffled Barbara through her hand. “Yes dear?” huffed Miss Flynn, triumphant at seemingly having forced a confession. “I... I... I have to throw up,” said Barbara, as she removed her hand from her mouth and projectile-vomited yellow bile all over Miss Flynn’s blue dress, with white petticoat underneath.
It was as if a nuclear bomb had figuratively been dropped on our classroom. Kids exploded screaming in every direction. Miss Flynn, holding up the hem of her dress--revealing the aforementioned petticoat, but neatly retaining the puddle of vomit in the lap of her skirt--headed for the faculty bathroom, while Miss Day loudly dismissed the class.
I was already halfway down the school hall with my cousins, who, for some reason I couldn’t at that moment understand, were laughing hysterically.
The infamous “missing” bracelet was never found.