Mutants and Communists
America sought the help of its citizens through radio and television announcements. “America needs you to keep a watchful eye. Report suspicious individuals or unusual behavior to the authorities. Your neighbor could be a communist. Even your postman….”
These communists could be anywhere. Also, there were bombs to look out for. Drills started up at school. “When you hear the siren, children, immediately crawl under your desks and stay there until you hear the all clear signal.” We hit the floor. Miss Fergusson, our second grade teacher, remained seated. Although protected from nuclear blasts, our desks would not shield us from a nasty rain of teacher guts.
All through the fifties there was talk of atomic bombs and Communism. As children, we were on the periphery of adult discussion hearing snippets here and there. Unanswered questions led to unease. There was a pesky undercurrent of worry that nibbled at the back of my mind, surfacing once in a while with a sharp bite.
Barbie and I never talked about these adult issues. Giving voice to our concerns would confirm that something was wrong, and that would be too scary. Why didn’t Dad build a bomb shelter?
Once I saw a mushroom cloud on the evening news, which prompted me to question the safety of hiding under our desks. But maybe it would be okay. People were there in the desert watching the explosion. They just had to wear special goggles. Maybe we should buy some special goggles too.
Disturbing movies appeared with a “mutant” theme. “Them”, the first nuclear monster film, showed gigantic irradiated ants. Later movie goers would be treated to “The Amazing Colossal Man” and “Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman”. We never saw any mutants or communists, and no one blew up. There was nothing suspicious in our neighborhood. -And then there was.
We watched him stride up the front walk carrying hedge shears. He knocked on the door. Loose-fitting clothes hung on his tall frame. Coffee spills streaked his shirt. He looked like an old geezer, but at my age forty could have been geezer material.
Mom spoke to him for a moment and then waved us over from our spot on the lawn”This gentleman will be trimming the hedges,” She said. “Be sure not to get in his way.”
Barbie and I watched while he clipped, tidying the bushes nearest the front steps. When he moved farther down the row of hedges, he turned and smiled at us.
“Want to see a magic trick?” He called. Two shiny nickels gleamed upon his open palm.
“Okay.” Barbie and I crowded in to watch.
He covered the coins with his other hand and counted to three. “Oh no, they’re gone.” he said, revealing his empty palm. He made a point to look on the ground, and check his pockets. “Where did they go?”Nicotine fingers, the nails encrusted with dirt, reached for our ears. He pulled out the coins. He told us some Knock knock jokes. He pulled us into the bushes. “Here’s a trick that feels real good.”
Sitting on the ground, deep in the hedges, he guided us each onto a knee. With a magician’s flourish, he pushed his hands into our shorts. Callused fingers scraped and probed. Barbie and I sat as stiff as corpses, not daring to pull away or call for help. We pretended that nothing was wrong; hoping that nothing wrong wouldn’t get worse.
When finally released, we slowly walked away, feigning nonchalance, waving goodbye. Here was someone we should report to the authorities, to our parents. But we didn’t. If anyone found out, we would be in so much trouble.
He returned the next day to finish the hedge trimming. Waving and smiling and maintaining distance, we pulled our bikes from the garage and left for the day. Later we learned from other girls that he had made the rounds through the neighborhood. None of our parents knew. “Nothing is wrong,” was a neighborhood epidemic.
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