Al Batt: It surely was not a morel mushroom cloud that day

Published 8:46 pm Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Tales from Exit 22 by Al Batt

That’s no way for the weather to make friends.

A tornado hit my hometown on Dec. 15.

Al Batt

When I was a kid, we joked about a terrible explosion in town. The wind blew up the street. The tornado was no joke. It was frightening. 

I remember another frightening day in that fair city. Life was like it is today—considered by some to be the worst time ever. I was a young boy with brains of mush furthering my education at a grade school famed for producing Fulbright, Marshall, Rhodes, Goldwater and Truman scholars. No, wait, that was a different school.

It was there I was instructed what to do in the case of an atomic bomb attack — put my head under my desk. Duck and cover. Those desks were indestructible. My melon found the company of petrified chewing gum comforting. I thought the best defense against the bomb was to be in bed when it went off. The bomb was scarier than the legendary bogeyman or brigades of hobgoblins and banshees. No one I knew, including me, had ever seen a bogeyman, hobgoblin or banshee, but I had seen the bomb. We were regularly shown an heirloom filmstrip about the bomb. The filmstrip, passed down from generation to generation, invariably burned in two and another splice was added to the numerous fixes already in place, making it possible for the film to pass through the projector. The filmstrip was poorly done, with monotone voices droning on about the effects of the bomb in a matter-of-fact way and the grafts adding a stutter. Even with those weaknesses, it was the most terrifying film I’d ever seen. I saw the flick so many times, I had it memorized. Even after seeing the film so often, it shocked me each time the mushroom cloud appeared on my classroom screen. One day, as the image of the mushroom cloud was on the screen, that screen decided, all on its own, to roll itself back up into its metal case. Whoosh, flap, flap, flap! It scared us poor, innocent children out of three years of life. Frantic hands were raised to request urgent visits to the lavatories.

 We had another recurrent happening. The fire drill. We practiced regularly what we’d do in case the tater tot hot dish in the lunchroom should catch fire. I knew what I’d do. I’d get a day off school. Our teacher told us we were to rise slowly from our desks, making sure all our instruments of learning were properly stored within our desks, and then we were to form a nice, straight line in the aisles. From that point, upon our fearless teacher’s signal, we were to exit the room in a calm and orderly fashion. Yes, that was what we were supposed to do.

 On another day, while I had my face buried in a riveting Dick and Jane book — I had suspected Sally to be the guilty party right from the start — I was unaware because we didn’t have cellphones then, that just a few blocks away, a fertilizer tank at a local elevator had a brief, but hot encounter with a grain dryer and exploded with such incredible heat it scorched the paint off a highway patrol car. The officer had brought a truck onto the scale to see if it was overweight. The explosion was loud enough to rattle the windowpanes of my grade school. I looked up from my book — poor Dick, he was put upon — towards the sounding glass. 

 Then I saw it. It wasn’t a morel mushroom, which hadn’t yet been named the state mushroom. It was a mushroom cloud like the one I had seen in the crummy filmstrip.  There was one big difference. This one was real. Someone somewhere was saying, “I told you this would happen.” 

 My stomach found a place in my throat as I watched flames lick the sky. 

 I panicked. My Dick and Jane book went flying. I didn’t know whether I should put my head under my desk or become part of a calm, uniform line leaving the hallowed halls. 

 I decided to run screaming from the school — just like I did every other day.

Al Batt’s columns appear in the Tribune every Wednesday.