It was Halloween afternoon and I was swinging hand over hand like an escaped chimpanzee across the lattice of open attic rafters in Miss Volker's rickety wooden garage. She was circling directly below me and impatiently shouting out orders and crossly pointing up at what odds and ends of no-good junk she wanted me to inspect. I may have been acting like a giddy monkey in the rafters but I was really trying my best to help her out and even make her laugh, because this last while her old-lady moodiness was even more stormy than usual.
Mom had noticed too and just the other day remarked that Miss Volker seemed to be a shade more irritable since she no longer had her crusty old swain, Mr. Spizz, to kick around. He had kept bugging her about getting married, so she tricked him. She agreed to marry him but only if she was the last original Norvelt old lady alive. Miss Volker figured that would never happen and she could just keep him under her thumb forever. But suddenly a string of old ladies dropped over from eating Girl Scout cookies laced with deadly Compound 1080 vermin killer, and Miss Volker was the last old lady left. Spizz thought he'd outsmarted her, but before he could get her to the altar the police caught on to him. He confessed his guilt to Miss Volker, then stole her car and took off before he was captured. Since then nobody but the county police wanted to see him again.
"Spizz was a horrid man," Mom remarked, "but I guess it made her happy to have him to kick around. I just hope she doesn't go out and get a grouchy old dog to replace him."
"She won't be getting any kind of dog," I said while filling out my community service report for school. "She has me to growl at."
"I growl at you too," Mom added, and pushed my drooping hair out of my eyes, "but I love you, and I'm sure she feels the same."
I knew Miss Volker wasn't upset because of my attic antics, or even because of the criminal Mr. Spizz. She was irritable because of the nonstop radio and TV talk that was demanding an all-out war with Russia ever since we had caught the Russians hiding nuclear- tipped missiles in Cuba — and they were aimed at us! Last week, the president had come on TV and told the nation not to panic but to brace for the worst. War talk was turning into war hysteria.
Even the Norvelt newspaper got into the act. It published a letter from Mr. Huffer, the funeral director, who argued that we should "pull the trigger first, and blast the Russians back into the Stone Age."
Miss Volker was furious once she read that letter. Because the arthritis in her hands was especially bad that day, she had me dial Mr. Greene at the newspaper. I held the receiver up to her mouth as she gave him an earful. "You should know better than to print warmongering letters by the worst wagon-chaser in western Pennsylvania," she scolded. "Our founder, Eleanor Roosevelt, is dedicated to world peace at the United Nations and we should be too. If we pull the trigger first and start a war, the nuclear blasts and fallout will incinerate the human race and all evidence of its history. All the wild animals will drop in their tracks. Dead fish will cover the steaming oceans from shore to shore. Birds in the sky will wither and fall like October leaves. Even the nameless things that burrow deep in the dirt will find they've dug their own graves."
Mr. Greene apologized. Miss Volker hated war. She was as angry as any bomb and wanted to blow war to smithereens.
And then, on the morning World War III was supposed to begin, the silver UFO-shaped gas tank behind the school cafeteria accidentally exploded. The propane fireball looked like a mushroom cloud over Norvelt. The explosion blasted a hole in the school kitchen and cracked a bunch of walls.
We were in class and terrified by the blast because our teacher had started the morning by pointing at the round Seth Thomas clock as it tick-tocked above the blackboard like a bomb. Casually, she had informed us that the Russian missiles launched from Cuba would begin "falling on Norvelt more or less around noonish. But for the moment, don't worry," she advised in a yawning, offhand way. "After we finish math we'll just take our sack lunches and a few board games and head down to the basement air-raid shelter, where the National Guard said we'd be safe."
"Safe as cockroaches!" Bunny Huffer had cried out derisively. She was the funeral director's daughter and my best friend, and about as short as a tall cockroach.
"Exactly," agreed our teacher. "Cockroaches will survive anything."
But the gas tank unexpectedly blew up before noon. In the classroom the overhead lights flickered and in an instant Bunny leaped up onto her desktop and hollered out, "Russian sneak attack! Run for your life!" Half of the class screamed and stampeded wildly toward the basement shelter, and the other half of us were paralyzed with fear while waiting for the searing white heat of a million nuclear suns to atomize our tears and eyes and brains and the rest of us into glowing space dust. I remember staring at my yellow pencil and thinking that it would soon look like a burning candle clutched in my sizzling hand.
However, nobody was hurt except for a few hysterical kids who were pushed from behind and fell headfirst down the concrete air-raid-shelter steps. The volunteer fire department whistle sounded and within minutes the Norvelt fire truck pulled up and doused part of the rear roof eaves, which had caught fire. While the firemen did their job out back the student body was evacuated through the front doors, and as we all stood on the baseball field our principal, Mr. Knox, announced that school was suspended.
We cheered loudly but he settled us right down when he shrewdly added, "Your time away from school will not be considered a holiday." We groaned, and as quickly as he could think it up he had given us homework. We were instructed to perform useful community service in "the generous spirit of our town's founder, Eleanor Roosevelt. And upon your return to school I'll expect to see a written report of all you have done for Norvelt."
"But what about the nuclear war?" Bunny shouted out as she stepped forward to face him. As a group we all looked up into the air for incoming missiles but saw only a flock of extra-smart ducks heading north to Canada for cover.
"I have just received word," Mr. Knox replied cheerfully, "that the conflict in Cuba has been resolved for the moment. But nobody trusts the Russians, so keep listening to the radio for news."
From From Norvelt to Nowhere by Jack Gantos. Copyright 2013 by Jack Gantos. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.