The Day the World Exploded

Setz Stories, Chap. I                                                

                                                          The Day the World Exploded


                                                                         Al Murdach

     First let me introduce myself.  My name is Setz Moran.  Setz is short for Setzmore, which I’ve never liked but it’s a family name.  I live in Wilmerding, Washington state, in the Puget Sound country.  This town is usually pretty quiet, but once in awhile there’s some excitement.  For instance, nobody who lives in Wilmerding can forget the day when the Kennedy Paint factory burned to the ground.  There were smoke and fire engines all over the place and an ungodly smell.  It was scary, but I’m telling you it didn’t hold a candle to the day we thought the world exploded.

     It happened about four years ago, in 1942.  I was thirteen years old at the time and I was just getting ready for my last year in junior high school.  Wilmerding was full of military folks and people working for the military.  This town has always been military because the navy yard is the biggest business in town.  Anyway, it was really busy then and in 1942 everyone I knew was panicky.  The  Japanese had just attacked Pearl Harbor a few months before and nobody felt safe anymore.  Our neighbor, Mr. Rasmussen, kept warning my dad: “ They’re right off the coast.  They’ve got aircraft on carriers just sitting there waiting to get the signal to come in and bomb the hell out of us.  The government can’t do anything about it so they aren’t telling us anything.”  Mr. Rasmussen had his car packed and parked in his driveway so he could make a quick getaway when the first wave of Japanese planes showed up.  My dad told us kids not to believe him but the way my dad talked about it you could tell he wasn’t too sure himself.

     As the year went along people kind of lightened up a bit.  Maurie, our neighbor across the street, told my dad he didn’t think the Japanese were any big threat now because most of their spies had been rounded up and sent to internment camps way out in the sticks where they couldn’t do any harm.  Maurie said good riddance, but I did feel kind of sorry for old Mr. Ishikawa, the gardener at our school.  We saw him crying when the soldiers arrived to take him and his family away in one of those old olive drab buses with wire mesh on the windows.  “I’m an American citizen too,” he sobbed as the Army guys boarded up his house.  But, who knows, he might have been a spy for all I know.  In those days you felt you couldn’t trust anyone, especially if they looked Japanese.

     Another reason people felt more relaxed now was that the government began to beef up our defenses.  For example, they put up huge guns along the coast not far from town to protect from enemy invasion.  And all around Wilmerding harbor they strung up big barrage balloons to protect the navy yard against attack by low flying enemy planes.  The idea was that when the planes flew in low to drop their bombs they would get all tangled up in the cables and be unable to reach their targets.  They also put in batteries of antiaircraft guns to protect the harbor.  By this time we were starting to feel pretty safe.

     Summer finally came along and the weather really began to heat up.  School was out now and I was looking for something to do.  I started going around with a group of friends I knew from school.  One of the girls, Amy Stringburn, kind of got to like me a lot.   I think she got extra friendly with me because all the time I knew her I never teased her about her name.  Some of the other boys called her “string bean” because she was real stocky and muscular.  She couldn’t help being big and strong.  Amy was fourteen, one year older than me.  As time went on we got to be kind of like buddies.  I didn’t know much about girls so Amy decided to give me some instructions.  “With girls,” she said,  “you gotta be in charge.  You can’t let ‘em get away with nothin’.”  You didn’t want to mess around with Amy.

     As I was saying, the summer started to get real hot.  Amy, Gil Smith, TQ  ( I never did learn his real name) and I went swimming almost every afternoon at Stanton Street Park at the end of Corey Boulevard.  Then we’d walk up to the top of the hill and lie in the grass in the afternoon heat.  From the hill we could see all of Wilmerding harbor, shimmering in the sun.  Row after row of battleships and carriers were lined up at the navy yard docks waiting to be refueled or repaired.  I was usually real still at that time of day and those huge barrage balloons I mentioned (I think there were about ten of them) hung over the harbor floating on their cables just like giant lollipops in the sky.

     July 15 was a really hot day.  I   remember my dad saying on his way out the door to go to work in the morning that this was going to be a day when you could fry an egg on the sidewalk (My dad had seen a picture of someone doing that in Texas, I think).  Anyway, everyone could tell that this day was going to be a real scorcher.  I had the day off from chores at home since it was too hot for yard work, so I went over to Amy’s house but she wasn’t home.  He mom said Amy had gone over to her aunt’s house near the navy yard to help can some beets from the garden.  So instead I decided to walk over to TQ’s house and see what he was up to.  TQ lived near the water.  When I got to his place he was out in the front yard working on his bicycle.  From his porch you could get a real good view of the navy yard across Wilmerding harbor.  The place was really steaming and puffing away now, with huge cranes swinging around and moving heavy equipment on and off all the ships that were docked in the harbor.  I could even see there were more ships there than usual that day—it looked like a whole fleet!  TQ and I stood and just watched all that activity for a few minutes.  It looked like everyone was getting ready for something big. 

     Then, about noon, when you could feel the temperature going up by degrees every few minutes, it happened.  I was bent over helping TQ change the front tire on his bicycle when, all of a sudden–KABOOOM!  It was the loudest explosion I ever heard and it came from the direction of the navy yard.  TQ and I dropped everything and ran across his front yard to the edge of the water to get a good look.  We could see that everything was stopped dead still at the yard but we couldn’t see any smoke or flames.  Then all the air raid sirens started going, wailing and screaming away.  Mr. Jorgenson, a neighbor of TQ’s from across the street, ran past us yelling that we were being attacked.  Mrs. Watkins, another neighbor, stopped him and screamed that she had just heard from a civil defense warden that the Pendleton and the Ridgeway (two big battleships that were in the harbor that day) had just been blown up by low flying Japanese planes.  Just then the antiaircraft guns that surrounded the harbor and navy yard started firing and soon the sky was full of tracer bullets and exploding shells.  It looked just like the fourth of July—except that it was July 15th!

     I began to get concerned about Amy because she was visiting with her aunt near the navy yard so I told TQ that I was going to go over to her aunt’s to check on her.  I took off and ran most of the two miles to her house.  You see, just beyond the navy yard fence near her house were the docks where the Pendleton and the Ridgeway were docked, so you can see why I was so worried.  When I banged on the door, her aunt answered and said that Amy had gone upstairs to check out what was going on in the harbor.  I ran up the stairs and found Amy out on the garage roof watching the show, a big smile on her face.  I could see she was really excited.  “Did you see all those shells go off?” she asked as she ran up to me to grab my arm.  “I just hope we got all those bastards,” she crowed.  She pulled me down beside her and we both sat with our legs dangling off the roof, looking at all the action going on in the harbor.  Suddenly she swung around and looked at me as if she finally realized why I was there.

     “Why aren’t you off helping in the navy yard?” she asked me.

     “Whadaya mean?”  I wanted to know.  I couldn’t figure out what she was talking about.

     “I mean the navy yard.  They were calling for volunteers over the radio just now.’

     “Volunteers for what?”

     “They said they might need them to help evacuate the yard or donate blood in case of another enemy attack.  Aren’t you going to go down and sign up?” 

     I told her I came over because I was worried about her and thought she might get hurt so I wanted to check up on her.  She stared at me with her eyes wide open and her lips a little bit apart and slowly began to smile.  “You came here just for me, didn’t you?”  She put her hand on my leg.  I was beginning to feel uncomfortable so I got up to leave.  The shelling and hullabaloo around the harbor had stopped and everything was quiet now.

     As I turned away I told Amy, “Look, while things are quiet I’ve got to go.  Yeah, I came for you but you’re ok so I’m leaving.”  I scrambled back across the garage roof and climbed back into her aunt’s house through the upstairs window.  “See you later,” I yelled at her over my shoulder.  I could see Amy sitting there staring after me with a kind of hurt look.  If you really to know I think she had developed some kind of a thing for me at that point, but Christ I was only 13 years old then.  What did I know?

     Amy seemed kind of different around me in the days after the explosion, like she didn’t want to be good friends anymore.  And, oh, I should tell you—it turned out that the big explosion, which sounded to all of us like the world exploding, wasn’t an attack by the Japanese after all.  It turned out that one of those barrage balloons had exploded in the heat.  Matter of fact, for days after the balloon blew up TQ and I went around town picking up pieces of rubber from the balloon that were scattered all over the place.  We put all the pieces in little bags and sold them to people for five cents a bag.  It was a great idea.  People were all talking about “the day the world exploded” and laughing about how scared and excited they had been then.  All except for Amy, anyway.  She stayed pretty quiet when she saw me and kept to herself.  Pretty soon she started dating Robert Issacs, a guy from my class that I hardly knew.  Then, after awhile, I didn’t see much of her at all for a long time.

      I ran into her once in the street in Wilmerding about a year later.  She was almost 15 then and I was just starting junior high school.  I think she said at the time that she was still living at home and helping to take care of her father, who by then had some kind of physical problem.  Anyway, she said something kind of funny when I asked her how she was doing that day.

     “You know, Setz, I think a year or so ago you and I were a real team for awhile.  I was getting my hopes up that maybe we—you and I—could, well, maybe could get to know each other a little better.  Like on that day when that big balloon exploded and you ran across town to my house to see if I was ok.”

     “Know each other better?” I asked.  She wasn’t making any sense to me.

     “Yes, I don’t know exactly how to say it.  But, you know, when you were sitting up on my aunt’s garage roof with me that day you first acted like you cared and then you seemed like you didn’t want any part of me.  I felt bad.”

     “For Chrissake, Amy, we were just foolin’ around.”

     “Yeah, I know.  But since than I’ve looked around for someone like you to do things with, someone who would really care—would run across town to see if I was ok, so to speak—but the guys I run into all turn out to be jerks.”

     I didn’t know what to say.  Amy was making me feel uncomfortable again so I just said I had to go and then left her standing on the street corner, looking after me with that same dumb look I had seen when I left her on the garage roof about a year before.

     Well, I didn’t see Amy anymore after that.  A few years later someone told me she had moved out of her dad’s house and now was on her own, living somewhere out of town.  Me?  I’m almost done with high school now and I’ve got lots of things to think about.  Once in awhile I’ll run across one of those little bags of rubber pieces in my dresser drawer—yeah, I still have some—and take it out and think about Amy and the day we thought the world had exploded in Wilmerding in 1942.  I kind of wonder what things would have been like if that balloon hadn’t blown up.  I almost seemed like our world—the world Amy and I had, anyway—blew up too that day because like I said nothing seemed the same after that.  If I ever find out where Amy is I’m going to send her one of those little bags and enclose a note.  “Here’s to you, Amy,” I’ll say, “from your old pal Setz.  In memory of all our good days together.  If you see any more overheated barrage balloons, give me a call.  I promise to run across town to check on you again.  And, hey, this time I’ll stay awhile.”

                                                                       The End

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  • allisonmurdach  On September 30, 2010 at 9:10 pm

    This is the first of a series of fictional stories based on incidents that occurred to me in my growing up years in the city of Bremerton, Washington (a Navy Yard town)and various other locations during the 1940’s, 50’s, and 60’s.

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