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DEFCON in the Country

It was the summer of 1956. July.

I was 5 years old.

We had just moved out of South Philadelphia into a new home in Maple Shade, New Jersey, built on a piece of land carved from one of Lester Collins’ old apple orchards.

Dad had liked the looks of some ranch homes under construction a few streets away off the main road. An amalgam of cinder block, stone and stucco, they appeared impenetrable. And that still seemed like a good thing to an Army vet just a decade removed from World War II. So he asked the builder if he’d be willing to construct one of his sturdy homes on our property.

Before long, we were living in a pint-sized fortress, trying to get used to the quiet and isolation of unfamiliar suburban life.

There was one giant, gnarled old man apple tree still standing in the backyard.

Wine saps.

Sharp and tangy, they supplied mom with bountiful fruit for her sheet pans of sweet, gooey tarts.

And a tall mound of leftover fill-dirt at the end of the driveway was a perfect sand box for an active kid. In the afternoons I’d take my plastic bucket and shovel and busy myself mucking in the rich Jersey soil.

That’s what I was doing on this hot summer day while mom was inside doing mom things and a strange man was busy installing storm windows on the new house.

I don’t quite remember the exact moment when play turned to panic. But I know at some point I looked up into the severe clear sky and saw … a bomb.

At least that’s what my impressionable 5-year-old brain perceived.

It was definitely a bomb. In fact, it was a gargantuan bomb! And the bomb was moving!

Coming right at me!

At us!

I dropped my bucket and started screaming.

“Mom! Mom! The Russians are dropping a bomb!”

The storm window guy on the ladder stopped in mid-hammer and looked at me like I was nuts.

I ran as fast as I could into the house, continuing to scream about the Russian invasion.

“Mom! The Russians are dropping a bomb! The Russians are dropping a bomb!”


I pulled her by the hand. “Outside! Come outside!”

Now standing on the back step, I pointed to the sky.”


But instead of being afraid, my mother started laughing.

“That’s not a bomb. That’s a dirigible.”

I didn’t understand.

“It’s a blimp … a zeppelin. It’s like an airplane,” mom tried to explain.

“Everything’s okay,” she said. “We’re safe.”

Now even the storm window guy was laughing.

Still not quite convinced, I looked up at my mother.

“The Russians aren’t dropping a bomb?”

“No, the Russians aren’t dropping a bomb.”

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