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UNCLE ANTON'S ATOMIC BOMB (Coffeetown Press, 2014)

An Invocation of the 1950s

Not to worry, darling. Time behaves strangely in quantum physics and the human mind. Sit back, sip your drink, and allow words and phrases such as “sock hop” and “fallout,” “Studebaker,” and “Red Scare” to summon up what images they will. Trust that your evening libation tastes pretty much the same in 1951 as it does today. And if you are a member of gen-whatever for whom the year 1951 has no reference point, imagine a period in American life when the term “unwed mother” had a nasty sting.

The train from New York to Indianapolis lurched forward into the night. It was crowded with college students returning home for the summer. Easing off her city shoes, Mary Stark settled into a rear coach and pretended to sleep. Many of the Indianapolis natives had already located one another. The Pfeffinger twins roamed the aisles, recruiting bridge players for a game in the parlor car. Gusts of rain scraped at the windows. A fine mist floated in over Mary’s legs whenever the clanking door between cars heaved open. She dozed on and off.

“Mary Stark! Are you hiding out back here?”

Mary recognized the voice. She opened one eye. She was good at opening one eye. Ward Lynton Wangert looked exactly like a Yalie with three names should: pink-cheeked, brazen, working a toothpick.

Mary said, “Wangert, did you graduate?” It was rumored that the golden boy might need another year.

The train squealed into a curve. Ward Lynton Wangert nodded and wobbled a bit in the knees. He reached for the back of Mary’s seat. “May I sit down?”

Mary Stark shrugged and scooted closer to the window. They had been loosely acquainted as children in Indianapolis. They learned to dance together in Miss Stewart’s Cotillion. They suffered through confirmation classes together at The Little Church on the Circle. But they did not know each other well.

Ward had attended the Regency School, the private day academy. Mary attended School #43, where she co-captained the crossing guards. She went on to Shortridge High, lauded for having the only daily student-run newspaper in the country. She gained admission to Vassar off the wait list in 1947, aided by many prospective Vassar frosh who chose marriage over attending college. Ward Lynton Wangert boarded away at the Rokeby School, before doing a stint in the Army, then heading to college in New Haven. They occasionally caught glimpses of each other at mixers.

Ward reached for the book that lay cracked on the seat between them. He squinted at the title, An Introduction to Russian. “I guess what they’re saying about you is true,” he growled. His bass croon didn’t match his youthful face.

“You mean up there in the parlor car?” she asked.

He shook his head. “I heard it from my parents. You know how people talk at home, especially about anything to do with Communists.”

Mary sat up a little straighter. Her first job out of college was already creating a stir. Hired by the State Department to start an embassy school for the children of English-speaking diplomats in Moscow, Mary was scheduled to ship out in a week. She had not anticipated the political backlash. Sure, some grumbling about her grandfather being a vocal Debs man and her father an organizer for Henry Wallace, but hammer-and-sickle signs planted in her parents’ front yard?

Mary said, “I’m going to be a grade school teacher. What’s the big deal? That’s what we girls are supposed to do, right?”

Ward grinned and moved to the seat across from her. Plenty of room to put legs up and enough space for Ward to gaze on Mary Stark with an irritatingly direct stare.

The Wangert Stare originated with the country doctors on Ward’s mother’s side. It was a diagnostic tool, used to size up a person.

Ward studied Mary. She looked quite healthy and stylish, a picture of modern femininity. Except for the absence of lipstick. Fashion requirements were different in 1951. Now we all dress down in young person clothes. Back then, people dressed up in old person clothes, especially to travel. This created a disjointed adolescent phase when not-yet-fully-formed bodies and faces attempted to inhabit serious watch-fob suits and car-coat ensembles with gloves. Ward noted that Mary had successfully departed her disjointed phase. Her palette cheeks and emphatic forehead and chin had negotiated a mature countenance that deftly complemented her cashmere shawl and skirt.

A passing conductor announced a brief stop in Zanesville. The train porters tossed out stacks of newspapers that thudded onto the platform. The graying sky signaled an imminent dawn. After crossing the border into Ohio, the collegians experienced a slight reduction of eastern pretensions, now that they could again draw on the leveling influences of the wide plains.

Ward rested his hands behind his head. Gazing into Mary’s brown eyes, he said, “But why Russia? Maybe you’re just caught in that common trap, when we Midwesterners think we must escape our hometowns, go somewhere far away, the mythical big city, you know.”

“Easy for you to say,” Mary replied. Her father worked in a back office for the city transportation department, while Ward’s father was the city, some people believed.

“Or maybe you’re inspired by patriotism,” Ward acknowledged, “and this is your way to feel involved in the great struggle of the day.”

Mary turned to the window and suppressed a sigh. It was a sensitive topic. Her adult knowledge of the Soviet Union was minimal. She only spoke a few words of the language. An avid reader with a paperback stashed in every purse, she knew some Russian literature in translation. As a child, she played with a set of babushka nesting dolls. Her parents, veteran opera-goers, rode the train to Chicago to hear touring Russian singers.

However, Daddy’s shifting position on the “Rooskies” was confusing. Over the years, her father filled their house, morning and evening, with salty commentary on his newspaper. At first the Rooskies were good guys, then in 1939 they became bad, then during the war they were good again, and now they were bad again.

To put Ward Wangert off the scent—and save herself from a long-winded explanation of an uncharacteristically daring decision she herself did not understand—Mary Stark said, “It’s about Chekhov.”

Ward displayed an enigmatic smile. “The playwright?”

“Yes, he wrote stories too.”

“Isn’t he the one who said, if a gun appears in the first act, it’ll be used in the third?”

“Bang, bang,” Mary nodded.