Safe Route by Jane Hicks

My fifth-grade teacher wheeled the big projector into our classroom that fall afternoon. A stern, no-nonsense woman, she never showed a film or did what was supposed to be our weekly music lesson. What she showed, we had already seen on Saturday morning cartoons. Poor Bert the Turtle demonstrated how to “duck and cover” to save himself from The Bomb. We practiced the dive and crouch under our desks over and over before being released to the playground. Outside, we played cowboys and communists in the leaf piles under the tall poplars at the playground fence, calling the curtains of leaves breezing down nuclear fallout. Before dismissal that day, our teacher placed a purple ditto map on each desk. Hand-drawn, it placed school at the center. Each student took a pencil and marked their walking route home, and traced over it with red crayon. Red for the Commies that would surely nuke us. We made one for home, one for school. This map made a promise to parents where we might be retrieved, without deviation, if the sky fell. I marked my shortcut across the hayfield, aiming for the tall poplars along the fencerow.

The purpled papers yellowed and lingered on her desk as October, November, then fifth grade passed. Eyes turned to southeast Asia. Communists still lurked behind every tree and fence post. Autumn turned round again, the golden poplars stood like bright candles on the ridgetop, leaves dwindled, and Kennedy fell in Dallas. In the halls, I brazenly stared at the fifth grade teacher who had hung Bert the Turtle's face where Kennedy should be in the parade of presidents around the top of the chalkboard. Under a pall, we watched again, and again, and again as the caisson traced the same route, without deviation, to Kennedy's resting home.

Only days before the Cuban Missile Crisis, I watched and read all the news reports I could about Wally Schirra's perfect manned spaceflight. The accounts of astronaut selection, training, and the first early missions intrigued me. The original seven astronauts seemed both heroes and friends. All of the space program and astronomy fascinated me. I knew that even before Alan Shepard rocketed off into space that Sputnik had its red eye on us, and that rockets also carried nuclear warheads. My senior year, we watched a solar eclipse on a classroom television scored by The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun.” I held my dying grandfather's hand as The Eagle landed and Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon and the nation breathed as one. 

An old wagon road winds through my acreage and down the ridge. My elderly neighbor described these traces (as he called them) of his childhood that lead to other farms, the store, and the big road. Most are blurred by building, farming, and time.

Over fifty years later, I still walk across hayfields toward poplars on the fencerow. After a long period of care-giving and my mother's death, I felt utterly defeated. I did some hard thinking about how to metaphorically move forward and decided that I had to start physically moving with purpose. I bought hiking shoes and started discovering my woods and neighboring pastures. 

An old wagon road winds through my acreage and down the ridge. My elderly neighbor described these traces (as he called them) of his childhood that lead to other farms, the store, and the big road. Most are blurred by building, farming, and time. One road leads to a clearing in the woods to the place my neighbor's mother was born and lived as a child. The house is long gone and leaves no trace, not even a chimney or foundation. A lone clump of purple iris on a steep bank marks habitation. My walk meanders across history, finds horseshoes uncovered by rain, and crosses hayfields to tall poplars embedded with barb and wire on the fencerow. 

An eclipse came round again in 2017. Ever the space and astronomy buff, I dug out old lesson plans and astronomy texts. My grandson, who shares my interest, and I studied mechanics, rotation, revolutions, and what to expect and when. I built low tech viewers from cardboard, and one from a Wheaties box. At our latitude, we expected to view a ninety-eight percent eclipse. 

It is difficult to comprehend the nuclear furnace that is the sun. How radiant, how necessary this radiation is to our lives. At mid-day, total eclipse would blot out the sun entirely. How much would ninety-eight percent darken the earth? I learned the light at our maximum view would not glow golden like sunset, but be like the verge of gloaming with silver light and purpling shadows.

The eclipse fell on a radiation day and I waited with the staff and other patients outside the radiation oncology center. Just before maximum shade, I took my turn, was radiated. I joked that getting radiation during an eclipse might give me superpowers. The doctor opined that all us tenacious, breast-bitten women had superpowers.

Outside we watched the sun beam crescent shadows through shared eclipse glasses and my home-made pin hole viewers. A shiny kitchen colander, held high, threw a hundred bitten suns across the pavement alongside sun shapes filtered through the leaves of gum trees. We all stood silent in that moment, breathed one breath as the purple fell.

My favorite path on my daily walk runs the edge of the ridge, a place where two wagon roads intersect. Marked by a bent tree trunk, rumored to be made by natives on the warrior’s path, one road leads down the ridge to an ancient spring and an old cabin. There by the creek, spirits walk and wait. I hear them in the murmur of leaf language.

My spring and summer path runs through green woods and leaf rustle. The winter is marked by the clack and rattle of bare branches, but lit by green mosses deep in the woods. The autumn path of red and gold crunches underfoot as squirrels scamper and deer bound away. At my corner, quiet comes, broken only by crow call and the thunk and thud of buckeyes and walnuts. The sun early crouches behind the far ridge, alights the clouds with fire, and turns shadows dark.

I follow the purpling path home, through the woods, across the hayfield, toward the tall poplars that glow on the fencerow. I think of those gone autumns and the nuclear rain that never came, and the saving radiation that found my breast as the sun's furnace dimmed. I travel down the ridge in gloaming light on that safe route home.

Jane Hicks is an award-winning poet, teacher, and quilter. Her poetry appears in both journals and numerous anthologies including, Still: The Journal, Appalachian Review, and Shenandoah. Her first book, Blood and Bone Remember (2005), was nominated for and won several awards. Her second collection, Driving with the Dead, (Univ. Press of KY) won the Appalachian Writers Association Poetry Book of the Year Award in 2014. She is a native of and still resides in upper East Tennessee.

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