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  • Waiting for the Bomb
  • Gail Seneca (bio)

When Khrushchev’s nuclear missiles went on full alert, Sister Benedict, my fifth-grade teacher, convinced us we were all about to die. Our Lady of Fatima had reappeared, she said, with the prediction that the Russians would explode the nuclear bomb from their bases in Cuba. New York City, where we lived, was the likely target. Terrified, we squirmed in our seats. Even the perpetually calm, avuncular Walter Cronkite looked sweaty on camera.

After the morning air raid drill, we trooped into church. In the dark, somber confession booth, I squeaked out my sins: I’d stolen from my dad’s cash register, I’d crossed the street to avoid my loony grandmother as she swerved along the sidewalk. The priest set my penance at 50 Hail Marys and I raced through them, kneeling at the altar, rushing to finish before the bomb vaporized us all.

Historians consider the 1962 Cuban missile crisis to be the most dangerous step in the mad minuet of the cold war. But a child lacks historical perspective. For me, the nuns supplied the context, an archetypal battle between good and evil, in which John F. Kennedy, our handsome, Catholic president faced the bearded, cigar-smoking revolutionary, Fidel Castro, and his patron, Khrushchev.

Kennedy set an ultimatum. In two days, by midnight, the Russians had to remove their missiles from Cuba. If they didn’t, the most destructive bombs ever built would explode, exterminating the Russians, the Cubans, and maybe all of us.

To prepare, we leapt under our school desks, “ducking and covering,” hunched immobile amid the lint and pencil shavings. Invincible before even the nuclear bomb, Sister Benedict didn’t duck. While we huddled in our makeshift bomb shelters, she droned Hail Marys, each wooden bead of the rosary around [End Page 125] her massive waist clacking into place after the final line—“at the hour of our death, Amen.” Our feet tingled into sleep and our mouths went dry as her hoarse old-lady voice melted into the endless siren. Startling us into attention, she punctuated each decade of the rosary with a crack of her cane on the blackboard. Finally—finally!—the “all clear” signal beeped and set us free.

Freedom came too late that day for my best friend, AveMaria. Sickened by the stale odor of fifth-graders in a closed room hot with fear, she poured out her guts on the splintered wooden floor. Horrified by the mess, she whimpered that Sister Benedict would kill her before the bomb did. AveMaria had reason to expect the worst. She had lifted her plaid uniform skirt and showed me purple welts, inflicted by her father’s belt, on the backs of her pale thighs. “Why did he hit you?” I whispered. He’d found out her confirmation name, she said, her eyes shiny with tears.

We’d been eagerly awaiting the sacrament of confirmation, when each of us would receive a new name in Christ. In long, stultifying rehearsals, we practiced marching to the altar, kneeling, bowing our heads, and returning in perfectly straight lines to the pews. Never complaining, we soldiered through in anticipation of our new names as the reward.

We could choose our own name, provided it was a saint’s name, so we studied the Book of the Saints for ideas. The martyred saints, whose torments were illustrated in gruesome detail, captured our interest. Saint Catherine whipped and left to die, naked and exposed to the elements. Saint Barbara beheaded. Saint Agnes stabbed in the throat. All fierce risk takers, heroes. We could hardly wait to join their lineage. But we didn’t want their boring names.

I wanted a name that was so different it would catapult me out of my limited Catholic schoolgirl life and my difficult family. If I was no longer Gail, the name my parents had given me, I was no longer theirs. I had to choose a name apart—a name none of my cousins had, a name remote from the nuns’ names, a name my parents never imagined. I chose “Valerie,” for its lilting sound, utterly different from my hard, monosyllabic name...


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pp. 125-131
Launched on MUSE
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