It was the summer of '82, my first year at Saint Vincent's. I'd just arrived in the city, a newly minted nurse from the Midwest, and taken an apartment on Perry Street with three other nurses. He was ... [+]
My friend Matty believed he could fly. "I have the cape and everything," he told me one afternoon. We were playing knights and dragons in his backyard when he pointed to the roof.
"You want to try?"
I looked up. The Russians had sent a dog into space, her name was Laika. I'd seen it on the Evening News. We'd had a dog once, named Socks. Earlier that year, we'd had to put him down.
My father told me to be a "brave little soldier."
"Will he be scared?" I had asked my mom.
"He won't feel a thing," she assured me. But when we left him at the vet's that day, he was shaking all over. I wondered if Laika was shaking all over when they put her in the capsule.
"Have you ever tried it?" I asked Matty. "Flying?"
"Not yet," he told me. "But I know I can."
It was the spring of '61 and we had a new president. My father didn't like him. He said he was soft on the Russkies. My father liked Ike and J. Edgar and the Evening news with Uncle Walter.
"No thanks," I said, so we went back to playing knights and dragons. Matty believed in knights and dragons and that he could fly.
Our desks sat side by side in Mr. Dickens' fourth grade class at Boys Prep, and every week that spring we practiced hiding under them.
"That's no protection against the Russkies," my father said. He was building a fallout shelter in our basement. My father believed in fallout shelters.
Mr. Dickens held up our summer reading list. "This," he admonished the class, "is your only protection against the barbarians at the gate." He waived the list like a flag in our faces. "Your only protection!"
I had been gazing out the window daydreaming about Brooke Kennerly, my next-door neighbor.
Maybe I could try flying with her.
"Barbarians!" his voice proclaimed.
I turned to Matty. "Do you really need a cape?"
Matty's eyes bulged, and he tried to look away. Too late, I saw Mr. Dickens staring at us in disbelief. He dropped the list on his desk and pulled open the bottom drawer. It squeaked like a frightened mouse. He removed his sturdy, oak paddle, inscribed with the words "Enola Gay" across its face.
"Mr. Williams, Mr. Heilner," he beckoned with his finger. "Who shall be first?"
"Why?" Matty whispered. "Why now?" His voice trembled.
I had no answer; something about dogs in space and capes and Brooke Kennerly. Instead, I walked up to Mr. Dickens and assumed the position.
The paddle made a thick, dull thwack against the seat of my khaki pants, twice. I squeezed my butt cheeks tight as I could, but it still hurt, and I must've grimaced, because Peter Jordan grinned back at me from his desk in the front row. Of all my classmates, Jordan was most familiar with the Enola Gay. When it was over, I started back to my seat, trying not to limp. To be a brave little soldier.
"Mr. Heilner," Mr. Dickens called to Matty, "if you please."
I looked at Matty—the whole class did. "I can't," he whispered. "Please." Tears streamed down his face. His eyes locked on mine. "Help me."
"Mister Heilner!" Mr. Dickens slammed the paddle on the top of his desk. "Now!" The sound jolted the class upright in their seats.
"Get it over with," I urged Matty. My best advice, what I would've told Laika if she'd asked. Still, he didn't move.
"I said"—Mr. Dickens took three quick strides—"Now!" He grabbed Matty's shirt collar and lifted him out of his chair. Matty tried to keep his back to the class, but the teacher turned him around.
"Look!" Jordan cried out. He pointed at the dark splotch on Matty's khakis which extended down his leg. "He's peed his pants," Jordan squealed, thrilled that he was the arrow for once, instead of the target. There was one, universal gasp, followed by a series of stifled titters.
"Be quiet, all of you!" Mr. Dickens said as he released Matty, who ran out the door. The teacher chased after him. I wanted to follow as well, to tell Matty how sorry I was, but Jordan's sing-song damnation stopped me.
"He peed his paaants. He peed his paaants."
"Shut your mouth!" I lunged at him, but he jumped away. Keeping the rows between us, he ran down the aisle shouting "Matty peed his pants! Matty peed his pants!" until Bobby Forrester stuck out his foot and tripped him. I was immediately on top of Jordan, pummeling him. My classmates surrounded us, cheering me on. No one noticed that Mr. Dickens had returned.
"Everyone, back to your seats!" he called out. The crowd melted away. "Mr. Jordan and Mr. Williams, stay after class."
I received a three-day suspension. Jordan got a stern talking to and a butterfly stitch over his left eye from the school nurse. He wore it like a badge of honor. The following week I returned, but Matty's seat was empty. Mr. Dickens said nothing, and no one dared to ask.
I called Matty's house, but his mother said he couldn't come to the phone. Later, my parents received a letter from her, requesting that I not call again.
Mr. Dickens left teaching the following year to become a political speech writer. By '69 he'd made it all the way to the White House. I wasn't surprised. I'd suspected that he'd always felt a closer affinity with words than children.
Laika never made it into space—she died before the capsule ever reached orbit—but the Russians kept that a secret until 2002.
And Matty? That summer of '61, I finally kissed Brooke Kennerly in the half-finished fallout shelter in our basement. We were playing hide and seek with the Banner twins, Betsy and Joe. Later, Betsy told us the news.
"Did you hear about Matty Heilner?" she said. "He tried to kill himself by jumping off his roof."
"Oh no," I said. "He just wanted to fly." And everyone laughed, but me.