[6 minute read]
This story is inspired by true historical events.
It started as a night just like any other night and ended with twelve-year-old Michael’s innocence vanishing like the setting sun.
I walked across the empty living room and turned off our small black and white television just as Walter Cronkite signed off on the CBS Evening News. Then I placed a pot of steaming spaghetti and a bowl of garlic bread on our rickety kitchen table, where Michael shoved his homework into his Trapper Keeper.
We began eating and allowed the silence between us to be filled by John Lennon’s voice emanating from the transistor radio in the kitchen, singing (Just Like) Starting Over.
“How was school today?” I asked.
“Fine.” He said without making eye contact.
“Did you have a lot of homework?”
“Yeah, but I got all of it done.”
“Well, that’s good,” I said, trying to think of something else to talk about.
Somewhere along the way, I blinked my eyes, and my talkative, inquisitive child had morphed into a withdrawn adolescent. I yearned to return to the days when his chatter and incessant questions drove me to exhaustion.
“Hey Mom, can I ask you something?” He said, finally glancing up from his plate.
I froze midway through spinning spaghetti onto my fork.
“Sure,” I said.
“Mr. Jeffries gave us a new assignment for English class today. We have to write a story describing an extraordinary experience, and I was just wondering—”
“That sounds like an interesting assignment. Do you want me to help?” I asked, eager to keep the conversation flowing.
“Well, kind of. It reminded me of that bedtime story you used to tell me all the time when I was little. You know, the one about the time when the sun came out at night. Was that really a true story?”
I hesitated and searched his face looking for the innocent little boy who was once so eager to be awe-inspired by fantastical tales. But there, in his eyes, I saw a young man looking back at me, waiting with a sense of skepticism and readiness for rites of passage that would bring him face to face with worldly truths.
“Yes…and no,” I said.
“What do you mean?” He asked.
“The story I told you was only partially true.”
He let that sink in for a moment and said, “Well, can you tell me the whole story?” and then added matter-of-factly, “So I can decide if I want to use it for my assignment.”
I rested my fork on my plate, smoothed the napkin draped across my high-waisted jeans, and let out a slow sigh while he waited with anticipation.
“The date was July 9, 1962. After finishing my second year of college, I returned home to Honolulu for the summer to help your grandma pay the bills and babysit your Aunt Lily and Uncle Jack. Most of my classmates were embarking on exotic family vacations or building their resumes with challenging internships. We were just trying to keep a roof over our heads and food on our table. Your grandma and I were like two ships passing in the night, working different shifts at the local 24-hour diner and handing little Lily and Jack off like batons.” I paused to take a sip of my sweet tea.
“The diner was a few blocks from our tiny two-bedroom apartment. We didn’t have any transportation, but the tips I got from all the tourists made the walk worth it. I remember it was really hot that night as I walked to the diner for the night shift. Around 11:00 pm, all the street lamps suddenly went out, immediately blanketing the streets in darkness. The abrupt loss of light temporarily blinded me and caused me to trip over an uneven section of the sidewalk. By the time I got up to dust myself off, the night sky was full of colorful light as if I’d traveled several hours back in time. It was almost like the electricity had been magically sucked out of the street lamps and thrown up into the sky, illuminating it like the early morning sunrise…or at least that’s what I led you to believe when you were little.” I said, glancing down at my unfinished dinner and realizing I had lost my appetite.
“So, what really happened?” He said.
“What I just described to you, what I saw that night, is true. The part of the story I haven’t told you is what actually caused that phenomenon.” I said.
“What…caused it?” He asked tentatively, like a child watching a horror movie for the first time with his hand covering his face, peering through his fingers, afraid but intrigued.
“Let me show you something. Follow me.” I said.
We abandoned our cold dinner, and he followed me to my bedroom. I rummaged in my closet for a few minutes until I found an old cardboard box full of college keepsakes and extracted a scrapbook from it.
“Here it is,” I said, crossing the room to sit on my bed and patting the threadbare quilt indicating for him to join me.
“What is this?” He asked while I quickly flipped through numerous photos of myself flashing peace signs in bellbottom jeans at various college parties, likely inebriated. I’ll save those stories for when he’s older, I thought.
“This is just a little scrapbook I made to remember my college years. But this is what I wanted to show you.” I said when I landed on a page containing a yellowed newspaper clipping.
It was from the front page of the Honolulu Advertiser, and it was dated July 9, 1962, the day of the incident. I pointed to an article I had circled with the following headline, “N-Blast Tonight May Be Dazzling; Good View Likely.”
“What’s an N-Blast?” Michael asked.
“The N stands for nuclear. Nuclear blast.” I said.
“I don’t understand….”
“The truth is that our government was testing high-altitude detonations…they were exploding hydrogen bombs in space. Their first test launch on Johnston Island a month earlier had to be aborted due to mechanical failures that resulted in radioactive material raining down on the island. Despite protests breaking out worldwide, they tested another nuclear weapon over Johnston Island on July 9th, the night I walked to the diner. That blast caused an electromagnetic pulse that knocked out the electricity and disrupted the telephone service in Hawaii, nearly 1,000 miles away. Hotels in Hawaii hosted rooftop parties that night to give people a view of the ‘light show’ in the sky like it was the fourth of July fireworks or something. Idiots…” I trailed off when I noticed the incredulous look on Michael’s face.
“Why would they blow up bombs above our own country? And why would you use that as a bedtime story? Why didn’t you ever tell me the truth?” He said, getting more distressed with each question.
At that moment, I knew he was growing up, it was happening right before my eyes as clearly as the artificial aurora borealis I saw in that night sky many moons ago. But something else was happening — he was grappling with the reality that the world was not the safe and harmonious place he thought it was.
I glanced back at the newspaper article, peering into the past, and said, “Those were very uncertain times, honey. I’m not sure if you’ve learned about the Cold War in history class yet, but the United States was in a ‘race to space’ with the Soviet Union. I guess our government wanted to master the explosion of nuclear bombs in space before Russia did.” I sighed, looked back at my son, and continued. “My life hasn’t been extraordinary, and I couldn’t afford to give you an extraordinary childhood. But when you were little, your imagination was so hungry for something magnificent. So, I crafted a bedtime story about the most extraordinary thing I had ever witnessed to give you something magical to believe in, and you embraced it without a trace of doubt. What I didn’t expect, was the magical spell that your innocence cast on me, healing the scar tissue I got from becoming a hardened adult in this hard knock world.”
The following week, Mr. Jeffries called upon Michael during English to present his assignment to the class. Michael stood at the front of the classroom, took a deep breath, silently begged his hands to stop trembling, and began reading from the paper he was holding.
“When I was younger, my mom used to tell me a bedtime story about a time when the sun came out at night. As a little kid, I believed it was some sort of magical fairytale, but it was actually an extraordinary historical event that took place during the Cold War. Things aren’t always what they seem to be, and today I’m going to tell you the true story of the U.S. military’s Starfish Prime project.”
Want to brighten my day? Leave a comment below to share your feedback on this story!
Copyright © Jamie Gregory 2022
Want to learn more about the historical events that inspired this story? Check out the articles below:
Awesome Jamie! What a great story! You are very talented! So proud of you! Can’t wait to read the next one!! Hopefully, one day you can write one similar to The Mountains are Calling? One of my favorites! ❤
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Thank you so much, Kim! I’m so glad you liked it. Your feedback means a lot to me. What were your favorite aspects of “The Mountains Are Calling”? Was it the setting, the characters, the suspense, the plot twist at the end, etc.? That one is one of my favorites too so I’ll definitely try to incorporate similar elements into future stories. 🙂
Very moving story, Jamie!
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Thank you so much, Debbie! 🙂
I thought the story was great and I did not know that that happened in Hawaii the same night that I was giving birth to my first child a son. July 9th 1962.
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Wow, what a coincidence! Thanks for reading my story, Becky! I’m glad you liked it. 🙂
Very good story Jamie! I like how you included those historical facts.
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Thanks so much for reading it, Mom! I’m glad you liked it. 🙂
TO writes here: Great story, GREAT story, it’s the kind of twist you can see coming if you choose to think ahead and figure it out, but it doesn’t actually make it less whomp in the gut when you realize just like Michael.
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Thanks for taking the time to read my story and offer feedback. Regarding the twist, someone once told me that the best endings are surprising but expected.