Ground Zero

Hal Ackerman

      This time it wasn’t a drill. Crouched beneath our desks in our third grade classroom, window shades pulled down as a deterrent against thermonuclear radiation, I heard the lone Russian bomber elude our jet fighters, flying so far above them that I could imagine our machine gun bullets drifting up at it like a shower of soft windblown raindrops.  I heard the opening of the plane’s bomb bay door, the release of its single solitary ordinance, and the long slow whistle of its descent. 

      What I was about to do was not to save the entire human race. I cared only that Patricia Press noticed the chubby bespectacled boy who looked like Howdy Doody arise from the fetal row, ignoring the shrill command from Miss Sharp, whose purple sweater set was smudged in white chalk of multiplicands and gerunds, for me to stop, drop and cover.

      Nope.  I had seen Twelve O’Clock High, I had seen The Sands Of Iwo Jima.  I knew how heroes walked.  That unrushed look of perfect determination. Pretending not to hear, but hearing everything.  I closed the door behind me and strode with that same quiet resolve down the dark hallway of PS 238, worn ice-rink smooth by the assembled obedience of past generations.  

      Outside, the concrete playground was deserted.  The swing sets were still, the abandoned seesaws pointing at the sky like unmanned anti-aircraft guns. Everyone had fled.  Even the athletic boys who ruled the monkey bars.  I could have a turn now, but there was serious business to do. The teakettle whine of the falling bomb had grown to a howl. I saw the nose of the deadly fish break through the clouds.  Sunlight glinted off its metal stabilizers.

     I braced my elbows tight to my chest to take the impact. I cradled the projectile the way boys catch a football too large for our hands.  I felt its magnificent weight that I alone could bear.  I waited for its pulse to quiet, its surface to cool, its anger to abate, before walking slowly back across the schoolyard.   

     The window shades were all up now.  Thirty faces smudged against the glass.  I looked for only one face. Patricia Press was standing behind a boy named James.  She didn’t know anyone was watching.  She cupped her hand and whispered something in his ear. 

     James and Patricia got married after recess.  James wore a white shirt with a red tie and blue pants to school every day.   His hair always looked slick like he had just got a haircut..  Miss Sharp performed the ceremony in the schoolyard. Everybody goaded them to kiss.  You learn a lot in third grade. You learn the negligible weight of your own ardor. You learn who’ll slow dance and who will change the records.  Who will take the long walk across the gym to the girls’ side and return with his head down.   You learn that what you’d suspected about yourself all along was true.

 About the Writer
Split Lip Magazine

Hal Ackerman is emeritus Co Area Head of the UCLA Screenwriting program. Write Screenplays That Sell…The Ackerman Way has guided the careers of scores of successful writers.  


He has had numerous short stories published in literary journals, most recently in The Idaho Review. Others include The North Dakota Review, New Millennium Writings, Southeast Review, The Pinch, The Yalobusha Review. His story, “Roof Garden” won the Warren Adler award for fiction. “Alfalfa,” was included in the anthology, I Wanna Be Sedated…30 Writers on Parenting Teenagers. “Belle & Melinda” was selected by Robert Olen Butler as the World’s Best Short Short story for Southeast Review. "The Dancer Horse" received a Pushcart Nomination. 


“TESTOSTERONE: How Prostate Cancer Made A Man of Me” was the recipient of the William Saroyan Centennial Prize for drama. Under its new title, “PRICK,” it won best script at the 2011 United Solo Festival. 


His first collection, The Boy Who Had A Peach Tree Growing Out Of His Head...and Other Natural Phenomena, has just been published.