The Last Fire Drill: A Brief Memoir
By George Gonner (The Haunted Cabaret)
Meacham Regional Elementary School sits at the bottom of Meacham Hill, until next week whenit is scheduled to be demolished. I attended Grades K through 6 in the original building at 17 River Drive, and Grades 7 and 8 in the newer building across the street. Thirty-five years after graduation, hearing about the proposed demolition, a touch of nostalgia brought me back for a last visit. I pulled up and parked beside the locked gate, and looked through a chain-link construction fence into the deserted playground.
The past returned. I remembered my best friend Bob Conti, and my two fistfights with a bully named Vito Cornell. I recalled my science project about dinosaurs that won second place at the science fair, recess games of kick hockey, and running the hundred-yard dash at gym. I remembered eating peanut butter sandwiches and Yodels washed down with coffee milk for lunch, then climbing aboard bus #30 for the ride home, and Julie Owens and Susan McKenna, waiting for Rob and me after soccer practice.
I also remembered Brian Gardner spitting in my face, Cindy Reese turning me red with ridicule when I asked her to the sixth-grade dance, and getting caught forging my mom's signature on a deficiency notice for math class.
Bad memories, the kind that lead to nightmares and behavior disorders, are rare. I have only one of those.
The fire alarm goes off the last week of April. We stand and walk to the front of the classroom and line up in front of the blackboard. Mr. Fallon leads us outside for the fire drill. It's warm enough to march us into the playground without our jackets. We stand in line in good order, a cool breeze trying to raise goose bumps on our skin, feeling the nearness of summer vacation. We wait to see the fire trucks.
Susan Vento sits next to me in sixth-grade English. She has a younger brother named Timothy in Mrs. Parson's first-grade class 1B. Tim is the wrong kid to be standing out here in the parking lot for a spring fire drill. He's slightly autistic, a condition unrecognized in April of 1978, the time I'm telling you about. He thinks the fire is real. He also has a terror of loud noises. He panics and runs out of line, just as the fire trucks turn the corner and roll into the parking lot, sirens blasting to entertain the kids.
Tim goes under the right front tire of the first fire truck. Sometimes I think I hear a crunch when the wheel rolls over him, but memory is treacherous, and I know I dreamed that later. At the time, you can't hear anything over the sirens. When they stop, you still can't hear anything because of police and rescue vehicles arriving with sirens of their own and people wailing and kids crying.
After Timothy Vento dies, there are no more outdoor fire drills. Someone has finally noticed that the turn around the corner of the building is a blind corner.
As I sat remembering, a September breeze stirred the leaves of the trees along the road into whispered conversation. The playground waited in the quiet for children's voices. The swings and climbing bars had been disassembled and shipped to a new school across town, but if I strained my eyes, I could see the faded marks on the asphalt where we used to play kick hockey. The wind tumbled a litter of plastic cups and fast-food wrappers across the empty schoolyard.