Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Bomb Threat

Bomb Threat

     One habit you get into, when you have kids, is pausing before answering a question. Factoring in what they can understand, deciding, with their age, how much information they can handle. But the day my son was going through my yearbooks he was 18 and so, without thinking, I threw that rule out the window and answered a question too fast.
     He was flipping through the pages, laughing at the '80s hairstyles and turned up shirtcollars, asking me to point out which kids where the Preps and Wavers and Stoners, which ones were nice, which ones were jerks. He enjoyed looking at the pictures and making guesses on which were which and then finding out if his guesses were true.
     Then he came to a page with a photo of three guys horsing around outside a building. The boys in the picture are all relaxed, wearing big smiles. One has his arms outstretched like a TV entertainer: TA DA for the camera. "Hey he looks like fun...these guys look like they're standing outside..was this in gym class or something?"
     And that's when I forgot to pause and instead just answered: "Hmm?, that would've been during one of the bomb threats." I heard these words leave my mouth just a second too late to grab them back.
     "WHAT?" my son was on this like a shot, so startled he at first could not form a question but instead sounded frantic, like a car alarm: "BOMB THREAT BOMB THREAT WHAT DO YOU MEAN BOMB THREAT THERE WAS A BOMB THREAT?" He stopped and started at me, his eyes huge.
     And so it was too late, I was in this conversation. I stupidly kept believing I could explain, as if words always had the power to undo other words. I told him "Well, NO, it wasn't exactly a bomb threat in that there was no bomb." I heard these words and had to make a face at how badly I was already doing.
     I told him we all knew it was probably just some kid who had done a prank phone call, that none of us thought there was actually a bomb. Then I had to backtrack and remind him that of course that wasn't okay, to do a prank phone call about a bomb, that's not ok, that's illegal, right?
     "Right," said my kid, "So what did they do?" He looked terrified, like he was worried the '80s me might somehow still be at risk. I cursed myself for starting this.
     I told him the school would call the police and a couple of officers would come out with police dogs and they'd just take 15 minutes or so and check the school and then they'd tell us everything was ok and we'd go back inside again and finish the school day, no big deal. Times were different then. They knew it was probably just a kid playing a bad joke. Kids do dumb things, they knew that. But there was never a bomb.
     I paused, hoping this was good enough. It wasn't though, because my son is a good listener. He's all about the details. He wasn't even half done with this conversation.
     "Did they catch who did it?" he wanted to know.
     I told him no. This was before Caller ID.
     "Star 69!" my son tried. No, before that too, I told him.
     "Wait a minute, you said they took 15 minutes to check the school? The two story school that held 1500 kids, and the gym and the outside buildings and the parking lots, you had two parking lots, right? You're saying they checked all the rooms and all the offices and the whole school in 15 minutes? How could they do that?"
     I said I didn't know. I told him the police seemed to think it was good enough.
     "And so they had you all stand outside. These guys look like they're about 10 feet away from the building. Were you all standing that close to the building?"
     "Yes," I told him. It was like my school was on trial all of a sudden and I was an unhelpful witness.
     "So if it HAD been a real bomb, you would have all been blown to smithereens."
     I took a moment to savor the happiness that I have a son who uses the word 'smithereens'.
     "Things were just different then," I tried.
     "Do you mean that explosives weren't dangerous in the '80s or that in the '80s they hadn't yet discovered that explosives were dangerous?"
     "OK yes of course, they were just as dangerous then as they are now, yes they knew that. I just mean no one believed it would be possible."
     I told him to look at the photo again. I reminded him that those boys didn't look scared. They were smiling for the camera. And someone else who wasn't scared was walking around taking pictures for the yearbook.
     "And you said this was during ONE of the bomb threats," he added, still on track. "There was more than one?" I told him yes. He asked me how many.
     I told him "Well, you might go a couple of months and not have one and then have two in one week. But it was never scary because we always knew it was someone doing a bad joke. I don't know, maybe three per quarter."
     Yes, every quarter. Yes, for all three years that I went to that school. Which my son informed me added up to 27 bomb threats. I hated math then.
     "And they never caught who did it? Wow," said my son, "I wonder who hated you that much?"
     "No one hated us," I said, suddenly defensive, "and it was probably more than one kid. It could have even been kids from our school."
     This stunned him all over again.
     "So the police came out each time, they came out to the same school 27 times and they never knew who made those calls and they didn't think that was a big deal?"
     There was a word we hadn't said yet in this conversation and that word was Columbine.
     "You've heard of Columbine," I started. Columbine is a ghosty word. Said out loud, it changed the very air of the room.
     My son said yes. He scooted closer to me on the couch, not seeming to notice he had done so. To be safer. Or to keep me safe. I have a good son.
     I told him before Columbine no one had believed anybody would ever hurt kids at a school. No one could even imagine that. Then there had been a couple of school shootings and then Columbine and after that people understood that it could really happen.
     I realized I was describing it like the olden days; this time my son was too young to remember and could only imagine. I was describing it like I was talking about saddle shoes or the Twist or Buddy Holly's plane crash. The olden days when schools were safe. And suddenly I felt guilty for all those years I'd been able to feel safe.
     "And the shootings usually happen in the spring," my son added. "They call it Shooting Season." My son, who knew this term and who still had to go to public school every day with this knowledge; something I'd never had to do.
     I reminded him that now schools have plans in place in case something like this happens. I told him if one of these bomb threats happened today at my old school, it would be handled very differently. Schools have plans to keep the kids safe, I repeated.
     "At least they try," my son corrected me.
     "Right. They try," I said.
     I wished I had more I could tell him, but the very things I wanted to say might put my son at risk. I wanted to tell him to be careful with being too quick thinking of kids as Good or Bad, that maybe nothing is ever that simple. I wanted him to be able to still feel safe, to stand, like those boys, outside a school, relaxed; smiling and feeling safe, like they did in the olden days.


Bomb Threat is one of the 23 stories in Starfish On Thursday by Amie Ryan, available at

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