The Night the Sky Exploded

Vicenza, Italy military housing complex

Fall 1984

‘Even the cornstalks seem menacing,’ I thought as we followed the narrow path through them toward the military housing. The cornfields back home had never seemed as tall or as threatening. They hadn’t blocked out the sun or shed strange menacing shadows as these did. I tried to be brave for my children, but the alien shadows emphasized that my children looked up to me for protection and I felt inadequate!

‘It’s all Ed’s fault,’ I thought for the hundredth time as Marlowe, my sullen teenager, saw the entrance to the housing compound and ran ahead of me to get home first. ‘If Ed hadn’t requested our assignment in Italy, we’d be retired and back in Utah instead of here in a strange, terrifying foreign country.’ (I conveniently ignored that I’d wanted to go to Italy as much as Ed, but that had been on a happier day—not on a late fall afternoon when Ed was in Turkey again, leaving me to cope with everything.)

“Mama, why is everything so different here? Why doesn’t anyone speak our language?” Diana’s blond braids bounced as she skipped up the path and into the housing area. Marlowe, as usual was nowhere in sight. He’d probably let himself into the house with the key Ed had given him and was probably shut into his room with his radio on full blast, not talking to me again.

“It’s different because it is not America,” I answered absently because of my worry about Marlowe. “They don’t speak our language because this their country and they speak their language.”

“But, why, Mama? Huh?” Diana’s persistence was wearing down what was left of my fragile patience.

“Just because, Diana. Okay! Now don’t ask me again. That’s just the way it is!” My curt answer made me angry at myself and I took a deep breath. “I’m sorry, honey. I’m tired and worried, okay? Come on, let’s race to the house.” I was so glad that we were finally safe inside the military housing that I forgot about my fears and concentrated on the race with Diana.

Looking back, however, I realized how close our house was to the back entrance to the compound and the tall menacing cornfield and my heart raced. We were only seconds away from the cornfield and all the dangers lurking there. And no fences or gates separated us from it.

“Why don’t they have anything good on TV?” Diana asked as I put our jackets away.

“They have lots of good programs on local Italian television,” I reminded her. “It is just the Armed Forces Network is the only American channel on and they are only on during certain hours and can’t show just what you like to watch.”

“But they never have cartoons on in the afternoons like in Enterprise, and we saw all the shows that are on—last year! It’s boring.”

“Then turn it off and read!” I snapped again. “You ought to be grateful you even have a TV here. None of our other furniture has arrived yet, and who knows when it will come.” I was so close to tears that I turned on the faucet to cover my sniffles so Diana wouldn’t notice.

“I miss Annie,” Diana started to cry and before I knew it, I’d turned off the faucet and held her tight as tears slipped down both our cheeks. “I miss my old school. I miss Mrs. Monroe next door who always gave us cookies as we were coming home. I miss Grandma and Grandpa and everything! I wish we’d never moved here!”

I hugged her so she wouldn’t see my tears as she sobbed on and on.

“I know, Diana. I miss everything too,” I replied. “But it will get better, Diana, honest. It is always hard at first when you move to a new place. But you’ll make new friends and get a good teacher and find another Mrs. Monroe. Remember how you hated Enterprise at first? But now you wish you were back there!”

“But I can’t even talk to people here because they don’t speak English and there are no friends my age. I hate it here.”

I hugged her tighter, whispering worn-out platitudes that military wives use to ease the pain of moving. Finally, her sobs slowed, and I wiped away her tears.

“There, that’s better,” I said briskly. “Why don’t you open the sack of cookies that we got in the villagio and we’ll share some, even if they spoil our supper. I don’t know what they taste like, or what they’re called.”  I added as I saw the questions spring to Diana’s lips. “You ought to be grateful we even made the baker understand what we wanted and could figure out the money to pay him. Now let’s see what they are like.”

“They aren’t too bad,” Diana said, finishing off one and reaching for another. “Different than Mrs. Monroe’s, but OK.”

I took the sack of cookies and knocked on Marlowe’s shut door. “Marlowe, why don’t you try one of these cookies we bought,” I begged. “Come on, let me in. It’s not as bad as all that, is it?” I opened the door cautiously.

“Go away,” Marlowe mumbled through the pillow that covered his head, as I winced at the loud music blasting.

“Come on, Marlowe,” I said, turning down the music. “Have a cookie and tell me what’s the matter.

“You know what’s the matter,” he yelled, ignoring my peace offering. “I hate it here. I hate this stupid house. I hate this stupid country. I can’t see why I can’t take my money out of savings and fly back to Enterprise. Danny’s mom said I could live with them and go to high school if it didn’t work out here—and it hasn’t.”

“Now, Marlowe, you haven’t even given it a chance. We’ve only been here a week. Dad’s been here two months and he loves it here. Remember how excited we all were to be able to live in a foreign country and go to school here.”

“Yeah, but that’s before I knew that they don’t have a math team here, or a knowledge bowl! So, I won’t be captain of them like I would have been in Enterprise. There is no jazz band, or marching band, and the regular band has only a handful of kids. There are only 50-some students in each class! This is the pits! Please Mom, let me go back to Enterprise! Don’t make me suffer here. Please!”

“Marlowe, you know you asked your father that before he left for the field, and he said to try it for a month.”

“I’ll be dead in a month. I hate it here.”  He covered his head with the pillow again and turned up the music, blocking me out. I left the cookies on the bed and left. As I walked into the other room, I heard him slam the door behind me.

“Diana,” I called, then noticed her asleep on the floor. I carried her gently into her room and covered her with her out-grown, but well-loved blankie. Going back into the living room I looked at the stark, serviceable, but strange quartermaster furniture and bare floors and wished our own things would arrive soon. Then everything would seem more familiar and homelike.

The shadows lengthened as I stared out at the strange shapes. ‘That one looks like a burglar,’ I thought, then jumped up to turn on the lights and shut the blinds. The cornfields looked dark and menacing in the dusk as I clicked them away from my view. “If only I could shut all my fears and worries away so easily,” I said aloud, carefully checking all the doors and window locks as I closed all the blinds through the house and turned all the lights on.

Suddenly a sound from outside the house shattered my musing and I concentrated on the sounds as they came closer. They seemed to be words being broadcast from a bullhorn that grew more distinct as it become closer.

“ATTENTION! ATTENTION! MUSTER! MUSTER! ALERT! ALERT! All troops report to your duty station immediately. All troops report to your duty station immediately!”

Without thinking I ran into Diana’s room, grabbed her up, blankie and all.

“Mama, what’s the matter?” she asked sleepily.

“I don’t know, but something ‘s wrong,” I said in my panic, trying to remember what Ed had said about evacuation kits, the children’s passports, a small suitcase. But I couldn’t think.

“Marlowe, Marlowe,” I yelled, running into his room, where he lay in the dark, still oblivious to the bullhorn because of his loud music. “Marlowe,” I yelled, turning off his music. “Listen! Something’s wrong.”

We both ran to his window and peeked out through the blinds. We couldn’t see where the bullhorn was coming from, but we could see a red glow over behind the houses across the street. As we watched, we noticed several of our neighbors hurrying to their cars as they pulled their camouflage jackets over their fatigues.

“What is it, Mom?” Marlowe asked his voice trembling.

“I don’t know,” I answered, “Didn’t your dad say something about alerts or emergency procedures or something.”

“Yeah, but I was so tired that night I can’t remember what it was. What are we going to do, Mom?”

“How should I know,” I cried, then got a grip on myself. “Let’s watch and see if we can see where it is coming from.”

We peered out into the blackness, watching as the red glow turned onto our street and we could see the MP car with its light flashing, sounding the alarm.

“Attention! Attention! All troops return to your duty stations immediately. All troops return to your duty stations immediately.” The words seemed even more menacing when it was closer.

“What is happening, Mom?” Marlowe asked quietly. “Is something wrong, like that bombing we heard about on TV that happened on one of the installations? Is it an emergency evacuation?”

“I don’t know what is going on,” I said gripping Diana tighter as I forced myself to be calm.

“Mama, I’m scared!” Diana’s eyes seemed enormous in her small, pale face, and she looked expectantly at me.

“It is probably nothing. Just a harmless alert; like a fire drill back home. Right, Marlowe?” I looked at him to back me up, but he looked down at me from his six-foot height and refused.

“I don’t think so. It’s probably another kidnapping of an American like that one the terrorists pulled off last year only 20 miles from here.” Marlowe’s voice reeked of danger as he replied in his “Freddy Kreuger” voice. “Or maybe the red brigade is attacking the base like they did in Panama, or . . .”

“Stop that right now, Marlowe,” I yelled as Diana began to wail. “You are just making things worse.” I turned on the lights and things seemed a little more normal. I wasn’t so afraid.

“I’m sure there is a logical explanation,” I said more calmly. “Let’s go next door and ask the neighbors what is going on.”

“I’ll bet they’ve been murdered in their beds,” Marlowe cried gleefully, watching Diana start wailing again.

“Marlowe, if you don’t stop this immediately, I’ll . . . I’ll . . .”

“Send me back to the states?” he asked excitedly.

“No, make you stay here forever, but ground you for a week. Look how you’ve frightened Diana.” She was hugging me so tightly I could hardly speak. At lease she’d stopped screaming.

“Now look, you are the man of the house while your dad is gone, and you are at least a foot taller than me. Why don’t you go next door and ask Mrs. Smedley what’s happening? I’m sure there’s a very ordinary answer.”

“Uh, huh. Not on your life. I’m not going anywhere while we’re under attack.”

“We are not under attack! If you are afraid to go alone, we’ll all go together.”

“Mama, I’m scared! There are monsters outside.” Diana began to wail.

“Now listen here, both of you. Your dad has been here two months and he never mentioned any danger or anything happening here, so I’m sure we’ll be okay going as far as the Smedley’s house. It is only after 40 yards away.” Now I had a plan of action, I was calm. “Grab your jackets and let’s go.”

The Smedley’s house seemed miles away, not the 40 yards that it was, but we saw no lights on as we ran towards it, and no answer to our knock.

“Let’s look around back,” Marlowe said after a few minutes. We crept around back where the menacing cornfield shadowed over us. We knocked loudly on their back door, but no one answered there either. Diana clung to me wordless as we stood shivering in the dark night.

“Do you see if any house nearby has lights on?” I asked Marlowe fearfully.

“Yeah, see over there by the footpath. There’s a house with a light on.” Marlowe’s voice trembled with fear as we looked around. The house he’d mentioned was much farther away than the Smedley’s house, but I was too scared to go home or stand there outside the Smedley’s empty house.

Suddenly the sky exploded with fiery eruptions as a loud booming shook the air behind the cornfields. Fiery missiles lit up the sky above us as we ducked for cover.

“Mom, they’re coming through the cornfields!” Marlowe shouted as we covered our heads and Diana screamed. A not-too-distant roar of crowds echoed the blasts as the sky burst with light.

Surprisingly, although the sky flamed with beautiful blossoming colors, there were no crashes or falling of shrapnel. Cautiously we looked around in amazement. The rockets’ which lit up the night appeared to be coming from the villaggio behind the cornfields. The crowds seemed to be “oohing” and “aahing” as each “bomb” burst above them.

“What?” Both Marlowe and I asked each other. As frightened as we were, something just didn’t fit. I heard no gunfire, no grenades, no screams (except Diana’s); only the boom of cannons right before they burst above the villaggio and cornfield. Now I noticed a few other neighbors were coming out back to watch the exploding sky.

One older woman standing with four children several houses away noticed us and called, “Aren’t they beautiful?” She didn’t seem the least bit frightened. “It’s too bad the men had to miss the fireworks because of the alert.”

Marlowe and I just looked at each other in amazement and even Diana stopped screaming and just sniffled as the woman walked towards us.

“The fireworks get more elaborate and beautiful every year,” the woman continued as she drew closer. “Most people walk over to the villaggio to participate in the fun and excitement of the festival, but I like to stay home and watch them from here.”

Marlowe caught on before I did and told Diana in his “Boris Karloff” voice, “Don’f vorry little girl. I von’t let terrorists or monsters or ‘firevorks’ harm you!” Then he doubled over laughing.

I tried to be natural and introduce myself, but I ended up laughing with my son instead.

“I’m Cheryl McKay,” she said after a minute, from “24B across the street. Is something wrong?”
“I’m sorry,” I finally got out in gasps, “but we thought . . .”

“YOU thought,” Marlowe interjected.

“No, WE thought,” I insisted before collapsing again with laughter.

It was then, with new neighbors around us on that brilliantly lit night in a no-longer-quite-so-strange or frightening country that I felt at home.

I knew that despite the different traditions, unusual language, and unconventional problems that we’d encounter in this strange country we now lived in, we’d make it, just as we had in each new place we had lived. It wouldn’t always be easy, and many times it would be comical (looking back on it at least), but together, with the military family around us, we’d make it!

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