BLACK OUT by Richard Budig

“What evil lurks in the hearts of men? . . . ..” said the deliciously scary voice on the radio. After a long pause, designed, I’m sure, to make us all think about any evil that may actually lurk there, the voice continued. “The SHADOW knows,” it said, and then it laughed a laugh that clabbered milk . . . .”ha, ha, ha, haaaaaaa.”


What made it scarier was that the house was pitch black. We — me, my brother, Gene, and my mom and dad — sat in total darkness, listening to the radio while, above us, waves of bombers swept low over my house, their big radial engines shaking the foundation like a minor earthquake. It was World War II, we were in the midst of a blackout, a wartime measure aimed at making whole towns invisible from the air at night.


As always, when it was blackout time, I grabbed an old pillow from the sofa, threw a cover over me, and huddled next to the radio on the floor in the dark trying to hear over the sound of the bombers making practice runs over my town, over my house, and more to the point, over me.


I’m not sure, exactly, how it got to be blackout night in my town. All I know is that a couple of times a month, mom would announce that tonight was blackout night. In retrospect, I know now that it was directly related to training schedules at the US Army Air Corp Training Base a few miles north of my home town.


Young men from all over the United States spent time at McCook Air Base putting the finishing touches on their flight, navigation, shooting and bombing skills before riding off to war on the shiny new wings they learned to fly while stationed there. My guess, these long years later, is that my little town was a mock target for the young airmen who, in a matter of weeks, would find themselves flying at night over towns in Europe that appeared to be in total eclipse. They would have to be able to find and hit their targets in total darkness.


In addition, the air base in McCook doubled as a prisoner of war camp, making my town, and my life, a microcosm of the wars being waged in every corner of the world . . . including mine.


Daily, and nightly, giant bombers roared overhead, going from, or returning to the base north of town, while during the day trucks loaded with war prisoners headed for contract labor in town rolled up and down the streets of McCook. And in quiet, private moments, I watched my parents slumped in remorse too deep for words after talking to a neighbor, a friend, or a relative. If it was a relative, old photo albums were brought out, and pages turned slowly.


Lost in her reverie, my mother would thumb the album pages and say, “I thought we had a picture of . . . ,” and then she would stop, the page frozen in position. Always, her hand covered her mouth, as tears welled in her eyes. Dad, sitting across from her, tried not looking at anything in particular, finally settling on his big, bony hands, hands that could usually fix anything.


The blackouts were highly organized. Each block had an air raid warden whose job it was to snoop around the neighborhood and look for light seeping out of cracks in curtains, sheets, blankets, tarps or whatever was being used to hold the light in.

One night during a blackout, an ominous rap thudded against our door. My heart stopped, and I couldn’t move. My joints locked. My eyeballs would not swivel in their sockets. Who was at our door . . . escaped war prisoners looking for food and weapons, our car so they could drive home to Germany . . . ???


“Air raid warden,” said a voice on the other side of the door as he thumped away with his fist. I always thought the front door of my house was solid enough to stop anything or anyone. But that night, as we sat entombed in a house that was part of a larger game called seek and destroy, with bombers overhead and a deep male voice demanding our attention on the other side of my sanctuary, I was no longer sure.


There was a terrible scurrying as my parents dashed about turning off lights before answering the warden’s knock. Wouldn’t do to let a room full of light spill into the dark night where circling bombers could lock onto it, or where, perhaps, escaped prisoners could see in, could see how totally unprotected we were.


The warden’s knock also meant that our name would go on a list. I wondered what kind of list it was. Perhaps it was “The Light Leaker’s List.” Was it like teacher’s list? Would there be a later punishment for our escaped light, a light that could easily be used by Hitler, our arch enemy, to find not only our town, but MY HOUSE.


There was a muffled conversation with the warden. It was carried on between the tiniest of cracks in the door, as though Hitler, himself, were listening. The door no sooner closed than mom went scurrying to a front room window and tucked furiously at the many layers of material covering the windows.


“How could he see that . . . ?” she whispered, as though Hitler really were listening. I, too, wondered how you could see light from windows so carefully covered as ours.

Things settled again, and thereafter, we kept our house as black inside as it was outside. No more visits from wardens who put our names on the light leaker’s list.


But before the lights went down that night in the house at 1210 West Second Street in McCook, NE, I slipped out the back door for a look. It was, as best as I can remember, during the winter of ’43 or ’44. I was about 8 years old.


It was a cold winter night without a breath of wind. A light skiff of snow lay across the rooftops of all the darkened houses that I could see. Each roof was illuminated by a winter moon that strode defiantly across a sky so full of stars that I felt I could see back to the beginning of time.


We must have been between waves of bombers because it was so quiet that I thought the whole world was holding it’s breath. So, I held mine, and listened.


Nowhere did I hear the sound of war. Nowhere did I see a sliver of escaped light that might betray my town, my house, or me. Here, alone, beneath these stars, and this heaven, at this particular moment in time, I felt safe. But deep inside, I knew bad people, somewhere, were doing bad things to other people.


After all, evil lurks in the hearts of men. And, turning, I saw my own shadow in the moonlight. I studied it. It moved with me, but always at an angle, and it hugged the ground like a snake. I shivered and went inside, feeling, at last, that I knew what THE SHADOW knows.