“You’ll never hear a blues song about a beautiful landscape or a sunrise. These present no problems to the blues singer.” — David Evans, Big Road Blues.
When I was seven, my mother and father moved us out of the city to a small plot of farmland in northern Illinois in order to keep me away from the very same things I would boomerang back to in the suburbs as a teenager. We had seven acres, one dog, eleven barn cats, two horses (my favorite a piebald Appaloosa named Rubik), some chickens and a scruffy one-and-a-half-horned goat. For my father it was a return to the country of his Mississippi childhood. I loved the change from city to country; from pavement underfoot to loose dirt and mud; shinnying up the best climbing trees, fingers gummy and luminescent with pine resin and lightning bug guts. At the end of the day, Mom had to pick the bramble burrs off my behind, and the dog day cicadas hummed loud enough to know they’re near, but never long enough to find. One night, I remember my father and I were sitting out on the back porch where he was toying with a blues number on an acoustic guitar.
My father is self-taught on guitar, self-taught in most things. In the Deep South a lot of the bluesmen first learned to play on diddley bows; strings screwed to wood planks to make proto-guitars; slave-ship imports from West Africa. Most of the original Delta blues greats got their earliest education on diddley bows, and to this day in Clarksdale, Mississippi there’s a man goes by the name of Super Chikan who’ll turn a broom into a diddley bow right before your eyes. My father comes from a place where an autodidactic education translates to he come up on the diddley bow. All the great blues players come up on the diddley bow, and I received my first lesson on international relations by way of diddley bow that night.
As I looked up at the shocking spread of stars, I noticed that one of them was moving, inching its way across the sky, blinking orange, blue, white and red at various points around its outline. I asked my father what it was. He told me without breaking rhythm that it was a military plane; that we were in a kind of war with the Russians.
Before then, as a child in those final years of the Cold War, I knew the enemy solely through coin-op arcade games: Rush’N Attack, where my mom-supplied quarters worked to fund an 8-bit assault on hoards of rushing pixelated figures; grainy green overcoats, blurry ushankas and Konami Kalishnokovs rat-a-tat-tatting at my on-screen American commando. But this blinking thing was the first time that an artifact of the war had ever come gliding over the back yard.
It was probably a reconnaissance plane, he told me, because the Russians and Americans always have to keep an eye out; to be ready to wipe each other off the map just to guarantee they wouldn’t. That plane up there—he motioned with the neck of his guitar—was concerned with a sort of power equal to all them stars combined.
So the long-coated men with the funny furry hats wanted to hit us with a bomb full of sky. I was amazed, and my father told me more. He told me the facts without the terminology, without the textbook terms of blast radii and fallouts and gamma rays.
If they struck Chicago they wouldn’t land that big ass bomb downtown, because half the blast would spread out over the lake that way, and who lives on the lake? They’d sink her somewhere on the North Side, definitely, because the Russians knew that a South or West Side strike wouldn’t hit the headlines as hard as the North Side.
He also told me a story from when he was younger, living in Hyde Park in his early 20s back in the late 1950s. The White Sox had won a big night-game in Cleveland and in celebration the fans blew a thousand horns and raised such a ruckus that people in Chicago thought it to be the warning sirens for an incoming nuclear strike. Put half of the people of Chicago to DEFCON 1. They all ran to their basements and began weeping Hail Marys, but not my father, his story went; my father at the time heard the sirens and the klaxons blaring, and it was fine by him because he was wise to it all, knew the truth; that it just meant the Sox had won, and even if a mushroom cloud really was set to balloon over the Chicago skyline, then really, what could you do about it? Besides, those people who were scared of such a spectacular and swift way to die were obviously not the ones who’d been born black in Mississippi in 1935.
I continued to watch the star float across the sky—the plane, it had become now, the anti-Soviet SAC reconnaissance plane—as my father continued to play his blues. And growing up and into adulthood I came to regard the story with disbelief—a fable fed to a kid—and, at times, I am ashamed to admit, as an urban legend swallowed whole by my father; a relic of his lack of formal education.
Cleveland Stadium. September 22, 1959
Bottom of the ninth and the Sox are clinging to a 4-2 lead. Nothing’s keeping them from the pennant. Indians have the bases loaded but the Sox know they got it. They’re the Go Go White Sox and nothing’s getting through their defense. The Indians’ Vic Power steps to the plate—he’s Puerto Rican but he changed his name to Vic Power from Victor Felipe Pellot, because Pellot souds like plotte and back in the minors in Quebec the crowds taunted him because plotte is slang for vagina in Quebecois French. So he changed it to Vic Power just last year, which in American English is slang for some kind of comic book hero.
It’s all on him now if the Indians are going to come from behind for the win. The Sox’ Little Louie Aparicio is at shortstop and Aparicio’s thinking hit it right here, hijo-de-puta, ponlo aqui. Punches his mitt, lets loose a string of snuff juice. Aparicio is black too, from Venezuela, but he never changed his name like this Puerto Rican chump stepping to the plate. He’s sure that Pellot’s jersey reads “Vic Power” because Pellot’s doffing his heritage, not because of some vaginal ribbing; the real reason he changed it is because white baseball fans generally don’t like those two facts thrown in their faces at once: a black-Hispanic ball player. The black part they’d learned to deal with ever since Jackie Robinson broke through twelve years earlier, but a black-Hispanic ball player, now that was still a little too much, so you had some sell-out Latinos coming out the dugout with Anglicized jerseys—Vic Power, Bob Clemente.
Rain tonight, Aparicio thinks. Smell it in the air. Perfect for when the Indians have to cry over a loss in a minute, and he thinks of that song they’d been playing on the radio lately, on rock n’ roll stations toward the end of rainy nights.
The sky is crying. Look at Cleveland’s tears roll down the street.
He watches Vic Power raise his bat to the ready as the Sox relief pitcher prepares to wind up. Aparicio tenses his body to spring-load. Hit it right here. Knuckles his glove. No way getting anything past us.
Staley winds up the pitch and sails it low and outside and Vic (plotte) Power swings and connects, zings a left-field groundball. Aparicio bolts and snags it like a scooped-up prayer, sprints to tag second and then fires it over to Big Ted Kluszewski for the double play. Third out.
Sox win the pennant. 54,000 people deflate.
And back in Chicago at a firehouse a kid hears the play over the radio and the voice of Jack Brickhouse—the White Sox have won it, the White Sox have won it, blow those whistles—and he leaps up, nearly taking the table and the portable radio with him, but then he remembers what he’s supposed to do. He’s supposed to open the glass case at the control panel behind him, turn the key and hit the switch. His boss—the big boss—Fire Commissioner Quinn has given orders that if the Sox win they are to sound the air raid sirens for a full 5 minutes. Quinn has the blessing on this from Daley himself. The sirens had never been sounded before at night and it’s nearly 11 pm and the kid is thinking, “This might scare the shit out of a lotta’ people.” But to hell with it, the Sox are in the series, heroes of 35th street, and orders are orders.
So he gives the nod to an even younger kid under him, orders him to do it.
The sleepy South Side streets are shattered by the revolving death-wail of the air raid sirens and half-dressed Chicagoans begin to spill out on the sidewalks, watching the sky.
They all have that film reel sequence in their heads; the classic slow-motion black and white atomic test footage—clapboard house on slow-bake as the screen washes out to blinding white flare; the silent film stirred to a particle ballet and then shockwave-flattened before the blast wind reverses the proceedings, sucks it all back in the nuclear vacuum—and they’re thinking this is what’s about to come bearing down on their heads because it sounds like London ‘40 out there in the Chi-Town streets. My father hears it sitting in his Hyde Park apartment, shuts the window.
If Jimmy Yancey—unassuming Comiskey Park groundskeeper for over 30 years by day, greatest boogie woogie blues pianist of all time by night—if Jimmy Yancey’s there to see and hear how all the people are mistakenly panicking about a Russian attack on account of a Sox victory, he would probably think it was funny and then—what a shame, what a cryin’ damn shame—that he could not do a blues number about this nuclear thing, because it obviously hit with the people. Maybe it could sell, a song about this blast that all the white folks feared, but you just couldn’t do it as a blues number—nobody ever wrote a blues song about a sunrise—and what is a nuclear blast if not a man-made sunrise. The blues can only be about malaise and frustration, and if there is heat it must involve fucking or dancing which are basically the same, anyway. But maybe a blues song could be done about the sirens themselves; the dread of those klaxons and the city’s fear of what’s to come.
Klaxon Blues, you could call that one.
My father continued slow-walking the bass line on his acoustic as the plane winked out of view.
“That white light could wash the whole world out. Destroy everything. All of us. In a second.”
He stopped strumming and looked over to me.
“But there ain’t a goddamn thing we can really do about it. So don’t you worry about it.”
He continued playing, and that was all. He left me with this thing to consider as I watched and listened to a man who was wiser and more educated than maybe I will ever know.
And eventually I would come to discover that the cold dread and panic my father spoke of that night was real; evidence of mass city-wide scares that could be seen and touched and wheeled into focus on library microfilm. That night was the first time in my life that I became aware of an immense force at work outside the little world of my parents and me; of a bipolarity—an Us and a Them—decisions being made that shaped and ordered a world freshly-welted with previously unseen boundaries and borders; where stars could lurch into motion, stir to slow creep—come tumbling down to a quaking white flash—and looking back now when I think of that night I am struck by how very American it all was.
Nighttime blues, nuclear display.
A good account of the 1959 Chicago air-raid siren scare in the Chicago Reader can be found here.