Panic in the Dark

Judith Salcewicz

I grew up in the fifties in South Bound Brook, New Jersey, a small town bordered by the Raritan River. I was taught to be polite. I didn’t talk back to my elders but kept a mental checklist of ways I’d be different.

I was only six when I stood on tip toes to peek into Cassie’s carriage. It was disappointing. I expected stripes.

“She pushes that zebra baby past my house every day,” my aunt had said.

At six I couldn’t understand she was calling Cassie a zebra because of her interracial parents.

South Bound Brook was just a mile square. Everyone could sit on one of the stools at Van’s Soda Shop. There were no boycotts, no protests but some things were not quite right.

I was ten when a black friend joined in a game of jacks I was playing with my girlfriend, on the sidewalk in front of her house.

“How nice that you came to play today,” her mother said from the doorway in a tone an octave higher than her usual speaking voice.

I stared at her too-wide smile stretched tight over lipstick-dotted teeth. Later we sat on the steps and she brought us cookies and Kool Aid in Dixie cups instead of the usual sparkly Lucite ones.

“I’ll serve everyone in my good dishes,” I thought. My resolve to make a difference strengthened as I grew older.

Ten years of Girl Scouting delivered the promise of building confidence, character, and finding my voice. At campouts we sang, “Kumbaya” and “Let There be Peace on Earth.” Maybe peace could begin with me. Bob Dylan sang, “The Times They Are A-Changin.” I wrote, “Don’t Break My Bubble,” a play about an idealistic young man disillusioned by false promises and hypocrisy. As thrilling as it was to see my words come alive on the stage, my greatest hope was that my words could affect others.

The Girl Scout motto is “Be Prepared.” Skills and adventures acquired through scouting helped prepare me for what was to be one of the pivotal experiences of my life.

Older scouts are encouraged to use their leadership skills. In the last half of my senior year of high school, I helped plan a conference that would take place in a hotel in the Poconos. I worked with other scouts to organize the entire weekend which would be attended by dozens of girls from several nearby states.

We’d open with ice breakers, exchanges of small tokens of friendship, and a swim. When our planning committee visited the hotel to work out event logistics, we were impressed by the Olympic-sized pool situated in a glass-walled atrium. It was big enough for our entire group. We planned water activities that included lots of beach balls.

The crux of the conference revolved around a guest speaker and discussion groups that would build on a theme. We chose Global Relations. Many of us were graduating from high school. Our learning focus would help prepare us for going out into the world.

I volunteered to recruit the guest speaker. I knew the perfect person: Mr. Porter, my U. S. History teacher.

Mr. Porter was the only black teacher in our high school. We discussed the Civil Rights movement in class and listened closely to his answers. We understood the indignation of Rosa Parks and were inspired by Martin Luther King Junior’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

My class was fascinated when Mr. Porter talked about his two years in Micronesia serving in the Peace Corps. Micronesia is a beautiful island country. Like ours, it was once a colony.  As we studied our country’s struggle for freedom, we learned about this tiny nation on the threshold of independence.

Mr. Porter had taught English to young people there who knew they would be able to provide for their families with the education they coveted.  We liked to imagine ourselves in the island paradise. He described the students he taught in so much detail we almost felt like we knew them. I was confident that my Scout sisters would find Mr. Porter’s stories as fascinating as we did.

Then everything changed.

On April 4, 1968, the day before our conference was to begin, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.  I met with Mr. Porter after school. Tears were in his voice as he explained why we needed to talk about the tragedy that would affect all of us. I agreed.

I packed for the conference listening to news stories about the assassination and the riots that were beginning around the country.  Mr. Porter would arrive on Saturday. Friday night activities would be up to us. One change we knew we could make was the words to grace before our meal. Johnny Appleseed Grace was our favorite. We altered it.

The Lord is good to me
and so I thank the Lord
For giving me the things I need

Then instead of “The sun and the rain and the apple seed,” we added “Dr. King and his dream may it live in me.”

 The Lord is good to me.

After dinner, ice breakers, and a friendship token exchange, we put on bathing suits and rubber swim caps that snapped under our chins and got into the water. The pool was crowded but we were having a great time with new and old friends. We decorated the air with beach balls and filled the room with laughter.

Then the lights went out. We were in complete darkness in a crowded swimming pool. Many screamed. I was in deep water. Someone clutched me and we both went under. I clawed my way to the surface not knowing the grabber or where she went.

There was no backup generator.

“Is this a riot?” someone asked, escalating the scream volume.

A whistle blew.

“Girl Scouts are courageous,” shouted the lifeguard who was obviously a girl scout.  “We need to be quiet and calm.”

In an instant, silence swallowed the chaos.

We were instructed to swim to the side of the pool. Helping hands hoisted swimmer after swimmer. Flashlights arrived guiding the remaining girls as they left the pool. They were not powerful enough to illuminate the entire pool.

The room was cleared except for the leaders and committee members. Was anyone still in the pool?

Suddenly there was a rumble and a flood of light appeared. Hotel staff drove cars up to the huge windows. The high beams were enough to ascertain that everyone was out of the pool.

Our late night gathering included a discussion on what we did right and what we could do better next time.

Mr. Porter arrived early the next morning. We talked about the evening scare. Not a whisper could be heard as he spoke.

“Scouting believes that girls can change the world. This week the world mourns the loss of a man with a dream, a dream that can live on through each of you.

Scouting calls girls to be a friend to all, and the world needs us to recognize that inclusive friendship.

Change is hard. It’s the only way for an acorn to become a mighty oak. I challenge you to nurture the acorn that is inside each of you.

I think you have experienced firsthand that darkness generates panic, but it is possible to control our actions and mend the broken parts of our world.

Some of you might join the Peace Corps like I did. Even if you don’t, you can make a difference where you are, but you have to believe in yourself and the importance of your actions.”

As Mr. Porter continued, we believed in the possibilities of what could be and we resolved to be part of the process. Our group discussions were electric. We were still in school but we mattered.

After the conference I rushed into my house excited with the possibilities of what could be. As I entered the house I overheard my grandmother talking to my dad.

“He’s dead. Now maybe things will get back to normal.”

I knew we had a long way to go.



About the author:

Judith Salcewicz has lived in Mercer County for over 40 years, where she enjoyed teaching and running the Community Service Program at Notre Dame High School. In addition to writing, she enjoys reading, travel, volunteering, gardening and spending time with her grandchildren. Retiring and joining the Lawrence Memoir Writing Group has helped her reconnect with her passion for writing. In her story, “Panic in the Dark,” the experiences she describes from the weekend that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated affected her life and her teaching career. One of her proudest teaching accomplishments was creating an anti-bullying program that her students presented to dozens of area grammar schools.

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