Print Story Once upon the Nineteen Sixties
By ana (Sun Mar 04, 2012 at 02:18:31 PM EST) memoir (all tags)
Life in the target zone.

I remember the house where we lived in 1959, when I started school. I remember going out in the back yard excitedly watching for Sputnik going overhead, and then Echo (which was much brighter). But those things were easily missed by a five-year-old, even when pointed out. After all, there were important things like the great variety of ants, and the horses that lived in the pasture beyond the back fence, and learning to ride a bicycle.

In 1960, the kids separated into two rival gangs, based on the political predilections of their parents. Democrat kids beat up Republican kids, and vice versa, on the playground. Though I think they probably voted for him, my parents were somewhat relieved that Nixon lost. But what had been a kind of vague, cold, kind of a war, sharpened quickly into a series of crises, the Russians testing the young, new President, and finding him pliable, and someone they could intimidate.

In first grade we had duck and cover drills. Living along the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, everybody knew that, despite the peaceful use of rocketry that put Sputnik into earth orbit, those same missiles could put a nuclear warhead anywhere. And one target certainly would be the headquarters of the North American Air Defense Command, NORAD, which was under Cheyenne Mountain, just outside Colorado Springs. Another might arguably be the Martin Marietta factory that built Titan missiles which would participate in a return strike. My father worked there.

And so the ancient dreads were focused even more dreadfully upon the next generation. The sirens would go off, we would hurry into the hallway away from all the windows, huddle against the walls with our heads down, and wait for the blast. There was one drill where they sent everybody home, though what the purpose was of having primary school kids turned loose on the town in the midst of fallout or nuclear horror was not clear to me, even then. But kids like pretend games, and we ate it up.

I have no personal memory of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, by which time I was in the 3rd grade. Discussing it later, a civics teacher pointed out that the American naval blockade of Cuba was an act of war, and that the Soviet Union could have said, "Missiles, go!". He waved a hand from central Asia on the world map, slapped it in middle America, and the map rolled up. I'm told it seemed pretty clear to everyone that there would be a war, possibly before the end of the week, that October.

I think the existential dread set in the following year. Kennedy was dead, and nobody was entirely convinced the Soviets were not somehow involved. My parents were building a new house on the other side of town, to accommodate the larger family (my youngest brother was born in late 1961). They thought it prudent to rough in a concrete fallout shelter in the basement of the new house. So there's a room in the basement of that house which has concrete walls eight inches thick, and a concrete ceiling, with two pipes into which a ventilation system could be installed, and a threshold where a steel door (or two—there's a concrete hallway leading in) could be placed to seal us in.

I asked a number of questions about this, and was not reassured by the answers I got. Dramas such as On The Beach were beginning to come out. And I had any number of daydreams and nightmares where we emerged from the shelter to find the house burned above us, the neighbors all killed, the city in ashes, and what would we do then?

As it happens, the shelter was never finished. The missiles my dad built were used for launching satellites. The heavy concrete walls tended to keep it cooler, so we stored canned fruit and jelly there. I was afraid of the spiders (with some reason; we found black widow spiders in the basement with some regularity). I found that if I leaned against the doorway and reached all the way in, I could see daylight down the entry way, dimly, and still reach the string that turned on the bare-bulb light. I could then retrieve the jar of whatever I was sent for without too much trauma, and return to the daylight above.

Still, there, in the center of my mind somewhere, is a ton of concrete, waiting for the day when it will be needed. Hoping against hope, and knowing for a certainty that the hope was vain, that it would never be needed. Will never be needed.

I thought we'd be extinct by now. I've been afraid, my whole life, that civilization was something I would outlive.

And now, the cold war is over. The Berlin Wall is gone. The Soviet Union has dissolved. There are still nuclear weapons in the world, but no serious fear they'll be used, at least not in an overwhelming, state-sponsored way. There are nightmare scenarios, sure, but somehow they're not DEFCON ONE nightmares.

Bad things will happen. But on the whole they'll happen to me, not to all of us, not all at once, in the blink of the Evil Eye. Or, you know, maybe they will. And a lifetime of frugality and saving up for retirement according to the rules of a civilization now but a memory, will likewise be but a memory.

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Once upon the Nineteen Sixties | 11 comments (11 topical, 0 hidden) | Trackback
I've probably told this before... by toxicfur (4.00 / 1) #1 Sun Mar 04, 2012 at 02:48:15 PM EST
But I was likewise convinced that I'd see the annihilation of humans in my lifetime. In the sixth grade (1985-86), Mrs. Moore told us that there would be a nuclear war between the Soviets and the US. We would be a target because of Camp Lejeune and Fort Bragg, and we would be the lucky ones – at least we wouldn't die of radiation poisoning, which she described in gruesome detail. This would be, she explained, how God would destroy the world. The Second Coming was at hand, and we needed to make sure we were right with God and had accepted Jesus into our hearts to be born again so that we would be taken up in the Rapture. I had nightmares about it, but I was also kind of looking forward to it in a weird way.

I suspect that my experience was quite different from others my age. The prospects for nuclear war were not as high as they were during your childhood. Still, though, the fears were real.

Also, +1FP. Great story.
The amount of suck that you can put up with can be mind-boggling, but it only really hits you when it then ceases to suck. -- Kellnerin

Fear of annihilation by jimgon (4.00 / 1) #2 Sun Mar 04, 2012 at 03:15:59 PM EST
I think anyone born aftern 1950 who reached the age of eighteen before the collapse of the Soviet Union shares to some degree that fear and knowing dread deep in our bones that the end of the world was right around the corner.  Afterall we all knew it would only take thirty minutes for an ICBM to reach from the Soviet Union to the United States.  We were always thirty minutes from certain death.  Does something to you living with that knowlede every day.  My kids don't know what it's like.  They've never lived with a constant reminder that doom was thirty minutes away on the tip of an ICBM.  It's a different world for them.  Now they get to deal with the threat of global warming much in the same way.  My world view is highly cynical and emblematic of a time when we knew were were going to die in a fireball and I look at trees to this day wondering if they'll be there when and if I have grand children running around.  There's always a sadness that I've lived with.  A melancholy.  It's always there and always will be.  I don't know how much of it is normal-normal and how much is normal because of the times in which I reached adulthood.

Technician - "We can't even get decent physical health care. Mental health is like witchcraft here."
heh, our propaganda was different by infinitera (4.00 / 1) #3 Sun Mar 04, 2012 at 08:06:35 PM EST
It was never about doom, always about sabotage of communism.

[…] a professional layabout. Which I aspire to be, but am not yet. — CheeseburgerBrown

[ Parent ]
I'd like to hear more about your experience by toxicfur (2.00 / 0) #4 Sun Mar 04, 2012 at 09:16:09 PM EST
What was it like during the 80s, with our dementia-suffering president having access to the button, in the Soviet Union? Was there the same sort of fear that the world would end? That the Americans were nuts and would destroy the world over ideology?
The amount of suck that you can put up with can be mind-boggling, but it only really hits you when it then ceases to suck. -- Kellnerin
[ Parent ]
nope, not regarding the end of the world by infinitera (4.00 / 1) #5 Sun Mar 04, 2012 at 11:31:13 PM EST
Just the end of communism/end of peace, land & bread for all Slavs. E.g. food / goods supply issues are evidence the Americans are sabotaging our society. Probably with Jewish help (not official line, just broadly believed).

[…] a professional layabout. Which I aspire to be, but am not yet. — CheeseburgerBrown

[ Parent ]
On our side, it was about nukes by Noli nothis (4.00 / 1) #7 Mon Mar 05, 2012 at 08:46:16 AM EST
Reagan was scary as president, and we pretty much believed he would be crazy enough to launch the missiles himself, or provoke someone else to do it. By the time I was in school, duck and cover drills were passé, but becoming an adult while Ronnie was in office could give you a sense of nihilism.

Economically, we were worried about Japan taking over, that their empire dreams had only found new weapons.

[ Parent ]
I grew up within walking distance of WPAFB by lm (4.00 / 1) #6 Mon Mar 05, 2012 at 07:51:38 AM EST
Wright Patterson Air Force Base,  Aside from the infamous Hanger 18, it hosted B-52s and later, reputedly, the Stealth Bomber.

Even before the Berlin Wall came down down in 1989 (the year I graduated from high school), my generation had largely become numb (or at least apathetic) regarding the possibility of nuclear annihilation.

I remember being keenly aware of the possibility. In my freshman year of high school I did a persuasive speech on nuclear disarmament. It was very poorly received. The reaction wasn't hostility so much as apathy. None of my classmates thought the threat was real.

I should have given the speech a few years earlier.

There is no more degenerate kind of state than that in which the richest are supposed to be the best.
Cicero, The Republic
I grew up in the DC area. by wiredog (2.00 / 0) #8 Mon Mar 05, 2012 at 11:08:44 AM EST
They tested the air raid sirens on the first Wednesday of the month at 10:30. My high school (Langley, class of 83) was just over the hill from CIA. Growing up we knew how many primary targets were around us.

Today the sirens are all gone.

Earth First!
(We can strip mine the rest later.)

Like most of us, by technician (4.00 / 2) #9 Mon Mar 05, 2012 at 05:53:02 PM EST
I was in one of those towns where everyone thought we'd be on the first to hit list. White Sands, Ft Bliss, Holloman, an NSA listening post (that we're now allowed to say is NSA) hiding in a NASA facility, and all those engineers lived in Las Cruces. I remember staying awake at night some nights, so worried that Ronnie RayGun would twitch and fuck up the universe.

And if you talk to anyone in the US of A, 90 percent will say, yeah, we were going to die in the first strike. Everyone thinks they were on that first strike list.

Well, I can tell you without any hesitation whatsoever that unless you were in NYC, DC, LA, or near an ICBM, you were not on the first wave list. Or the second or third or etc. The idea was to annihilate Command and Control and nuke as many nukes as possible in the first strikes. The second were LARGE military centers (HQ for the Army, HQ for the Marines, etc). Third were ports. Fourth were large population centers. Fifth(!) was "secondary" (non-ICBM, non CandC) military sites. Towns like the one I lived in weren't even part of the strike equation. We'd have survived, to be fuel for the cancers and roving bands of heathens that would consume the surface after the skies went all nuclear winter on us.

Unfortunately, I was fairly aware of that. Which is why the plan (I had a plan, dammit) was to run to a friend's house twelve miles away in the desert, hole up there until we could get his dad's ancient diesel water truck running, and drive to the nearest die, as quickly as possible. Or just off one another right away with whatever fast lethal things we had handy.

And we wonder why the generation I'm part of and our parents generation are the prozac generations, the fucked up sixth column of a war effort that nothing would have survived.  Maybe that's why we're so blasé about limited global war now. Maybe we don't have as much care about Iraq and Afghanistan and Iran and Syria because really, it won't result in all of us being reduced to our core elements in that fifteen minutes from launch to OH SHI

Bangor Trident sub base. by ammoniacal (4.00 / 1) #11 Tue Mar 06, 2012 at 08:52:06 AM EST
Yeah, I definitely grew up in the first-strike shadow and I still mistrust Russians.

"To this day that was the most bullshit caesar salad I have every experienced..." - triggerfinger

[ Parent ]
Strange times by Herring (2.00 / 0) #10 Tue Mar 06, 2012 at 07:13:08 AM EST
We lived near a large USAF base (long runway - handy for bombers and refuelling tankers) so we figured we were for it. My mum (of course) had a donkey jacket with a CND/peace badge and went on demos. Our phone was tapped. Happy days.

christ, we're all old now - StackyMcRacky
Once upon the Nineteen Sixties | 11 comments (11 topical, 0 hidden) | Trackback