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.
|< A response to 'Porn corporations: stop selling rape fantasies' | Escape >|