I was six months past my twelfth birthday and really wasn’t sure I would live to see thirteen. Oh there was so much I wanted to do someday. Drive a car, find a girlfriend, walk through those double doors as a high school freshman, find a girlfriend, see Mickey Mantle play at the “House that Ruth Built,” and finally find a girlfriend. But the Cold War was escalating. “Dad, why don’t we have a fallout shelter? Do you think we ought to start digging one?” As he looked up from his crossword puzzle and cocked an eyebrow he said, “Sure. Get started. I’ll tell you when you are deep enough.”
In October of 1962 the Cuban Missile Crisis was at its height. Walter Cronkite showed me images of nukes found in Cuba; Kennedy sitting behind his desk in a special broadcast explaining why we were blockading Cuba; Castro and Khrushchev standing with arms raised above their heads holding hands…make that clasping hands. It sounds so much manlier. Uncle Olin and Cousin Hall were reservists and worried they were about to be called up. Some one used the propaganda catch phrase “I’d rather be dead than Red!” Wait just one dang minute! I want that car, that girlfriend and all the other stuff. I’m ten and I’d rather be any color other than dead.
Do you remember Khrushchev during a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly banging his shoe on the podium and shouting in Russian, “We will bury you?” This was earlier in the fall of 1960 and on my black and white I could tell he was pissed. It was a reaction to England’s Harold McMillian…or to the Philippine’s Lorenzo Sumulong. Witnesses are unsure as to which. Short, with a close-cropped balding head, he had a large elevated mole around his nose. Despite these unflattering features, when he smiled and wore his reading glasses, he resembled someone’s grandfather. This day he resembled one of the devil’s minions. The scene was an iconic image of very angry person. His threatening statement sent chills through our collective hearts. It is a vivid memory but there are two problems. Problem one was that he might not have banged the shoe at all and his statement more closely translated to “We will outlast you.” The translator might have been a bit overworked at the time. The second problem? We bought into the iconic image and original translation because of our national propaganda machine. Consequently, most of the people from our generation remember it exactly that way. One of the first things I checked on my return to school the next day was the exact location of the yellow and black sign with the odd symbol designating the “Fallout Shelter.” I decided that I would be the first in line to enter.
I watched too much TV back then…still do! There was a short animated film shown on the Ed Sullivan Show called “A Short Vision?” Did you see it? If you have forgotten it or are too young, you still can see it on YouTube because I just did. In 1956 it traumatized an entire generation of children and kept their parents up at night wondering if this was going to be the night that the Soviets dropped the big one. I don’t know about my parents but one child it traumatized was me. Watching it today was almost as scary as it was sixty years ago. For months when a large airplane flew overhead I would shade my eyes and squint looking for red stars instead of white. At bedtime I prayed that “if I die before I wake please don’t let it be a nuclear bomb.” Shortly thereafter we had our first school “Emergency Drill.” That’s what we call them today, the old “duck and cover” drills. In my day it was “In Case of Nuclear Attack….” There were even posters, the kind you put on the wall of your school not the social media type, explaining what to do to insure your survival. I remember instruction one was to “Stand Clear OF Windows.” Two was to “Remove All Items From Your Pockets…” Somewhere down toward the bottom was Six: “Lean Forward and Place Your Head Between Your Legs.” When I got to college I saw a poster that some humorous someone had scrawled an addendum, “and kiss your ass goodbye.” Sound advice I should think.
In late October of 1962 we learned that I actually had a better chance of reaching the age of eleven than I did of finding a girlfriend…or being radioactive dust. The Russian Bear had blinked. They would remove their ICBM’s from Cuba. What our government didn’t tell us until later was that we would also remove our own weapons from Turkey. Oh life was good or, at least, it would go on for a while.
I should have picked better movies to watch. H-Man, The Blob, Godzilla and Rodan were all silly enough not to scare me even if they were made as statements against nuclear weapons. But then I had to watch On The Beach from a book by Nevil Shute. Later I even read the book. Characterized as a post-apocalyptic thriller, my question was “Don’t some people have to live for it to be a post-apocalyptic thriller?” No one survived the movie or the book. No one in the world. Not the stars, the costars, even the third grip died of radiation poisoning or took the easy way out. I would have taken the easy way…maybe. I had nightmares for months about the final scene of empty streets, sports stadiums and old newspapers blowing in the wind. I still have chills as I think about it.
Speaking of blowing in the wind. I wonder how the wind felt for Maj. T. J. “King” Kong as he rode his H- bomb down to its target in Dr. Strangelove. It would activate a Soviet Doomsday Machine causing nuclear explosions all over the world. That would be the actor Slim Pickens pretending to straddle the bomb as it fell to Earth. Little wonder the movie was described as a dark comedy. Yes, it was a real knee-slapper. As far as I know there were no Doomsday Machines but if they did exist, they are probably still around waiting for the North Koreans or Iranians to attack. Failsafe, in which we drop our own bomb on New York City, was another Cold War thriller that would come out the same year. It appears the whole country, or at least movie producers, were concerned about nuclear bombs being detonated. Apparently, no one “learned” from Dr. Strangelove’s sub-title “to stop worrying and love the bomb.”
Several years later I would find myself sitting in a freshman English class trying to translate the Old English of the Canterbury Tales into country redneck. I was having no success when the air raid siren in downtown Newberry began to blow. It was a test that was repeated every weekday at noon. My English professor, a sometimes not quite sober and always irreverent guy, looked out the window and stated to the class, “If the Rooskies have enough bombs to waste on Newberry, we are f@#$ed. Class is dismissed!”
As I think back I would have to agree and also admit that I miss the Soviets. We thought we knew who our enemies were back then, where they were, and how far we could push them. They wore certain uniforms and lived in certain countries. We knew that we were here and they were somewhere over there. It was our government against their government. Our ideologies versus their ideologies. We had theaters of war where an army would be on a particular side.
Then came Vietnam and the end of our “American Exceptionalism.” Even though the Russians were still involved and were our greatest enemy the environment began to change. Suddenly all uniforms were made of the same camouflage material that looked for the world like pajamas and camouflaged them to look like everyone else but us. We wore the same colors and hats we always had worn but in jungle camo. The fighting took place in a jungle where you could never be quite certain where or who Charlie was. Having said all that we started to sense a blur between the two sides and two sides became three…or more. It was harder to determine just who the enemy was and now the blur has become so exaggerated, it is extremely difficult to separate the “good” guys and the “bad” guys, even on our own side.
Today our governments set up factions to overturn other governments or groups of people in the name of democracy and for the pursuit of oil and other resources. Anyone remember the Shah of Iran? You might want to do a little research if you have asked why the Iranians hate us. Once we pull out, we leave a wealth of armaments which is scooped up by the likes of Al Qaeda or Issis. These arms are then used to destroy the very countries we tried to democratize. These people behead the Christian “infidels” and anyone else who does not submit to their sect of Islam. When you study how these radical jihadists were originally trained and funded by the US, you begin to understand the connection between us and them. And they are everywhere. They have no particular uniform or distinction or even a legitimate government. In a sense they are invisible unless they pick up an Islamist flag or yell “Death to America!” Or simply blow up a bomb somewhere. It would seem that the enemies that we made in the name of the Cold War and the Gulf Wars, and the people of the Middle East who we helped to militarize have very long memories of inequities that have taken place.
We cannot really look around and identify our enemies with any certainty with sleeper cells, pretenders, spies, and double agents. And we must not forget the US involvement in the formation and training of so many of these groups. There is possibly only one place where we can identify the real troublemakers…we can look in a mirror. To quote Pogo and his creator Walt Kelly, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
At least back in the 60’s there were air raid sirens that let you know something might be getting ready to happen. If you were lucky enough to be near a bomb shelter, you has some small semblance of safety. You knew that the Russians were coming…and still might. Today, we do not know who, how, when, or what may happen. I think I liked the sirens better.
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