Cold War tensions never really do thaw

Cold War tensions never really do thaw

Memory’s like a rubber band.

Stretch it too far and it’s likely to snap.

That’s why I’m happy to report that I can remember the last time the world was this close to nuclear annihilation.

Well, maybe “happy” isn’t the best word, but it’ll do for now.

I remember that 60 years ago or so, the president of the United States addressed the nation on the occasion of my brother’s fifth birthday and pretty much told us that we were in deep trouble.

It was a Monday night and my brother had a nasty cold, so Mom had fashioned the davenport into a kind of sickbed, using lots of pillows and blankets and making sure there was plenty of Vicks VapoRub, Smith Brothers cough drops and paregoric handy.

Did she know that the latter was an opiate soon to be banned?

Probably not, but she was happy that it made her youngest sleepy.

Well, maybe “happy” isn’t the best word, but it’ll do for now.

But after supper – probably Johnny Marzetti – and birthday cake with presents, Dad turned on the TV and right there in our living room appeared President Kennedy. In years to come, those 13 days in October 1962 would be called the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Back then, though, folks figured that the end of the world was near.

That’s not hyperbolic exaggeration.

There was fear in the air everywhere and suddenly those duck-and-cover drills kids had been doing in schools seemed all too pertinent.

For some reason, I have no recollection of them taking place in my school, but then again, we were Catholic children and maybe the priests and the nuns believed that we were invulnerable to mushroom clouds and radiation sickness; after all, they taught us that ours was the only faith to guarantee admission to heaven – the fix was in – and I suppose most of us were happy to learn that.

Well, maybe “happy” isn’t the best word, but it’ll do for now.

There were fallout shelters marked nearby – I can still see those three yellow triangles encircled with a black background – but no one paid them much mind since they seemed about as important as the test patterns on the TV screen when “Chiller Theater” ended.

Yep, once they appeared it was time for bed and dreams that might be peopled with monsters and other Lon Chaney/Boris Karloff kin.

Nothing like a Godzilla double-feature to ease a 7-year-old’s mind.

Of course, back then, I didn’t associate that fire-breathing lizard with the bombs that had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki nor did I make the connection between that calamity and what the president had been talking about the night my brother turned 5.

No, I was a second-grader who’d gotten in trouble for the usual things – using foul language, dozing off during a sermon or nicking Necco Wafers from the corner drugstore – so the notion that my country had used atomic weapons to end a war never occurred to me; in fact, I said the Pledge of Allegiance daily.

It was all part of growing up in America where kids like me were happy just to be able to go to school and eat fish every Friday.

Well, maybe “happy” isn’t the best word, but it’ll do for now.

By the time I got to college, however, I began to question nearly everything I’d grown up believing, beginning with my faith.

I suppose it’s the height of irony that until I’d been accepted at the nation’s preeminent Catholic university, I’d never really considered the possibility that maybe nothing was as simple as it seemed, that were shades of nuance and depths of belief that I’d never even skimmed, let alone plumbed with anything resembling an objective outlook. All along, I just assumed I’d be taught right.

At my alma mater – to her eternal credit – I was encouraged to examine everything, from the Ten Commandments to the Seven Deadly Sins, from birth control to the lack of women in the priesthood, from the creation story to the theory of evolution. I was happy to be so fully disabused of the notion of facile answers.

Well, maybe “happy” isn’t the best word, but it’ll do for now.

Sunday nights in my dorm became legendary for the bull sessions that took place in the hallways after guys had dropped their bags of laundry down the chute. Yes, Notre Dame did our laundry for us, though women were offered no such courtesy, probably because they’d only just been granted admission in 1972 and the campus facility wasn’t properly equipped to handle their unmentionables.

Neither were we, but that’s another story for another time.

“The nuns told us,” I said one night, “that if a pagan savage died protecting a tree he thought was God, he’d get right into heaven.”

Given the slack-jawed stares my friends gave me at hearing such a confession, I was happy to head off to listen to some Pink Floyd.

And “happy” is precisely the best word, forever and ever, amen.

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