I was born in 1950, and grew up under the influence of two very powerful belief systems, anti-communism and Roman Catholicism. During my most impressionable years, I lived in constant dread of nuclear annihilation and the Second Coming, both of which understandably occupied the same place in my brain.
All during my primary school years we were being warned by nuns and civil defense announcements that the rug could be pulled out from under us at any time. Prepare to meet Thy Maker!
Little wonder that today I find myself limping through life, waiting for something Terrible To Happen. In my fifth-grade geography book, there was a story about Obit and Kara, two lucky Polynesian kids my age who lived year-’round in a tropical paradise. They didn’t have to worry about winter coats or shoes. They didn’t know the rug could be pulled out from under them at any time, in fact they didn’t even have a rug, just white sand beaches and coconut palms they could climb for fun and nourishment. At night they saw bright stars reflected in the ocean instead of watching their parents in the glow of the TV grow tense as Walter Cronkite gravely intoned the day’s news.
1960’s TV almost gleefully offered repeat showings of our H-bomb destroying the Bikini Atoll, a tropical island much like the one presented in our geography book. Walt Disney stepped up to the radioactive plate with “Our Friend the Atom,” showing us the happy side of a nuclear future. Things weren’t getting worse, but better. In the future we would fly around our cities in atomic helicopters.
In the documentary film “The Fog of War” Robert McNamera admits that we were much closer to nuclear holocaust during the Cuban missile crisis than had previously been admitted. I remember being terrified that week, as my natural tendency towards free-floating anxiety found concentrated focus.
And when political tensions temporarily eased, the nuns would be sure to remind us about the Red Chinese and their persecution of Cardinal Mezvinsky, who staunchly declined to renounce the True Faith despite being tortured on a daily basis. “Boys and girls, would you have the faith to die for Jesus?” They told us of a little boy who had died under a hail of Communist gunfire rescuing the Blessed Sacrament from Communist invaders. He died with a smile upon his lips, certain of entering Eternity. Would we be able to make the same claim?
Living in a state of perpetual fear, I soon began to suffer from insomnia and eczema. I’m sure there are many people about my age who had been children in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, actually living under constant real bombardment. Our daily bombing of Laos continued for eight years, and women and children were among the intended targets. If only I could speak their language, I could pull aside a man or woman in that age group and ask him or her what it was like. I might not enjoy listening to the reply.