Sunday, May 30, 2010

Ah, the good ol' Cold War; when fear itself grew larger than what we were afraid of

When I was twelve years old, I had a frightening dream. I dreamt about a music concert taking place in my school's gymnasium, an orchestra of my fellow 6th and 7th graders sawing away an almost on-tune rendition of Mozart, the teacher swaying her arms as tolerantly as she was rhythmically. In the waking world, this scenario would have included me playing with them, dutifully shoring up last chair cello as I did for seven years. But in this dream, I was merely a bystander, an unseen but omniscient witness to an awful chain of events that, for better or worse, could very easily have happened. And, in fact, had already.

It was the tail end of the school year, a warm, late spring evening. The setting sun was shining through the west-facing windows of the gymnasium, casting the entire space in a dense orange glow. Parents filled the bleachers on both sides, listening to the performance as attentively as possible but mostly just fidgeting: struggling with babies, programs, and purses, telling toddlers to settle down, clearing their throats while shifting to get comfortable on the stiff wooden seats...all of this creating a din that underscored the dowdy melody rising from the center of the gym floor. Our principal stood in the wings near the front entrance, arms crossed, watching and waiting to be of assistance if necessary - his job at all the school events. It was hot; the air was saturated with a potent mixture of lilac, sweat and sneaker, mirroring - it would occur to me much later - the conditions present in the bedroom where I slept on the night this dream took place.

Midway through the concert, at no particularly significant moment, an ear-splitting roar came from outside, rising sharply in volume and quickly drowning out the young musicians' best efforts. It was similar to a jet engine - seemingly in motion, as if something were shooting from one end of the sky to the other - but it had a shrieking quality embedded in its deeply-throated howl, like a bottle rocket.

Everyone looked up at once, then at each other with growing unease. The unnatural noise lasted several seconds, then was punctuated by a seemingly bottomless explosion that sent everyone into a spastic auto-response, a motion suggesting both jumping to their feet and crouching with their hands over their heads, in equal parts. They grabbed hold of their children, began making their way toward the steps leading off the bleachers, surrendering immediately to the impulse to bolt. Each had at least one child down on the floor, a child playing or waiting to play; a child they had to get to before they could get the hell out of Dodge. In a strangely inadvertent delay that sticks out in my mind, the music carried on a second or two after the explosion, almost deteminedly, as if Mozart would, or might, continue to matter; but when it stopped, it stopped dead in its tracks, the young musicians - my classmates and friends - dropping their instruments at their feet in a cacophony of wooden twang and clatter and rising up to signal their parents where to find them.

There was a new light filtering into the gym now, but not from the west. This time it barreled its way through the east windows; a bright, shade-your-eyes glare that caused the rich western light a moment ago to disappear, swallowed into the sooty periphery of this blinding white dazzle. This hastened everyone's panic.

The principal tried to take charge, shouting for people to remain calm, remain seated, but that ship had sailed; 'people' had become animals in stampede, pushing their way down the steps to the gym floor. They shouted at each other - to move faster, to get out of the way - and in the same breath called out sharply to their kids on the floor - first verbally, then through a series of frantic hand gestures when the collective noise began drowning out individual voice - to meet them by the doors. Some forsook the stairs completely and jumped over the railing, willing to absorb the shock of the six-foot drop if doing so would expedite their escape.

In a last ditch move to feign control of the situation, the principal backed his way toward the entrance of the gym as calmly as possible, though he too was sweating, trembling, a grim look on his face. He opened one of the doors and peeked out to see what had happened, what had caused the explosion (still, in the last seconds of his life, believing it was something manageable; very bad to be sure, but manageable. If everyone stayed calm, they'd be okay...). In the instant he looked up his head was thrown back, then his entire body. An unstoppable sweeping force pushed him feet over head back inside, and a moment later, the entire gym - building and occupants alike, along with memory of every ass that had ever been towel snapped, every spitball shot across the locker room, every dream of sports glory ever concocted, or realized during Tuesday night intramurals - was stripped off its foundation like a scab, and all that bright light switched to pitch black, and that big crescendo of sound - all the scrambling, screaming, calling and crying - ceased as abruptly as Mozart had, replaced by a thickly insulated silence.

The dream wasn't over, however, it just switched arenas. Suddenly I was part of it, all of it in fact, a lone survivor standing on high ground to the west. In the distance I could see the lake bay I'd grown up in. Splayed alongside the familiar embrace of lake and shoreline curving its way toward Michigan was my hometown, and from the center of all I knew at age twelve, a colossal mushroom cloud erupting to dizzying heights - 5000, 15,000, 30,000 feet, and climbing. It was the most vivid part of the dream: the terrifically animated cloud, the very symbol of utter destruction in my youth, snaking its way skyward. A slowly but powerfully moving plume of white so large it seemed to be sucking everything into the sky with it.

I turned and started running across a great field, feeling to the core both the frustration of trying to cover lots of ground in a vast open space and the electric terror of being pursued. I knew the destructive wave that emanated from ground zero was on its way fast, raking the ground it crossed, vaporizing everything as cleanly as it done away with my school. I ran for hours. So fast the sun never set on me. So hard that when I finally woke up I was out of breath, marinated in an ice cold sweat, trembling beneath the covers as the disorientation dissipated; thankful beyond description to hear the television droning benignly from downstairs.

My dad, I sputtered in my head, still awake. Watching David Letterman.

The creak of my brother's footsteps walking in his bedroom across the hall confirmed the blessed safety of the moment.

This, followed by crickets outside my window as my senses unfolded. A warm but dark and peaceful night in northern Wisconsin. No loud noise. No bright flash. No running. No dying.

All was still. I was still twelve. Mozart still mattered.

A few years ago, I had almost the same dream, only this time informed by an adult's capacity to imagine best and worst-case scenarios in detail. Once again I woke up with a start, catapulted into the tranquilizing safety of my bedroom, out of breath but none the worse for wear. It was early that second time around; the dawn was beginning to swell. I was never more thankful to see it, or hear the first twitter of birds, or the clang of a garbage truck outside that normally aggravates me with its metallic, crashing bluster, but now sounded like a lullaby.

Why the dream came back to me in almost exactly the same way more than twenty years later I can't say. Frankly, there are facets of it that a pyschologist could have a field day with: my detached, omniscient role in a world I was otherwise immersed in; viewing the destruction of my hometown from a initially safe vantage point that eventually becomes invaded; being chased; getting nowhere. But it was never a mystery to me that I should have the dream. It was not only a dreadful hallucination, but uniquely Cold War-era, and I am nothing if not a card-carrying member of Generation X, the second of two generations to shudder beneath the disquieting thought of nuclear annihilation, the completeness of the end brought about by either 'us' or 'them' doing something so maddeningly simple as pushing 'the button.' 

The Cold War was everywhere when I was growing up. I have vivid memories of nuclear fallout shelter signs posted throughout my elementary school, memories of being educated by school staff as to what they meant (both literally, and metaphorically). I remember being taught how to 'duck and cover' in gym class, where to go if a siren began blaring. The answer: undergound, which is where my classmates and I were sent for periodic drills (the old cobwebby basement of our turn-of-the-century schoolhouse, where we'd crouch along a wall in unison and wait; school staff apparently thinking under our desks was simply not 'underground' enough). I knew what would happen if a bomb were dropped, and exactly where that bomb would come from: the Soviet Union.

Ahhh, the Russkies! Remember the good old days, when we knew exactly who and where the enemy was? They were The Red Army during World War II, our reluctantly acknowledged allies. But not six months after Fat Man and Little Boy landed on Japan to end the war, the American media was already referring to them as the Red Menace.  By the time they were known simply as the Reds, the Cold War was in full swing. 'Reds' could be anywhere, and were likely everywhere, for a while, even the highest levels of government.

All of that was before my time. When I was old enough to be instilled with such fear, the 1960s and most of the 1970s had come and gone, and the outright paranoia had been mitigated significantly, thankfully. The Reds were now known largely as the Soviets.

But they were still a menace in my young eyes; or more accurately, what they could do, what they were capable of, remained a menace, remained a big presence in my thoughts.

Strangely, other people my age whom I've talked to have no recollection of this. They might remember the Cold War, but they don't remember duck and cover or nuclear fallout shelters in their schools. Perhaps my small town was behind the times, anachronistically beating the old drum of a by-gone era. The more I think about it, that was almost certainly the case.

And yet, while it's true that when people think of the Cold War they immediately picture its golden age - that grim, repressed, 'black and white' world of McCarthyism, Sputnik and the man in the gray flannel suit - fact is, it was still going strong in the late 1970s and early 80s. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan did nothing to ease tensions. Germany was still two countries. The A-bomb had become the H-bomb - or hydrogen bomb - and its destructive power, were it to be unleashed in the States or anywhere on Earth, really, would make the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki look like Sunday picnics. To top it all off, America was reeling with a sense of fractured vulnerabilty in the post-Vietnam era. We boycotted their Olypmics in '80. They boycotted ours in '84. And these little symbolic pissing contests seemed to have as significant an affect on international relations as nuclear arsenal build-up and geo-political machinations.

All of it spilled over into my school system. It was not a priority, I'll concede, and it was always mitigated a little by some of the more enlightened peace and love rhetoric of the time; but it was there, and we were made aware of it, with no idea whatsoever that it would be over before the decade was out.

In fact, one elementary school teacher said something she shouldn't have, sometime around Christmas 1979. Not sure how the subject came up, but during a discussion in which, to her credit, she had taken to answering as honestly as she could our questions about the possibility of nuclear warfare happening, a kid in our class asked a simple but loaded question:

"What would happen, exactly...?"

The inquiry spanned the entire universe of his young thoughts, I imagine, because it sure as hell did mine. It spoke to the fallout shelter signs we saw every day on the way to and from the cafeteria. It spoke to the snippets many of us heard on the evening news, or the things we caught our parents saying from the periphery of their world. It spoke to our imaginations churning out worst-case scenarios, and the fact that not really understanding any of it made it worse. Indeed, what would happen? What was this all about?

I will never forget her answer. She replied, "Well, there probably wouldn't be much left of anything or anyone."

This planted itself on us, and stayed there.

The only comfort I received contemplating nuclear annihilation as a child was gossamer at best: adults assuring me that my town wouldn't be a target. Thin consolation, having been made aware of the level of destruction that was possible, knowing it would be planet-wide, that everyone would be affected. I labored under a slow, drawn-out terror for years, became a news junkie at eight so I could keep tabs on US-Soviet relations (as if knowing what was going on might somehow keep me safe, or more absurdly, keep it from happening), and freaked out not a little whenever I heard those relations were going sour, even temporarily.

As a result, I still bristle a bit at the sound of a civil air defense siren, even though they go off for relatively innocuous reasons these days (severe weather, or in some communities just to signify it's time for lunch). To me, that multi-tonal wall of noise signifies a great jarring polarity - both the dizzying heights achieved by the mushroom cloud, and the only purported route of safety from that cloud, which is underground. The cloud goes up, and you go down.

I watched a History Channel program recently about the fateful August day in 1945, when the city of Hiroshima, Japan helped usher in the nuclear age. The program recounted in dramatic detail an otherwise serene summer morning in the city, citizens waking up and going about their everyday lives as they always had and assumed they always would, whether Japan won or lost the war.

The scenario depicted in the show so movingly mirrored my dream I was unable to watch the entire thing.

It wasn't even the thought of dying so much as it was the thought of hearing the siren going off, being awoken by it perhaps, looking out my window and seeing that cloud on the horizon, the sky a strange hue. I was more afraid of those final twenty seconds of my life, or final hours, or worse, the long hours and days of nuclear winter following the event, than anything that did or did not await me in the afterlife.

And this perhaps is the defining characteristic of the Cold War: the sense of fear, the practice of being afraid - of cringing, bristling and being ready to cower - growing larger than that which is being feared. This was the pall under which the world labored to breathe for almost fifty years! The air raid siren and mushroom cloud were not alone; there were other images to fill out the picture: the hammer and sickle, the trefoil nuclear symbol, the fallout shelter sign, armies goosestepping, tanks rolling, even the color red (at least in some capacity), both in terms of the Soviet flag, and Red Square, and, of course, blood itself. All of it swirled around in my mind at eight, signified a great threat to not just my world, but all the world, and still pinches me a little bit - just a little - when I think of it today.

And frankly, I was one of the calm ones. There was a kid in my neighborhood growing up who was worse off, kept a truly uneasy vigil for the tenuous relatonship between what could happen and what suddenly looked like it might soon on any given day. It wasn't so much that he was terrified (which he was, bursting into tears more than once), but strangely assured that it was going to happen, resigned to the fact; ready for the end.

The end did come, of course. But it was the end of the Cold War. The United States won the Cold War, and though personally I wouldn't get too comfy with the idea that nuclear warfare could never happen, that mind-pounding oppression in our imaginations, where there is a sky larger than the real one for a mushroom cloud of unearthly size to unfold up and spread across in white, sun-blazed billows of the end of days, is simply no longer present, even in today's wholly troubled world.

In other words, kids today don't fear terrorists the way I feared the Soviets. Do they?

I could be wrong about this, but I just don't see it. And the fear amongst adults isn't the same either, does not seem to be as pervasive, or oppressive. The propaganda is not so artful now as it was allowed to become in the days when it was focused on single enemy, nor as free from scrutiny now as it was then. And that last, on balance, can only be a good thing.

Aside from a certain preparedness that might arise from fear (and this, naturally, always teeters on paranoia), I guess kids today are lucky. They are masters of their own fate. If something, God forbid, happens, it happens. But they don't, and shouldn't, lose sleep over it.

Or dream about it.

They live their lives, as they always have and always will. And that's as it should be.