Monday, March 3, 2008

Russian Affair, Part 1

Fire sirens sent shivers up my back. Every time I heard one whining from a distance, I thought: Is this it? Is this the end? Is this a call for firemen, or is it a warning to find a fallout shelter?

I would anxiously scan the horizon for mushroom clouds. Too young to know the difference between real and imagined danger, too old to be oblivious of the news and what grown-ups were talking about, I was convinced that it was only a matter of time - hours, days, months - before we were all incinerated by nuclear bombs.

Back then, just about everyone in our neighborhood was stocking shelves in their cellars with blankets and batteries and cans of food and water.
One night, my parents had friends over for drinks. My sister and I lay on our stomachs at the top of the stairs, secretly taking in the conversation.
"It's all a waste of time, this fallout-shelter business, I tell you," the man from across the street said. "We’re 15 miles from the target, and the Russians have H-bombs. We don't have a chance."

The Russians were our enemies, we were told. But I had my doubts. Oh, sure, some of them were. Just about the only photos we'd see of Russians were of grim-faced officials in fur hats watching hundred of missiles parading through Red Square. But there were millions and millions of people there, and they couldn't all be like that. My grandparents and great-grandparents came from that part of the world, and they're not the enemy, I thought. There's got to be people just like them over there – people just like us. Maybe there were kids just like me who were just as terrified of being nuked.

A few years later, even though both sides were stockpiling enough nuclear weapons to destroy Earth many times over, things calmed down a bit. The poet Evgeny Evtushenko was reading his poetry about beauty and memory and love. Khrushchev seemed more and more like someone's merry old grandpa than an evil titan. Some photos surfaced in magazines showing young Soviets who looked remarkably like us.

I began to feel my skepticism had been justified, that it was never right to fear and hate people just because your teachers and your parents and your government encouraged it.

I could not have imagined then that I would someday not just meet "the enemy" but know him and share his food and sleep on his couch; that I would know many of them - good, bad, kind, cruel, passionate, indifferent; that the courses of their lives and mine would become tangled and snarled.


Anonymous said...

Remember "duck & cover?" When you see the flash from a nuclear bomb, dive under your desk and cover your head. Obviously the Civil Defense folks had never seen footage of Hiroshima.

Brant said...

Traveling with the president as a young military man in the 1970s, I never felt uneasy walking the streets of foreign cities. It never occurred to me that people in other lands might not like Americans. Part of that is that when you're 19 or 20 years old, you have virtually no fears about personal safety or mortality. But the other element is that in those days, we were welcomed with open arms by people in foreign countries. They genuinely embraced us and went out of their way to show us how much they loved America. I'm pretty sure that's not the case today, and I'd have to admit that people in foreign lands have some legitimate reasons to dislike, if not us, at least our government.