Thursday, June 9, 2011

Cold War Kids

Steve & Dave, First Day of School (Sept. 1945)

Dear George,

I’d just turned 8 when the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These events changed our world forever. At the time I was about to enter Miss Hunnefeld’s fourth grade class. Miss Hunnefeld was keenly interested in the military and the war, and she had a well-developed sense of drama (or some might say hysteria). The nation-wide school publication, The Weekly Reader, included regular articles on atomic energy for us children and provided teachers with large multi-colored wall charts filled with unimaginable information. Much of this was scientific material about nuclear energy and its vast potential, but the message that constantly hit home was that humankind now possessed the capacity to destroy itself and all other life on earth. We children had just begun coming to grips with the horrendous concept of death, and contemplating the possibility of the entire population of the world dying at a single moment was very difficult to digest.

The Russians exploded their first atomic bomb in August 1949, just as I was entering seventh grade. There was a lot of talk in Menominee and Marinette about the possibility of the Russians carrying out an atomic bomb attack on the twin cities. The local reasoning seemed to be that the Soo Locks, 150 miles east at the tip of the U.P., would be a prime target of Russian bombers because of their economic importance. Menominee and Marinette, our citizens speculated, looked remarkably similar to the Soo Locks from the air, what with the Menominee River emptying into Green Bay and the shorelines of factories, bridges, and warehouses. Supposedly it would be extremely easy for the Russian bombers to get slightly off course and think we were the Soo. Community anxiety about atomic attack remained at a fever pitch throughout my adolescence.

Whether or not my father and grandfather believed the Soo Locks theory, they did decide that it would be a good idea to build a bomb shelter in the basement of my grandfather’s Marinette drugstore. My grandfather, V.A. Sr., enjoyed carpentry projects of various sorts and took charge of construction. The bomb shelter was in a small closet-sized room along the south wall of the drugstore basement. I forget what kind of materials they used to prevent infiltration by radioactive fallout, but the walls were lined with some sort of insulation. From the picture I have in my memory today, I think it would have been awfully cramped if our family, my grandfather, and my Uncle Ralph and Aunt Martha’s family all tried to get in there at once. The adults stocked the room with bottles of water, candles, non-perishable food items, and other essentials. We were probably outfitted to stay underground for a week or so, though an atom bomb blast might have required a longer-term stay. We also discussed whether or not to have guns available in the bomb shelter in case strangers from the neighborhood tried to barge in. I think we settled on interior locks on the door and passed on the guns.

Joseph McCarthy was elected to the Senate from Wisconsin in 1947, but he burst to prominence nationally in 1950 with his charges that the U.S. State Department, the Army, Hollywood media, etc., were infested with Communists and Communist sympathizers. While my parents and their circle weren’t fooled by McCarthyism, fear and cold war tensions were rampant in the community and the nation at large. Right-wing organizations sponsored essay contests in our public school system, stocking the school libraries with political tracts about McCarthy (good), Russia (bad), the United Nations (bad), and capitalism (good), and offered appealing financial prizes for the best student essays. I was invited as a finalist to read my patriotic essay to the judges at the V.F.W., but lost out to one of the smartest girls in my class.

I registered for the draft at age 18 and went off to Antioch, which proved to be an eye opener. The Korean War had ended two years earlier, and my student deferment seemed likely to fend off a military career. My freshman history class debated the pros and cons of America’s use of the atomic bomb, which turned out to be a complicated, unresolvable issue. My Marxist roommate, Morris, took me along to meetings of the Socialist Discussion Group and defended a benign view of Soviet Communism that only slightly allayed my fears of a nuclear holocaust.

When I took a coop job in New York City in 1957, the possibility of atomic attack was always at the back of people’s minds in city, which was, in fact, a much more prime target than Menominee. I vividly remember attending the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus in Madison Square Garden one weekend afternoon. Suddenly the entire interior of the arena went black, search lights began circling and flashing on and off, and sirens wailed at full blast. I nearly collapsed from anxiety, fully convinced that the city was under nuclear attack. Then a bevy of cars filled with clowns came charging out, tooting their horns, and the frightened audience breathed a sigh of relief.

Newly married, Katja and I moved to Ann Arbor for grad school in 1960, and the Vietnam War began escalating shortly thereafter. There were lots of calls to nuke the North Vietnamese, but the U.S. stuck to conventional warfare. I still had my student deferment, but the draft was a horrendous possibility for my cohort, and I visited the local draft board for reassurance every time I visited home. On Oct. 22, 1962, President Kennedy delivered a TV address to the nation and the world, announcing that the Soviet Union had built nuclear missile bases in Cuba and was in the process of delivering nuclear warheads by sea. U.S. naval ships were blockading Cuba. Khruschev responded that the blockade was “an act of aggression propelling humankind into the abyss of a world nuclear-missile war.” A military confrontation seemed inevitable. Katja left work, and we met on the “Diag” on Michigan’s campus. With industrial center Detroit a mere 40 miles away, Ann Arbor seemed a probable candidate for radioactive fallout. Katja and I thought about leaving immediately for my folks’ home in Menominee, a 400-mile trip. However, I remembered all the Soo Lock fears and had the terrible feeling that no place was safe. We hunkered down in our Packard St. apartment, and fortunately the crisis passed, though historians today agree that the world actually was on the brink.

If anything, the potential for nuclear disaster seems to have increased in recent decades. Not only has there been the recent nuclear catastrophe in Japan, but potential rogue states like Pakistan and North Korea possess nuclear weapons, and the possibility of terrorists setting off dirty nuclear bombs in America cities is a frequent subject of mass media fiction and/or speculation. However, the world has survived for over 65 years of the nuclear age, and I think we’ve become desensitized over time. There are a lot of bad things to worry about, e.g., economic collapse, swine flu, e-coli infestations, Emerald Ash Borers. Probably getting blown up by a hydrogen bomb is no longer at the top of the list.



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