35 is a funny age. With, God willing, roughly as much life ahead of me as behind me, I'm starting to get a perspective on just how much the world has changed. Oh there are myriad little things we've added... antilock brakes, glow-in-the-dark condoms, DVD collections and CD box sets, wine in big boxes and juice in small ones, telephones that fit in your pocket and televisions that hang from the roof of your car. All of these are things my daughter will take for granted that I simply can't stop marveling at. But there's one thing that is gone from our lives, that I, and perhaps everyone over the age of, say, 33, remember. One thing that is never commented on by "pundits" but is no less remarkable for its absence.
My daughter will not know fear of the apocalypse.
The dream was always the same. We would all be playing with our Star Wars toys out in a harvested bean field, wearing ripstop nylon windbreakers to protect us from the cold bed sheet breezes of autumn. Luke (Jeff) and Wedge (Me) would be running down the Death Star trench described by a stubbly dirt row, valiantly dodging Darth Vader (Jimmy) and his evil henchmen (Stewart). Just as we were making our "final run" (when everyone got to change sides), the sky would be split by a ripping sound, like someone tearing apart a thousand sheets of steel. The gray clouded sky would show a spark arcing across it like a struck match head, quite clearly a missile inbound. I knew what it was, we all knew what it was, and we would start running for home.
Running for home as time slowed and sliced into heartbeats, as the beautiful, awful thing fell over the horizon. A single pause, a silence between breaths, a last look at everything I ever knew frozen in a moment, and then the dome of cloud above us would burst with a blinding flame and a skull-cracking roar. Only then would I jerk awake, realizing it was in fact just a dream, all the same still feeling the heat on my cheek, sunburn hot and as real as the bed I was sleeping in.
I can't think of anyone I knew who didn't have these kinds of nightmares at least once in awhile. And not just kids either... I would hear grownups talk in quiet voices about each international crisis, not in terms of how it would affect them or the country, but how it might bring about the end of the world. It didn't help that every Christian fundamentalist preacher, in a town full of Christian fundamentalist preachers, could barely disguise their glee convincing everyone that now was the rapture, today would be the kingdom, coming at us on the point of a missile.
"And we'll be glad too," the 'guest speaker' at our boy scout meeting said to us, standing on the pulpit of our local church. Normally I wouldn't set foot in the place, but as an awkward 14 year old I was trying to walk in the footsteps of my old man and become a scout like him. The meeting started out in the basement, but we were brought to the main hall, ostensibly to hear how important scouting was.
Instead we got an earful. "You boys need to learn how to survive, because the Bible tells us that everything around us is doomed to destruction. Doomed, by the godless communists who as prophesied in REVALATIONS will destroy us, manipulated by the antichrist. Your brothers, your mothers, your dads and your uncles will have to rely on you to save them, and you must remain PURE to your oath, and PURE to Christ, because when those missiles fall down it is written that only the just, only the righteous, will survive."
Needless to say my scouting career was quite short. I could only imagine what my friends, who sat through things like this all the time, must've had running through their minds. And it was everywhere, anywhere you looked. Every military thriller ended the same way. Each one wrapped up with tragedy, the heroes on opposite sides nearly coming to terms, only to be shattered when one of the generals drew a dagger simply to kill an asp.
It only got worse when Reagan became president. Reagan inherited a shattered and weak military, incapable of even rescuing a few hostages in the desert. He inherited an economy weakened by inflation and recession. He inherited a press corps and international community happy for American weakness that made their jobs easier. Most of all he inherited a people who had sunk into despair and self-loathing over a stupid war in a stupid place that sent all too many sons home in boxes.
Reagan would have none of it. A charismatic man, someone you literally could not help but watch speaking, who had a mind like a razor and a love of country from a simpler time. He decided appeasement would not work, communism was a danger to the entire world, and only through confrontation would it be defeated. He rearmed, rebuilt, and reaffirmed America. For the first time in a very, very long time someone was standing up in front of cameras saying this country was the best country in the world, and you could be for us or against us, but you didn't want to be against us because we were going to win no matter what it took.
The rest of the world went bananas. This crazy old man, this actor, was going to get us all killed. The press did everything to tear him down. Almost the rest of the world (lead by, no surprise, France) heaped scorn and did their level best to keep America where it should be... beaten down and only just strong enough to keep the tanks from rolling through the Brandenburg gate and down the Champ Elysee. The Hollywood elite completely blew a gasket, convinced the plebes really had managed to elect Hitler himself to the Whitehouse.
In truth it was a scary time, because even though nearly everyone else liked Reagan, we weren't really sure if he actually was going to get us involved in a nuclear holocaust. A veritable deluge of books, movies, and TV shows rolled out showing in graphic detail what, exactly, would happen if it all really did come apart at the seams, if the bombs really did fall. The nightmares weren't going away, they were getting worse.
Every year it was the most entertaining part of graduation. You were supposed to predict what would happen, where you would be, ten years after high school was over. "In ten years, Jimmy Freeman will be flipping burgers and working for Tom Steward." "In ten years, Jane Summers will be married to Greg Banner and have two happy, healthy children." "In ten years Scott Johnson will be doing something exciting, far far away from here." All were typical.
Also, at least as typical, were these: "In ten years, Ted Murphy will be on the front lines, helping win WWIII." "In ten years, Roosevelt Smith will be living in his bomb shelter with his wife Latonya Hooper." "In ten years, Jim McGhee will be serving alongside Ted."
That was 1986, but in truth at that time even we were beginning to laugh at it. Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev had been elected General Secretary of the Communist Party, the first Soviet leader who did not serve in WWII, a comparatively young man far more concerned with Russian people than with Soviet power. Seeing his own country rapidly approaching ruin, he decided to cut and run in the competition for world dominance with the United States. Taking a huge national, and in fact no less personal, risk, he reached out to Reagan. To nearly everyone's surprise, Reagan reached back.
It is every West German male's duty to serve in the military or the civil service. It's a requirement. It's also a requirement that every West German work toward re-unification with East Germany.
Two years later, and everyone chuckled as our European History professor so seriously intoned these words. Reunite with East Germany? The thought was self-evidently absurd. The Soviets would never, ever let it happen. Czechoslovakia and Hungary quite graphically demonstrated what would happen if either side tried. Anyone who studied the military situation around that border, and in that class we had all studied it, knew there were divisions of Soviet tanks waiting on one side and entire armies and air forces on the other poised on a hair trigger, a precarious balance that could, must, be maintained, perhaps forever.
Then less than a year later the goddamned wall fell down.
By this time the first George Bush was in the White House, a decent if rather colorless man. The media and entertainment elite proved incapable of absorbing that Reagan, their very own Hitler, probably was responsible for it all, and instead focused on the fact that really the entire world was caught flat-footed when it happened. I lived through it, and it really did seem like one day we were all gathered around ready to defend against an invasion, and the next a half-naked drunken German was dancing on top of the wall, surrounded on both sides with jubilant people holding hammers, smashing away at the everlasting symbol of their division.
And then it was over, so suddenly it was over. The Soviet Union collapsed, and we treated it with high drama but nothing compared to Kruschev banging his shoe. We signed nuclear reduction treaties with miniscule fanfare, utterly without somber comparisons on the evening news of cartoon stacks of holocausts, any one of which could end the world. The Cold War, which had been declared over and done with in 1968 by the 1977 press (as we cruised into purgatory of post-cold-war "detente"), was declared really, really over by that same press corps 15 years later. Everyone seemed to have forgotten what it really was like, as if by pulling Damocles's sword up into the shadows it had never existed at all.
"Daddy," she asks me, as she does every night, "tell me again what Grandpa did."
("Mommy," I ask her, as I did every night, "do you think the missiles will fall tonight?")
"Oh, your grandpa got to do really cool things. He got to help put people on the Moon."
("Oh of course not. We're going to be just fine")
"Oh I know that story daddy. What did he do before that?"
("But you say that every night.")
"Well, before he worked for NASA he was in the Air Force. He worked on Titan Missiles."
("I know, but really, it will be all right. I promise.")
"What are those?"
("But how can you be sure?")
"They were big terrible things that had huge bombs on them. We pointed them at Russia, which we called the Soviet Union back then. And they pointed ones at us too. If we'd ever actually used them, it would have been very bad."
("Because I'm your mom, and I know. It will be all right.")
"Wow, I'm glad we don't live back then."
"So am I."
("So am I.")