My memories of Southern California in the 1960s include being taught how to “duck and cover.”
In case of imminent nuclear attack, we were to dive under our school desks and cover our heads with our arms. We practiced this until we could do it smoothly, with no talking in our overcrowded ’60s classrooms.
If we survived the first volley, we surely would need to get home to our suburban ranch houses. So they lined us up in order; the children closest to El Camino Elementary were first in line. And then we marched — no talking or silliness — in order, until it was our turn to peel off and seek shelter in our homes, which hopefully would have adults in them who had survived the initial volley and could care for us.
With that, the school had done its duty and could wash its hands of us. I don’t remember being scared then. We just thought it was invigorating to do something new and so important as saving ourselves from a nuclear bomb.
So I was puzzled this week when the black barbed wire of anxiety gripped my stomach, wound its way to my back and then reached up to my heart. I was puzzled as to where this long-forgotten feeling had emerged from.
Was it the soon-to-start school year? (Even us experienced teachers get the before-school jitters.) No, feeling confident going into this year. Was it the poignant face-to-face experience of the 40th high school reunion that is pending? No, feeling pretty neutral about that. Was it my age? Losing parents and in-laws and that supportive greatest generation? Maybe, they were so loved.
Or was it the unbelievable use of words this week exposing a desire to use a nuclear ball of fire to quell other humans? Evaporate them? Eliminate them? Neutralize their speech?
There it is. The source of the sickening dread that encircles me in these sunny, mild, brilliant days of a Minnesota summer.
These words, spoken by leaders, pulled me back in to my sunny California self. Small, sunburned, dirty blond hair in a ponytail, I stood straight and listened earnestly to my teachers. Dive under the desk, curl up in a ball, cover your head. As if that would have prevented the tentacles of radiation from reaching us. Please get in line according to address, walk, be quiet. As if that would have propelled us over the glass and debris of the destroyed town we lived in.
I never thought I would ever have to hear words that included even the suggestion of nuclear war again. We saw the horror the first time. What creature, created in love, would ever ask for it to be welcomed to our Earth again? It would not be a survivable event for anyone.
There is so much we need to be applying our prodigious intelligence to. The cure for cancers. The healing of our overwarmed globe. The elimination of hunger. A cure for AIDS. Homes for refugees. Jobs for the jobless. A stop to the insatiable need for drugs that has gripped our country. There really is not time anymore for us as a species to dabble in war. Too many other threatening obstacles are in our way. Lobbing a nuclear weapon, even hinting that we would or could, is an abomination no matter who hurls it.
California in the ’60s: sunny, surfers singing, condors soaring, endless summers. We walked to the library, drank bubbles of Bubble Up from little paper cups at the grocery, skateboarded to the neighbors’. It was beautiful, with a dark barbed wire of fear running through it.
Kris Potter lives in Minneapolis.