Bruce Watson’s Lifestyles: Apolcalypse at an early age
LEVERETT — A half-century is a long time, but I remember the Missile Crisis as if the apocalypse stretched from then to now.
In mid-October 1962, I was 9 and suddenly it looked like I’d never see 10. But my fourth-grade teacher, Mr. Lombard, and all the other adults did their best. Like characters in “Mad Men,” they smoked frantically, turned up the Chubby Checker and put a happy face on Armageddon. And day by day it approached.
It started when Kennedy interrupted “Andy Griffith” to tell us that “a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation” in Cuba. None of us knew what it meant and I slept soundly, visions of mushroom clouds in my head.
The next day, the whole school was talking about Cuba, except for Mark Ronson, who was trying to stare up girls’ dresses. We all knew the world might end at any moment — again. It had only been the previous fall when we ducked and covered under our desks.
Something was going on in Berlin that time. The fat bald Russian was threatening to blow us all up. Mushroom clouds were in the paper every day for weeks. So we got used to apocalypse at an early age. I didn’t sleep well that second night but that was because I stayed up to watch “The Untouchables.”
I don’t recall Day Three. A half-century is a long time, especially when you grew up thinking you’d never see 1970, let alone 2012. And with adults acting like Mad Men, a lot of us fourth-graders were like that. Mark Ronson never did his homework, Alice Smith laughed hysterically, Laurie Dixon seemed soooo sad. Wonder where they are now, in this year none of us expected.
How well I recall that “field trip” we took to the cafeteria basement. No emergency, Mr. Lombard said. Let’s just go see what’s in the basement. So we did, and were we surprised to find the whole school down there! The kids were pulling pigtails and pranks, but the teachers all looked like they were in “The Twilight Zone.” What’s eating them, we wondered. Don’t they remember Berlin?
Then things really heated up. You could hardly watch “Dick Van Dyke” without having Kennedy interrupt. The Russians this and the Russians that and we were all raised to hate Russians so we were all behind JFK. Anyway, there came that day when the blockade went up and also when Mark Ronson ate library paste and had to go to the nurse. And Laurie Dixon looked sadder than ever. Cheer up, we said. We’re survivors, we fourth-graders. Nothing’s going to happen till at least 1969.
By the second week, all the adults looked reallllly scared and that confused us. I mean it was a game, wasn’t it? Didn’t MAD magazine have Castro and the fat bald Russian dancing around the U.N.? Didn’t we have more nukes than the Russians, like a million zillion missiles? Cheer up, Laurie. Mark’ll be OK — it was only paste.
The crisis peaked that day when Phil Sexton and I stood eyeball to eyeball after he broke my ruler. It looked like I was gonna get pounded, Phil being about 5 feet tall. So I blinked and got called a wimp. Meanwhile in Cuba, we heard that the Russians turned back their ships. We went back to the basement but it wasn’t as much fun as the first time.
How it all ended, who really knows. We survived again. Berlin, then Cuba. What next? A couple of years later, I was watching TV when they showed a little girl counting down from 10, picking daisies and then, KABLOOOEY. Big ol’ mushroom cloud, the wallpaper of my childhood.
I never forgot it. 1970 sure was a surprise, not to mention the rest of my life. A half-century is a long time when you got used to apocalypse at an early age.
Bruce Watson’s column appears twice a month. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.