A long history of conflict
The air raid sirens filled the corners of our apartment in Brooklyn.
My mother would sit us, my sister Kathleen and me on the sofa and move my baby brother, Richard, asleep in the carriage, next to us.
She would draw the blackout curtains and turn off all of the lights except for the lamp with the shade that forced the light downward.
I was four years old. It was frightening.
Sometime later, when I was 6 or 7, I asked my Aunt Mina, who lived downstairs, why one of our neighbors had gold stars in her windows. She explained what a gold star mother was.
I asked her if she would rather have the star or her son. I couldn’t understand then. I still don’t .
When I was 10 my classroom was on the third floor of my school. We regularly practiced what has become known as “duck and cover.”
Because rows in our overcrowded classroom were three desks wide, one third of the class would go out into the hall and stand under the coats that hung on hooks next to the classroom because there wasn’t enough room for us under the desks.
I used to think about whether it was better to be on the top or the bottom floor when the bombs came.
Who, I reasoned, would have a better chance of living? I was getting used to the idea that I might die in a bombing raid.
I clearly remember, when asked to write out an evening prayer, including, after asking God to protect my family, asking God to let me live to be 13. I guess 13 had some magic in those days.
Being a teenager must have meant something special in my Brooklyn life.
We moved to Carmel, New York in 1953.
My father commuted by train to New York and every evening we would all pile into the car and go to the Brewster railroad station to pick him up.
Sometime after 1954, my father invited a young man, a veteran of the Korean “police action” who rode the same train with him, to ride with us. His name was Bob V. Bob often spent time in the club car and was, as my grandmother would say, often “in his cups.”
And, sometimes when he was in his cups, he would regale us with graphic stories about the “police actions.”
The stories were frightening, so much so that my father asked him to find another ride home. I still can remember his graphic descriptions of what happened when a mortar round landed near his buddies.
In 1958, I went to college in Syracuse.
In 1963 the young men with whom I went to college were facing a draft. Korea was long gone, but now, for rather murky reasons, we were, as a nation, engaged in another war in Vietnam.
Another generation of young men was called to sacrifice. There would be more gold stars in windows. The husband of one of my high school classmates died in Vietnam as did two of the boys who were my students.
In that same year, while in graduate school, I invited all my friends to a pot roast dinner, something unheard of with a $3 weekly food budget. Why? Well, there were these Russian missiles on Cuba and President Kennedy decided to initiate a military blockade of the island, something that many believed would end in mutual nuclear destruction.
So, spending money that you didn’t have when you thought that you wouldn’t be around for long did seem like a good idea at the time. I was a child, grown up, who was inured to the violence that war, hot and cold, that had permeated my life story.
Negotiations cooled the issues and the missiles were removed.
I ate sparingly for a while and pushed the concept of mutually assured destruction out of my mind. War and its fire and fury can wait in the grievances of men and women for just the right insult, the right issue.
The U.S. and the Soviet Union continued their strategy of mutually assured destruction …but time passed and over that time, we were able to negotiate arms reductions, work out diplomatic channels to lessen the ambitions of war.
Then became the era of detent.
The Berlin Wall came down. The Soviet Union dissolved. An era of peace.
But, just as we fought over “coaling stations” in former times, the specter of petroleum interests in the Middle East cast a threatening shadow on peace.
Then there was Kuwaiti oil and Saddam Hussein and a war that took us to the gates of Baghdad, followed some years later by the horror of 911 and the beginning of the quagmire of constant warfare and the shedding of young men and women’s blood on foreign soil.
No draft this time, but multiple deployments for the volunteer army. Then came the rise of culture wars and nation building and Homeland Security and having to take your shoes off to get on an airplane.
Bombings in Boston and other places, the work of religious and criminal actors became the center of our fears
We have been embroiled in the culture and physical wars springing out of radical Islam for 16 years…more if you count the failed attempts at the destruction of the World Trade Center earlier.
How much have we changed how we do business?
We see the dead bodies of toddlers wash up on Mediterranean shores as their families flee an unforgiving civil war in Syria and we talk of closing our doors to these desperate families because we fear terrorists.
The terrorists attacks on the homeland have morphed from bombs to the not so subtle ability to change in our values. If we have been able to drive Isis out of Mosul, the fear of them has changed us.
Think of Charlottesville and how stomach churning hate as risen out of terrorist fears. If they can’t bomb us, they can divide us, drive wedges between the many who are us. This is far more destructive than ordinance. Everyone is suspect. We have found new peoples to hate. We have, in many ways, lost who we once said we were. What we fought to protect when I was 4.
Last week we learned that a combative, erratic head of state now has the ability to send missiles armed with nuclear warheads to targets in the U.S. An equally combative response from the president promised annihilation if further threats were issued by North Korea.
Social media and print news have begun to advise us how to survive a nuclear attack. I just read that you shouldn’t comb your hair if you are exposed to lethal radiation. Really.
We haven’t moved far from that little apartment on 55th Street during a World War II air raid drill when young men and women fought long and hard against a madman in Germany and his allies, against the belief that some members of God’s creation were not worthy of life, when Jews, seeking refuge in the U.S., were turned away, when we fought against fascism and offered the lives of our young men and women to retain who we were and what we believed.
My grandsons are six and eight.
They live in a cocoon of love and safety. They know nothing of the violence that is the cycle of politics and the destruction of lives that nations bring upon themselves. They don’t know that the old men and women start wars that shed the blood of young men and women. Not yet.
I don’t want them to inherit the war cycle that has been my life and right now, it seems like there is no place to hide.
I wonder if that old air raid shelter in the basement of the middle school is still there.
If not us, who? If not now, when?