When I was 10, the kids in my neighborhood played war. All our fathers were in the military, and with World War II in our recent history, the Korean War just over and the Cold War just beginning, I think we were all feeling that the world was a really dangerous place. I suppose play fighting gave us some power over our fears.
In any case, every afternoon, kids in buttoned-up, tucked-in shirts or pretty dresses arrived home on the school bus and disappeared into various apartments in our military quarters in Atlanta, GA, and a few moments later small soldiers charged forth into surrounding vacant fields.
The first order of business each day was to decide who got to be a “GI” (pronounced gee eye, this was us, the good guys) and who had to be a “gook” (which my mother explained sternly was a very bad word for a Korean that we were never to use) or a “Jap” (she had the same opinion about that word). We also bandied about equally mysterious words like “Jew” and “Catholic” that we’d heard somewhere, but I don’t know where.
“You’re a gook.”
“No!” You always try to make me gook just ‘cause I limp. I am not going to be a gook or jap today. Make her a gook.”
“OK, you’re a gook.”
“No, you can’t just make every girl a slant-eyes gook every day just ‘cause you feel like it.”
“OK, so you’re a Jew, then.”
And so forth.
Once we had our sides sorted out, we selected our choice of sticks with which to do battle. I don’t remember that we actually hit each other. Surely, I’d remember it if we went home with wounds that our mothers could see. I think we just ran around and chased each other and swore as convincingly as we could.
We didn’t have a lot of colorful examples of profanity to emulate. “Watch your language. There will be no profanity in our home,” said all our mothers, and our fathers generally confined their resentments to cold silence or something muttered.
“Darn!” I would holler when chased by three boys toward the blackberries. “Drat!” straight into the stickers where nobody would follow me. “Sheesh!” it hurt pulling out thorns. My forte was running away, which left scratches and even gouges on my legs. I can still see some of the scars sixty years later.
Did all this running around in Georgia heat waving sticks over our heads and plowing through stickers allay our fears? It might have, except for “duck and cover.” Oh, you don’t know what that means?
Duck and cover was what you were supposed to do to survive a nuclear war. You were supposed to climb under your desk at school (“Geez, I banged my head”) and crouch under it in a fetal position. You were supposed to stay there (“Now I hafta go to the bathroom”) for at least 10 minutes. After that, the atomic bomb would have dropped and destroyed everything around you. Why wouldn’t it also destroy you and the desk? Why wouldn’t it destroy your mother at home? Don’t ask the teacher. You’ll get sent to the principal’s office for being a smart aleck.
When I got home after our first duck-and-cover drill, I asked my mother about this bomb. Her answer:
“I do my duck and cover under the kitchen table. When it’s over, I drive to the school and get you. The school sent home a map that shows where you’ll be waiting for me on the playground. We’ll go home and then we’ll figure out what we should do after that.”
My mother didn’t understood that if a nuclear war ever got started, when it was over it would be all over. There would be absolutely nothing to figure out, nobody to pick up from school, and no school. Everything would be gone, the entire world and us in it.
It might seem odd that my mother was this unaware. In 1945, eight years previously, this country had dropped two atomic bombs, one on Hiroshima and the other on Nagasaki, thus effectively ending World War II. News reports from that time included phrases such as “enormous damage” and “completely destroyed.” Surely, she should have known one could not escape a nuclear attack by hiding under a desk.
I can’t ask my mother about this. She’s been dead for some years now. But I think I can attribute her innocence to the fact that words, even when they’re words like “damage” and “destruction,” just don’t compare with the kind of news reporting we have today on television or on the Internet. If my mother had bought Life magazine, however, and seen the miles and miles of rubble, people grossly dead, children with no skin,…
I can’t remember when I found out that duck and cover was pointless. I just remember that after I knew it, the end of the world was always there in the back of my mind while I studied English composition, worked at the post office, put up with pregnancy, fixed meat loaf, read a bedtime story or drove to work. Every day, I knew the world might end that day. By then, we all knew it.
Nevertheless, somehow we all muddled through.
I am still alive and well, and so are many other people in my family, my community and my world. Admittedly, we are facing political and environmental problems that sometimes seem and actually may prove to be insurmountable. Despite that, however, we’ve made some progress toward becoming more who we ought to be.
- In most social circles these days you wouldn’t want to use words like “gook” or “Jap”—or “nigger,” either. Since 1964, when I was 21 years old, it has been illegal to discriminate against anyone because of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, and the law seems to have been effective in fostering tolerance. Not only was there a Korean next to me at my last job before retiring, for example, but there were also in that office a man who is Nigerian and a number of Japanese men and women. Everybody was just people, and their children all played together without making sticks into weapons or calling each other names.
- There seems to be more religious tolerance, too, at least in America. Recently, I’ve heard a Catholic quote the Buddha and a Jewish person and a Hindu both quote Jesus. All three of these people tolerate me, an agnostic.
- Tolerance may have gotten a boost in 1969 when Neal Armstrong took his “one step [on the moon] for a man, one giant leap [into space] for mankind.” Not just for Americans, but for mankind. Every damn—sorry, Mom, darn—one of us.
- Another giant step against war was taken when the World Wide Web came online. The Internet has made the whole world a village no larger than our military housing in Atlanta. Anyone with a connection, anywhere in the world, might now become my friend.
- During peacetime, we had time to invent “the Pill,” post-it notes, personal computers, pacemakers and power steering. These and other inventions, many that don’t begin with the letter “p,” have made the world a better place to live in.
- In the war against disease, a good and proper war, we have eradicated smallpox from the entire world and hope soon to say goodbye to polio. When I was a child, polio was the scary disease. It meant your friend—the little guy with the limp mentioned above–might get quarantined, with a sign posted on the door, and then never be able to go to the swimming pool with you again or even walk without a limp.
- And finally, although in my lifetime 175,000 nuclear warheads were built, mostly by Russia and the United States, we are now in the process of dismantling many of these.
I know we have a long way to go before war is no more. In my world of yesterday, there were Hiroshima and Nagaski. Today, there are child soldiers fighting battles with other tribes, races and social classes. They’re not playing, and they’re not using sticks as we did. Some of the littlest of these children have rifles and do a warlord’s bidding; some of the older ones have drones and work on behalf of governments. And every time somebody pulls a trigger, on a bomb, on a rifle, or on a keyboard, it’s a disaster.
Nonetheless, it is a fact that no one has ever pulled the nuclear trigger that annihilates the entire world. Wouldn’t it interesting if no one ever did?
[photo by Aditya Mopur on Flickr]