On Nikita Khrushchev, Boy Scouts, the Cold War, and Graduation

Yesterday, walking along the sidewalks that wind through the subdivision where we live, Betty and I admired the fulsome blossoms of ornamental trees that line the streets and walkways. Dogs barked . . . Dachshunds, Springer Spaniels, yellow Labrador Retrievers, German Shorthairs, black mutts with gray and wizened mugs.

The sound of a plane engine cut the afternoon air. Without thinking, I looked up. A single engine plane flew out of a cloudless northwest. I asked myself, why do I always look up, or want to look up, when a plane or helicopter flies over? And I immediately had an answer. I won’t say The Answer, but it was an answer.

I was raised in the 50s and 60s when the United States grappled with the Soviet Union in what we called the Cold War. Not that it was cold; it was plenty hot in Korea and Vietnam and Laos and Nicaragua and Angola. We just called it cold. The threat of annihilation via nuclear armaments hung across the planet like a giant shroud. We had bomb drills in school, watched Walter Cronkite broadcast Cold War info nightly from CBS News. It blared at us from the newspapers and Time Magazine and US News and World Report. We talked about it at school and at Boy Scouts. I was a rabid Boy Scout back then. The semi-militarism of it all draped on me like a French general’s tunic. It was heady, wearing war-tinted uniforms, talking about survival and battle. Dreaming of killing krauts like Audie Murphy in To Hell and Back.

One of my Boy Scout projects was to work with Civil Defense on some type of project designed to teach me the value of public service. One of my good friends, “P,” who was also my fiercest competitor on the march to be an Eagle Boy Scout, decided he would spend some time at the local airport watching for enemy aircraft. This was in the time when missile technology was new, so the standard method of nuclear armament delivery was the airplane. “P’s” father, “Mr. S,” was a Civil Defense volunteer and knew all the skinny on planes and weapons and the politics of Anglo-Russian enmity. If “P” was going to spend his weekends helping defend America, then in the spirit of competition, so was I.

We rode out to the airport on Saturday mornings in “Mr. S’s” green Chevy Suburban. Back then a Suburban was more utility van than sport vehicle. The airport was a sand-and-clay-particled mess that sat on a big flat stretch of desert surrounded by creosote and saguaro cacti. In the 1800s it had been part of the Santa Cruz Riverbed, but now it was just a flat spot where when the wind blew it created a dust storm that browned out the sun, the moon, the stars, the blacktop, the honky-tonk on the side of the airstrip, Little Mountain to the west and everything within an arms length of the viewer.

We climbed up the stairs to the observation tower and inside, sets of binoculars were strewn on plywood tables and posters of airplanes papered the sheet rock walls: side views, top views, bottom views, numerical enumerations, plane manufacturers, what ordnance they were capable of delivering, the names we knew them by, most prominently the Tupolev T-95, or “Bear,” as we called it. We stood most of those mornings with binocular straps cutting into the flesh around our necks as we watched the sky over Picacho Peak, and Newman Peak, and San Tan, and Silver Reef, Table Top, the Vai Vo Hills, and the Sierra Estrella. All we ever saw were buzzards and red tailed hawks, the pigeons that nested in the date palms that grew along the highway to Phoenix.

We were obsessed with the Soviets back then, or our parents were, as were our politicians. Nuclear attack was so imminent it was not a question of “if,” but “when.” But I must admit, other than a chance to get another merit badge on the road to my Eagle Scout goal, or a chance to play Army, I, and most of the kids I knew, paid very little attention to the Soviet threat.

Some of my parents’ friends created makeshift bomb shelters in their basements, stocked with fifty-gallon drums of flour and raw sugar and pasta and cans of beans and tuna fish. Lots of water. One of them, “Mr.B,” even had a lot of games for his kids to play. At night, we used to raid his air raid shelter and drink the soda pops he kept in the refrigerator as we played Chess, and Clue and Checkers, and if we could get some girls down there, strip poker. For us, girls were a whole lot more dangerous than Nikita Khrushchev and Anastas Mikoyan.

One of the physicians in our town actually had a real bomb shelter built to specifications with a special system for filtering the fallout from the air that targets would breathe in the aftermath of a hydrogen bomb attack. Anecdotally, we called that possibility Nuclear Winter.

In 1964, at the close of my junior in High School, I went with my neighbor to his high school graduation party. I got drunk, not once, but three times that night, spent some hours fandangoing around a big mesquite wood bonfire as Sputniks passed overhead every hour-and-a-half, watching us, or so I imagined, and sending signals back to Moscow about our whereabouts. Later, we unstuck someone from the caliché muck of an irrigated cotton field, and then we went to the physician’s house for a graduation breakfast. His eldest daughter was graduating, too. She slinked around in her white shorts and blue top, the most dangerous thing I’d been near all night.

The sun was barely up and the Sonoran Desert heat not yet steaming off the paved streets and the concrete sidewalks. We all wanted to go into the bomb shelter, but the doctor’s dangerous daughter kept telling us no. I wanted to see what an air filter for nuclear fallout looked like. I wanted to see if they had ice cold Cokes down there, and maybe some more Vodka so I wouldn’t lose the buzz I worked on. I wanted to get close to the dangerous daughter.

One of the graduating seniors, “L,” kept sneaking down the steps and then we’d have to go down, led by the dauntless daughter, and capture him. At first it was funny, all of us laughing, but then it turned surly. “L” was drunker than I was, than anyone was and he grew violent, his face purple, his glare like a drill instructor’s. He wore a new gray graduation suit and was walking around with a bottle of Gilbey’s Gin which he sucked on now and then as he bellowed about going off to San Diego to US Navy Boot Camp later that day. Soon, he clunked someone in the noggin with the gin bottle and we had to gang him down in the green Bermuda grass that stained his new gray suit. We thought nothing of going to battle with him. That’s what we did, we Americans, we did battle with whomever: Dominicans, Lebanese, Laotians, North Koreans, Chinese, Russians, our next-door neighbor. We did battle. We wrestled “L” into the bed of a new Ford pickup and eight of us sat on him as he bucked and scrabbled and screamed obscenities about our mothers. He lived outside of town down a dirt road. We pulled into the gate and turned the truck around and threw him out into the dust and gravel. He staggered up and chased us down the highway, stumbling and falling, lurching in his now ruined new gray graduation suit as he picked up large rocks and tossed them at us. We laughed and headed home for sleep.

And soon enough most of us were in the Army, the Navy, the Marines, fighting too, or preparing to fight, each in our little parts of the Cold War, Germany, Korea, and for me Vietnam where we often looked into the skies for signs of North Vietnamese MIGS and Russian Bears. And then, years later, of course the sound of those September wings of 2001. How they haunt our lives now. The memory caught up in the dreams we sleep, the way we exist. Wary now. Striking out at what frightens. Looking into the sky at the sound of planes. Keeping a close eye on our new neighbors. We live uneasy.