Nuclear War and Other Childhood Fears

Yesterday, while driving my 14-yr-old daughter to a friend’s house, she asked what I worried about when I was a child. We all worried about different things, and I had multiple fears, but at the top of my list, once I was aware it could happen, was nuclear war.

In the 1960s and 1970s, nuclear war was a looming possibility.

I was born in 1967, but I remember Daddy talking about the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. My parents were living in Florida at the time. They were in the panhandle, so at least they were in Northwest Florida, but they were on high alert. After all, Cuba is just 90 miles south of the southern tip of Florida, and the Soviets had placed missiles there, aiming them at Florida. Concern was warranted.

Back then, people were buying and building bomb/fallout shelters. If you’ve seen the movie, Grease 2, you probably remember the silly scene with the song, Let’s Do It For Our Country…some teenagers are messing around in a bomb shelter. (Here’s the scene.Grease 2 wasn’t reality, but bomb shelters were.

My parents had been married less than two years when the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred. They, with some friends, devised a plan they would execute in the event of a nuclear attack. They didn’t have bomb shelters, but there were some caves on a friend’s property. If the alarm sounded, they would all drive there immediately. Daddy used to talk about how they drove around with canned goods and other essential items in the trunks of their cars for months, in case something happened.

Of course, the Cuban Missile Crisis simmered down, but the threat of nuclear war loomed for years.

I wasn’t aware of the threat of nuclear war until about 1976…fourth grade. I’m not sure how it came up in class. My guess is we were talking about that year’s Summer Olympics Montreal and the perfect 10s earned by Romanian gymnast, Nadia Comaneci. The world became fascinated with the young gymnast from an Eastern Bloc Communist country.

I remember our fourth grade teacher talking about Communism, saying children in Romania were tested when they were young to see what gifts they had. Some might be gymnastically talented; some might be built for dancing, rowing, or anything else…or maybe have special science, math, or writing abilities. We were told their professions were picked early for them, and if they were gymnasts or gifted dancers, they were taken from their parents to live at a training facility, because that was what the government demanded.

Whether all that was factual, I don’t know. But in fourth grade, that was what I believed. We talked about Communist countries, the Soviet Union, and somehow, we talked about nuclear war. I don’t remember much about the discussion, but I remember the teacher saying, “It’s nothing to worry about. If they drop a nuclear bomb on us, things will happen so fast that you won’t even know it.” What?!?!?! Yes, that thought was terrifying to a nine-yr-old girl. I remember actually thinking, “Why did my parents have me if they knew this was a possibility?” I remember exactly where I was sitting in the classroom when I had that thought. Big thinking for a nine-yr-old.

When I told this to my 14-yr-old daughter on that car ride yesterday, she was wide-eyed. Then, I told her it wasn’t a concern for her generation, because the Soviet Union has fallen, and we made peace with Russia…even though things seem a little precarious sometimes, I think Russia doesn’t want nuclear war any more than we want it.

But she corrected me. “Doesn’t North Korea have nuclear bombs?” I told her they do, but they can’t reach the US mainland. She asked, “But what’s to stop them from using them when they can reach the mainland?” With my limited knowledge of international politics, the only thing I came up with was, “Well, they haven’t used them on South Korea, and they can definitely reach there.” She asked me if the U.S. has the capability to intercept nuclear missiles. I told her I’d heard we do, but I didn’t tell her it’s 50 percent (or less) accurate. I then told her I think the North Koreans are too smart to start an all-out nuclear war with us. I hope I’m right.

When we were discussing fears, it seemed there were a lot of parallels between kids’ worries in 1976 and 2018. I worried about my parents’ health, which is normal, I guess, since that’s who took care of me. She said that had crossed her mind before too. But now there is an added fear that I never considered as a child: school shootings. There were school shootings in 1976…in fact, seven people were killed when a man opened fire at California State University at Fullerton that year, but because we didn’t have a 24-hr news cycle, we didn’t hear about them constantly, so they were never a fear for us. Now, not only do we have a 24-hr news cycle feeding our brains bad news, but children prepare for active shooters. That’s something we never had to do. Living in Alabama, we had tornado and fire drills, but never lockdown drills.

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The Sandy Hook shootings occurred when my daughter was in third grade, and I remember her asking me if it would happen at her school. I didn’t want to lie, but I didn’t want to scare her either. I explained that we never know what could happen, but that it wasn’t likely. That year, she had a male teacher, so I added, “Besides, you’ve seen your teacher’s muscles. Do you really think he’d let someone get into your classroom?” She relaxed. At age 9, all she needed was reassurance, and that did the trick.

So it seems everything old is new again, plus some. Kids still have the same worries. There’s the threat of nuclear war. Kids still worry about their parents’ health. Plus, the worries of school shootings. My daughter, thankfully, has somehow managed to stop being the worrier she used to be. She told me during our chat that she learned a long time ago that she shouldn’t worry about things over which she has no control. I’m proud of that. I didn’t learn to control those worries till I was in college.

So to help keep those worries to a minimum, I’ll keep the 24-hr news cycle out of our home.

 

 

 

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