To Russia, With Love...

When my kids were about 15 years younger than they are now, we often watched T.V. together. None of this Mom-has-hers-and-the-kids-have-theirs kind of stuff. First of all, I couldn't afford more than one television. Second, I discovered that I liked watching shows with my children. It gave us an opportunity to have some very interesting discussions about a number of topics.

For instance, one evening we were watching a show about the Cold War that was more than likely on PBS. The program showed some old newsreel footage of school children doing the "duck and cover" during a nuclear air raid drill. I began cracking up laughing, and as usual, my kids looked at me as if I needed to put in a padded cell. But I couldn't help it. The sight of those kids from the 50s hiding under their desks as if that was sufficient protection from a nuclear mushroom cloud was hysterically funny to me.

One of them finally asked me why I was laughing, and to my surprise, I couldn't explain it. How could I describe what it was like to be a child during a time when authority figures were to be obeyed without question or "backtalk"? For a military brat like me, the rules were even more stringent. I don't know about base brats from other branches of the military, but those of us who had fathers in the Air Force during the Vietnam War were told that if we didn't behave at school (which meant sit or stand quietly at all times; don't talk, move or raise your hand unless given specific instructions to do so), our fathers would lose their stripes. This meant they would be demoted in rank,the ultimate humiliation for any serviceman.

This was a terrifying threat to us. At best, the entire family would be subject to gossip and ridicule. That meant that our mothers would make every day a living hell, reminding us of how we embarrassed the family "after all your father and I have done for you". However, that was the very least of our concerns. Causing our dads to lose rank meant one thing--the belt.

Every military brat I've ever known has feared the belt. The same accessory that our fathers used to keep the shirt neatly tucked into their pants, thereby conforming to standard dress regulations, could be turned into a fearsome weapon of unimaginable pain and suffering. The belt could be whipped from around the waist in a single smooth motion, and move through the air so fast that there would be barely enough time to gasp for breath, let alone duck and run. Besides, running made everything worse because no matter how fast a child ran, a father could run faster. Then, it was double time: twice the amount of red, throbbing welts across the legs and arms. The best thing to do was stand there and take it, although no one thought that it was a desirable alternative. The belt hurt like hell.

My children knew nothing about the belt, or how the "don't talk, move or even breathe" rule worked. I repealed corporal punishment from my list of disciplinary actions, and took a few parenting classes. It was a lot of work to ride out the tantrums, hand out restrictions and take away privileges without backing down from my word, ever. It seemed so much easier to tell the kids to shut up and do as they are told, or else. But then again, I had to think about my own life--did those spankings really stop me from doing something I wanted to do? Sometimes. But most of the time, I just lied about what I did to avoid the belt. With my own children, I decided that hitting a kid was a not a good way to encourage honesty and instill a sense of dignity.

But my kids had a difficult time understanding why boomer children like me would willingly do something as ridiculous as duck underneath our desks and cover our head in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack. Didn't our teachers and parents know that it wouldn't do any good, that we would become nothing more than shadows on the classroom walls in mere seconds?

"I'm not sure if they knew that or not," I admitted. "None of us ever asked."

That's when all three of my children started laughing and talking at once.

"What? That's crazy, Mom!"

"What was putting your arms over your head supposed to do? Keep the radiation away?"

"Man, people were DUMB back then!"

Well, we were certainly more gullible, especially military brats like me. Why would our government keep secrets from us? That's the kind of stuff the Russians did to their people. At least that's what all of the adults told all of us kids. Since we didn't know any Russians to tell us otherwise, we believed it. It was believe it or else.

But the door was opened to the past, and I did my best to try to explain the mindset of Americans at the time. It wasn't easy. They had no basis of comparison in pre-9/11 America. They were critical thinking, media savvy children, accustomed to open debates about everything including a president's sexual proclivities on CNN, PBS and MTV. We had whatever Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley told us. More than likely, those very capable and esteemed journalists had to walk a White House-defined line with the truth. That is, until the Vietnam War and Watergate, which I also tried to explain to my children. But they weren't interested in that. They wanted to know why kids in the 50s and 60s had to crouch underneath their desks during bomb drills when it would be a waste of time and energy during an attack.

I still don't know how to explain that one. But at the time, I felt I had to think of something to say.

"Well, they did give us dog tags to wear...."

"Dog tags? What's that?"

"They were standard issue for all military brats. They were these little metal plates on chains that we had to wear at all times. The plates with our full names, date of birth social security numbers, and the names and ranks of our fathers engraved on them. Oh, and they put our religious affiliation on there, too. Supposedly the tags would help with identifying our bodies and making funeral arrangements."

They roared at that one.

"Funeral arrangements? There wouldn't have been anyone around to bury you!" Clarissa, always the pragmatic one.

"Mom, do you know how much power a nuclear bomb has? Some of them are 60 MEGATONS, that's 60 million tons of TNT!"

That was my son, Marc. He has a flash drive-like mind that stores unbelievable amounts of scientific information and mathematical equations. At that time, he was ten years old and reading Stephen Hawkings' books when he wasn't in school or playing video games with his friends. I have yet to read past the first three paragraphs of A Brief History of Time. It gives me a headache.

It did no good to explain that the U.S. and the former USSR were sworn enemies locked into a war of rhetoric and propaganda that terrified most Americans into believing that at any moment, Khrushchev or his dictatorial successor, Brezhnev, would launch ICBMs that would annihilate our country.

"ICBMs? What's that?"

"Sounds like a really big turd."

More laughter. The Cold War was a very strange time in our country's history, I thought. I took a deep breath and continued with my bumbling attempts to help my children understand how our country had nearly gone insane with fear.

"Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. Both sides had them, pointed at each other. Still do, as far as I know."

Chenelle finally spoke up.

"Does that mean America and Russia can still blow each other up?"

I had to think about that for moment.

"I don't know. I just don't know."

And that part is still true.

Today there is no greater glory for man than that of service in the cause of the Most Great Peace. Peace is light, whereas war is darkness. Peace is life; war is death. Peace is guidance; war is error. Peace is the foundation of God; war is a satanic institution. Peace is the illumination of the world of humanity; war is the destroyer of human foundations. When we consider outcomes in the world of existence, we find that peace and fellowship are factors of upbuilding and betterment, whereas war and strife are the causes of destruction and disintegration. All created things are expressions of the affinity and cohesion of elementary substances, and nonexistence is the absence of their attraction and agreement. Various elements unite harmoniously in composition, but when these elements become discordant, repelling each other, decomposition and nonexistence result. Everything partakes of this nature and is subject to this principle, for the creative foundation in all its degrees and kingdoms is an expression or outcome of love. Consider the restlessness and agitation of the human world today because of war. Peace is health and construction; war is disease and dissolution. When the banner of truth is raised, peace becomes the cause of the welfare and advancement of the human world. In all cycles and ages war has been a factor of derangement and discomfort, whereas peace and brotherhood have brought security and consideration of human interests. This distinction is especially pronounced in the present world conditions, for warfare in former centuries had not attained the degree of savagery and destructiveness which now characterizes it. If two nations were at war in olden times, ten or twenty thousand would be sacrificed, but in this century 124 the destruction of one hundred thousand lives in a day is quite possible. So perfected has the science of killing become and so efficient the means and instruments of its accomplishment that a whole nation can be obliterated in a short time. Therefore, comparison with the methods and results of ancient warfare is out of the question.

from The Promulgation of Universal Peace
by Abdu’l-Bahá page 470, US Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1982 second edition.
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