When the world failed to end on schedule


On the morning the whole wide world was scheduled to end, precisely 30 Octobers ago, a wonderful thing happened where I was.

Life went into overtime.

The newspaper that morning hinted we might be incinerated by nightfall. The radio in the kitchen talked of Kennedy and Khrushchev and Russian missiles on Cuban soil. Everyone who didn't have a fallout shelter suddenly envied everyone who did.

"If we're all gonna die, what's the point of going to school?" I said, not one to miss a chance at stalling scholarly pursuits.

"Never mind," announced my mother, as if that explained everything. And maybe it did. The politicians might be feuding; the nations threatening to blow each other up, but mothers still had an authority of their own.

I was a senior at City College, in those days an all-male institution. We were located directly across Loch Raven Boulevard from all-female Eastern High School. Loch Raven was a kind of psychological Berlin Wall. You could cross it and enter the forbidden zone, but you risked getting shot down in the process.

All morning on my side of the street, we watched the clock and wondered if the bombs had begun dropping somewhere on the planet, and then we wondered if people in authority would bother to tell us if they had, and whether we would have to stay in class anyway.

"Why would the Russians want to bomb Baltimore?" a studious friend implored in homeroom, bargaining for reasonableness with classmates as though they were United Nations delegates. "There's nothing important here."

"Oh, no?" came a cool response. "What about the all-important City College sheet metal shop? You don't think the Russians have heard about it?"

And then this refrain began to emerge, whispered back and forth across classroom aisles:

"What are you gonna do if you hear the Russian bombers are headed for Baltimore?"

"I don't know about you, man, but I'm going over to Eastern."

The response was always given in a kind of mock good cheer, a happy growl of life in the face of death.

My children do not understand the terror of that time, any more than I could entirely understand the despair of the Great Depression, though I read about it in books and heard my parents' memories.

Time passes, and each new generation has its own psychological baggage to carry through the seasons. The Cold War reached its most frightening moment 30 years ago, but we still carry its scars. A succession of presidents can claim credit for riding out the long Cold War winter, but nobody's entirely ready to come out of the emotional fallout shelters yet. It's ingrained in the psyches of all of us of a certain age.

In Little Italy the other day, a woman who still remembers the last world war cautioned: "Don't cut defense too much." She speaks of unseen military threats to our security somewhere out there. But where? She can't think of any, exactly, but they couldn't have all disappeared, could they?

In Timonium, a man who's worked for Westinghouse for 22 years talks about massive layoffs there. What happens to people who made their careers helping the defense industry, and now the defense industry doesn't need their help anymore?

Is this man, an engineer by profession, the first one to whom the question has occurred? Was the Cold War so ingrained in our national mind-set, and the missiles of October so etched in our fear mechanisms, that we never gave thought to the arrival of peace -- and the conversion of wartime jobs to peacetime jobs?

The country's problem is this: Peace arrived too soon. It caught everybody by surprise, and 30 years after our most terrifying moment, we still haven't figured out how to handle our good fortune.

Happy Birthday, world! We've been living on borrowed time since 1962. Now, if we could just figure out what to do with the extra hours given us, and the money we should be spreading around, and that terrible mind-set we've held onto for at least the last 30 years.

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