Strangers on our little red scoria roads in eastern Montana were met with the same suspicion as the unrecognized small plane flying north to south (more on that in a moment). If I were an artist, I could paint my mother’s back as she stood at the locked kitchen door talking to a salesman through the screen as he chooses his words carefully, hoping to gain entrance. Standing behind her, I can see her left hand pressing firmly down on the screen door hook and her right hand behind her back, holding a long butcher knife. If it happened that the lower back door to the house was not locked when the salesman arrived, we might scamper through the rooms on the back side of the house, scoot down the four steps to that door and hook the screen door there as well.
We weren’t hateful but we knew there was no help to be had if something went wrong in our yard or on our farm. Butcher knives and screen door hooks served as primary home security systems: they were our U-2 flights, our Mutually Assured Destruction.
The Civil Air Patrol was active during those years and farmers watched those Skies That Were Not Cloudy All Day~~ situated as we were 75 miles south of Canada and 20 miles west of North Dakota. We youngsters didn’t understand the reasons or implications of our childlike decision, but knew that if we saw small planes flying on a north-to-south track, we would run and tell our parents. I don’t remember that we were told to do that, but that was what we did.
We also loved seeing B-52’s flying refueling training missions on a careful East-West/West-East track between Malmstrom AFB in Great Falls, Montana and Minot AFB in mid-North Dakota. Daytime flyovers by these paired-up giants that were crucial components of the Strategic Air Command were fun to watch. It was even more exciting to see them at night~~a two-plane configuration outlined by lights, moving through brightly blazing stars in a night sky undisturbed by earthlights~~and we would laugh as we imagined those crews were carefully performing this spectacular airshow just for us. After 1957, we watched Sputnik regularly~~passing over us again and again in the night sky.
The early fifties were the days of Bert-the-Turtle teaching schoolchildren the Duck and Cover drill, that fine turtle being the well-intentioned device by which we were taught to instinctively “look away from the bright light and cover our eyes” when the Russians came to bomb Ft. Peck Dam. Much of the country assumed that is exactly what they were planning, Ft. Peck being our local contribution to The List Of Targets.
Unfortunately, just as armies are often caught in a mindset that has them training for the last war, civilian authorities in the 1950’s were preparing schoolchildren and their parents for “the bomb they knew”~~the already obsolete A-Bomb. By the mid-fifties, Bert the Turtle was a behind-the-scenes irony to those who understood something of the potential effect of the new H-bomb, tested first in 1954. When asked why they allowed the pointless duck and cover drills to continue, someone explained, “Such drills and preparedness training are a way to make people feel as though they would actually have some clue as to how to behave. It lightens the terror load.”
At this point, we were in the core of The Cold War, which some consider 1945-1960. The www.globalsecurity.org site gives an interesting consideration about establishing such dates:
Dating the end of the Cold War requires dating its beginning, which requires defining what it was about. By one reckoning, the Cold War began in the 1945-1948 timeframe, and ended in 1989, having been a dispute over the division of Europe. By another account, the Cold War began in 1917 with the Bolshevik Revolution, and ended in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union….
However we get at the time frame, the 1950’s were surely The Heart Of The Cold War, bracketed as they were by the 1945 end of World War II and the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. In retrospect, I see that our parents decided that people who didn’t know them and events they couldn’t control would not dictate the characteristics of their daily life. As I reviewed historical events in preparation for this MBOB, I was taken aback at the actual caldron of stress, threat and imminent danger in which we were all living. Because our parents did follow international events and domestic politics very closely during those years, their choice To Live At Peace~Free in the Midst of It was neither acquiescence nor ignorance.
It was an uneasy time, sandwiched between World War II and The Sixties. The casual student of history might call it a time of peace, just ruffled a bit by The Korean Conflict (which is still unconcluded today). But there were so many things that everyone knew, but no one talked about: the Cold War was turning into a blustery toddler that had found its legs and its lungs and it had a brand new bomb to play with; the 1953 death of Stalin may have marked the beginning of the end of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s gulags but the arms race was escalating and the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War were just coming into view.
More than ever, today I understand why Dr. Strangelove, the movie, was such a hit. In 1964, it met a need. There was something about getting together in a theatre with the smell of popcorn and good friends, everyone fed up with the world as it was…to watch a good, long satirical, howling funny movie based on hysterically frightening reality, and have it all end with everybody on their feet, cheering and yelling as Slim Pickens rode his bomb into oblivion. None of this “writing-notes-to-the-enemy-on-the-bomb” for him. He saddled that horse and rode it home.
History never happens in a vacuum.
It didn’t begin with our birth. It won’t end with our death.
We are living (v.) history, and we are living (adj.)history. Perhaps unwillingly, we are more piercingly aware of “living out” history today, in March of 2011. But it’s still kind of like the fifties. Mailboxes and Old Barns~~still needed.
Our lives can be the Mailboxes that warn someone of danger or tell them that they’re almost home.
Our faithfulness may be the Old Barn that reassures, showing someone they are not lost, putting some peace in their day.