Deja vu all over again

By Karen Zautyk

A couple of weeks ago, for the first time in decades, I went to sleep wondering if I would wake up in the morning. As a child of the Cold War, I had often felt that way back in the days of “duck and cover” and citywide air raid drills and ongoing finger-on-the-button tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. I really had not expected to experience those feelings again —  but there they were.

This time, they were triggered by America’s preemptive bombing of the Syrian air base and the resultant Great Unknown — namely, what would Vladimir Putin do? But this time, I guess because I am now a rational adult, I just started humming “Que Sera, Sera.”

Following this week’s trauma-inducing speculation over North Korea’s missile launch, I decided: I will no longer listen to the news. Not for a while anyway. I prefer to remain temporarily ignorant. (A major decision for a news-junkie journalist.)

Do any of you remember Quemoy and Matsu? Back in the late ’50s, a  China vs. Taiwan dispute over these two islands could have triggered a nuclear war. Luckily, diplomacy prevailed. (Sorry for the overly succinct “explanation,” but it’s all too complicated to discuss here. See Wikipedia.)

Anyway, sometime in the early ’80s, the islands started making scary news again. Things were due to come to a head in the middle of a week during which I had planned a vacation. I was not about to cancel that, so my travelling companion and I headed off to our Caribbean destination, also a tiny island, which turned out to have no TV, no radio (other than a local music station) and no newspapers.

We spent the week in blissful ignorance, and when we got back to New York, Quemoy and Matsu were no longer in the headlines. That’s when my no-news-is-good-news mentality first kicked in. There are some things (The Bomb) over which you have no control, so why worry?

An example: I once knew a man who grew up in a Midwestern city and whose father, at the height of the Cold War, decided his family really needed a fall-out shelter, so he bought some farmland a couple of hours away and built one.

On weekends, instead of going camping, mom, dad and kids would visit the thing. 

But then they lost its use. Under eminent domain, the U.S. government took over the father’s land. And built a Nike missile base there. True.

Another Cold War story that explains why I grew up traumatized: Do any of you remember the Cuban Missile Crisis?

One evening in 1962, we turned on the television after dinner to find President John F. Kennedy addressing the nation about the construction of Soviet nuclear missile facilities in Cuba, just 90 miles from our shores. JFK issued an ultimatum to Nikita Khruschev: “It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”

“Full retaliatory response.” We all knew what that meant.

Kennedy also set up a U.S. naval blockade to prevent any more Russian ships from arriving in Castro’s kingdom. Eventually, diplomacy again prevailed, but not before one terribly frightening day.

The Russian ships were heading for Cuba, and in the Atlantic, the U.S. Navy was waiting. Confrontation was inevitable. The day before the fleets were due to meet, I was in school.  

Despite the students’ fears, and aside from our spending lunch hour in church praying, things were fairly routine. Until the last class of the day.

For some reason, I can’t recall what class it was, or the teacher’s name, but I can see his face. We went through the usual instruction, and when the bell rang, we gathered our books to leave. But one student stood and said, “Mr. (?), you forgot to give us homework.”

This teacher’s, this adult’s, response to a bunch of scared kids: “Homework? HOMEWORK? We could all be dead tomorrow!”

And you wonder why I am the way I am?

Anyway, I have now stopped watching the news. Although it’s hard to avoid page newspaper photos of a glaring Putin. What I really need to watch, and soon, is “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.”

To quote a favorite scene, a phone call from the U.S. President to his Russian counterpart concerning a looming “accidental” nuclear holocaust: “I’m sorry, too, Dmitri … I’m very sorry … All right, you’re sorrier than I am, but I am sorry as well … I am as sorry as you are, Dmitri! Don’t say that you’re more sorry than I am, because I’m capable of being just as sorry as you are … So we’re both sorry, all right? … All right.”

Laughter can be the best medicine.

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