I was walking home from grammar school one day beneath the bright blue ceiling of a late September afternoon. My street lay across the top of a hill and enjoyed a commanding view of the Brighton neighborhoods leading into downtown Boston. A storm was out to sea east beyond the city, and the clouds towered in the distant sky. At some point I looked in that direction, and stopped dead in my tracks, because one cumulus formation seemed the very definition of a mushroom cloud, and a trick of light and distance made it appear to be right over the city. I ran all the way home, terrified.
One night not long after, I was looking out the windows that faced the city. The distant buildings were beautiful in the evening light, but as I watched, a bright dot appeared in the sky. It was solid, unblinking, and moving fast toward downtown. My breath caught, and my hands tightened on the windowsill as I waited to be incinerated by a wall of nuclear fire.
One could, I suppose, chalk it up to the overactive imagination of a boy. The cloud above the city was just that, and not the aftermath of a nuclear strike. The light streaking toward downtown was a helicopter, or a plane headed for Logan Airport, and not a missile carrying destruction in its nosecone. But for a child mired during his formative years in the Reagan-era hysterics of the Cold War, a boy conditioned to listen for the sirens that could erupt at any moment to announce onrushing nuclear doom, these little hallucinations were daily fare. Living in constant low-grade fear of the possibility that “The Day After” would one day no longer be televised fiction was, as it turns out, the price of doing business.
These memories have been much on my mind as I watch these new and frankly remarkable developments unfolding between the United States and Cuba. My generation missed that whole show completely – the Cuban Missile Crisis happened nine years before I was born – and people my age are required to be students of history to understand what all the damned static is about in the first place. Read every book, watch every old white-knuckle black-and-white news broadcast from that time, however, and in the end those who did not go through that particular period are still left blinking in confusion under wrinkled brows: What’s the big deal? Why did this take so long?
Answers: Serious human rights concerns, the politics of Florida and its Electoral College votes, and the lingering grip of the Cold War itself – the embedded policies that came from it, and the enduring influence of those who miss not only the simplistic binary polarity between “good” and “bad” it represented, but also the astonishing taxpayer cash spigot it provided. The reasons why the world has seemingly gone utterly and completely berserk in the years since the Berlin Wall came down are due in massive degree to the acts and actions of powerful nations during the Cold War, but there is a certain breed of cat that misses those days anyway, because the bright definitions at play helped the world make some semblance of sense. Plus, of course, dudes got mad paid.
As noted, I was not on the planet when Cuba was the flashpoint of doom and the most important island on the planet. Cuba, for me, has frankly been a topic that a few people rage heatedly over while everyone else basically shrugs because they don’t understand what the fuss is about. I had to put some work in to understand it.
I did, however, get my own full budget of Cold War paranoia during the bedlam of the Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan administrations. Reagan, most specifically, was the one who very deliberately made me think I would be consumed by a wall of fire at practically any moment. We didn’t do duck-and-cover at my grammar school, but every so often the teachers would herd us into the basement for a “special” fire drill, and we’d all huddle in a concrete room with the yellow and black “Fallout Shelter” sign on the door. Even at that age, knowing full well our close proximity to an obvious nuclear target, the futility of the gesture left an impression.
The Soviet Union may be gone, but the Cold War never really ended. This is a nation that needs an enemy, and beneath the bright blue ceiling of another September day thirteen years ago, a new one was established. Our haywire economy requires a state of permanent war; we lost it for a time when the Wall fell, but found it again when the Towers fell. The savage irony is that those Towers came down thanks to the chesswork of Cold Warriors who thought they could control the beast they created in Afghanistan in their desire to undo the Soviets. By any measurable standard, the United States of America, its people, its politics and its profiteering ethos stand as a bent monument to that era, which never really ended, but only metastasized into the so-called “War on Terror.”
Yet the generations-old war against Cuba – which Castro won, by the way, hands down – appears to be coming to an end. This has to be a good thing, has to be made into a good thing, has to count for something beyond an opportunity for table-pounders to raise their voices and yell about Communists from the close end of the long, echoing corridor of history. The president is to be commended. At a bare minimum, we will soon hopefully have one less thing to argue about.
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