I was three years old in 1949 when the Soviet Union started the Cold War by detonating their first atomic bomb, blockading Berlin and pushing their way into Poland and Eastern Europe. The voices I heard swirling above my toddler head at cocktail hour told me the Russians wanted to rule the world and they were coming for us.
By the time I entered the first grade in 1952, the US government had created the National Civil Defense Administration and devised a plan to protect people from incoming A-bombs. Teachers were required to conduct air raid drills, shouting, “Drop!” and school children dropped under their desks, fell over their knees and covered their heads. The nuns at my schools added the instruction to recite Hail Marys aloud while on the floor. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
As first, second and third graders, my two sisters and I made our own breakfasts and school lunches because my mother’s alcohol intake rendered her unconscious in the mornings. We often gathered around her bed trying to figure out if she was alive. Holy Mary, Mother of God… One of us would place a finger under her nostrils to feel her breath until, with one exhale, she confirmed the worst that could happen hadn’t—and we’d be off to knock on neighbors’ doors scrounging rides to school.
At seven, I didn’t understand the difference between a drill and the real event so I went to my death every time I huddled under that desk. “This is it,” I’d pray, “this is the day I’m going to see Jesus.” I believed Mary would grab me in her arms like she did baby Jesus and take me to heaven. Why did we practice so desperately to avoid such ecstasy?
By the time third grade rolled around, I got used to not dying under the desk. Images of children who lived after their exposure to the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki appeared on our small black and white television and I began to realize why those air raid drills were so ominous — there were worse things than death.
Our parochial school teachers taught us Communists were going to hell because they prevented Catholics from going to Mass, which was one of the worst things that could ever happen. Words from the TV news — Stalin, USSR, Iron Curtain, the Red Army, the Berlin Airlift, NATO, the CIA — put worry on my parents’ faces and terrified me.
Throughout my childhood, I had reasons to think the worst was going to happen every day. But the worst never happened and over time these early worst-that-could-happen fears immunized me against pessimistic eruptions the way a bout of the measles inoculates against future outbreaks of inflamed skin . For instance, my mother’s alcoholic dementia killed her at 70, but it was not the worst thing to happen, rather relief to her and to those around her.
Today’s words —Trump, FBI, emoluments, North Korea, hacking, Putin, charter schools and my old friend Russia — needle me with foreboding, but history is on my side. After all, what’s the worst that could happen?