In 1949 the Soviet Union started the Cold War by detonating its first atomic bomb, blockading Berlin, and pushing its way into Poland and Eastern Europe. The voices I heard swirling above my head at cocktail hour in our Washington home implied the Russians were coming for us. Everyone acted like this was the worst thing that could ever happen.
Air raid drills were concocted by the federal government through the National Civil Defense Administration to protect people from incoming A-bombs. Common folk-wisdom said only cockroaches would survive a nuclear attack. Nevertheless teachers were required to conduct impromptu air raid drills. They shouted, Drop!—a signal for us to jump out of our seats, crawl under our desks, fall over our knees and cover our heads. The nuns 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.
At seven, I didn’t understand the difference between a drill and the real event. I went to my death every time I huddled under that desk. I feared the A-Bomb was the worst thing that could ever happen. But, I was not. afraid. to die.
This is it, I’d pray. This is the day I’m going to see Jesus.
I believed Mother Mary would grab me in her arms like she did baby Jesus and take me to heaven. Why did we practice 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. I saw that there were worse things than death.
Our Catholic school teachers taught that Communists who ruled Mother Russia prohibited the celebration of the Mass. The clergy declared this was the worst thing that could ever happen. We prayed for Catholic Russia.
At home, 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’d confirm that the worst that could’ve happen, hadn’t—and we’d be off to knock on neighbors’ doors scrounging rides to school.
Those early almost-worst-that-could-happen memories have inoculated me against the mau-mauing of present-day alarmists, naysayers and fear-mongers who sermonize about the death of our democracy. Yeah-but’ers and tsk-tsk’ers want us to heed their cynical creed that our country is hopelessly overrun with insurrectionists, sexual predators, corrupt politicians and gun-toting scofflaws.
And what if these are apocalyptic times? So what? So were the 1950’s. I’ve been here before.
Mother Mary may be out of commission these days, but I still dream of seeing Jesus.