For some reason, I’ve spent a chunk of this July 4th weekend lost in memories of my early childhood and teen years. As I sifted through photos, letters, art and stories I wrote as a child, I was taken by how much of it is framed by the threat of war. I grew up during the Cold War, the free-thinking daughter of staunch republicans. I was raised during the presidencies of Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan (I attended Reagan’s inauguration when I was 15). I remember The Space Race, 60 countries boycotting the 1980 Olympic games in Moscow, the fall of the Berlin wall, Watergate, Chernobyl, and Gorbachev (his eerie birthmark scared the crap out of us kids).
The undercurrent of wartime politics and nuclear propaganda was vividly woven into my childhood. We were very aware that the U.S. and Soviet Union had enough weapons pointed at each other to completely destroy both countries and it was just a matter of time before someone got mad and “pushed a button”. The grown-up seriousness was tempered by watching hours of WWII-era comedies like Hogan’s Hero’s, McHale’s Navy, Black Sheep Squadron, and Operation Petticoat.
I was eight years old when I learned that President Nixon was planning to visit Moscow to meet with Leonid Brezhnev and find a solution to the madness. I deeply wanted peace and to end all the constant worry about whether Earth itself would even exist by the time I got to middle school. So I wrote him a letter asking him if I could go with him. I don’t remember what I wrote but I remember being convinced it was all just a big misunderstanding and that surely there was a way to work it out. I thought, “I get along with people pretty well, maybe I can help”. I got back a letter saying how he was “particularly pleased to hear from boys and girls who take a special interest in our government”. Though it was a template postcard, getting a letter from the White House at 8 was as good as meeting the President himself.
Nixon and I crossed paths again the summer I turned 16. I was working at the Aspen Institute, a policy studies organization based in Washington, DC. They had conference venue near the Wye River in Maryland where I grew up. The institute is a non-partisan venue for leaders to discuss critical global issues like education, economics, health, the environment security and global affairs. The Aspen Institute is chaired by Walter Isaacson (CEO of CNN, editor of TIME, and author of Steve Jobs) with board and trustee members like Madeline Albright, Henry Kissinger, and Sandra Day O’Connor. Former President Nixon spoke the summer I worked there and I asked him if he remembered my letter (of course, he didn’t).
As I flipped through pictures and letters, I came across two short stories I’d written as a teen about what my life would be like in the year 2000. It really brought home how the existential uncertainly of the times framed my view of the world. Political enemies, secrets organizations and diabolical weapons were just part of everyday life (and apparently, so was space travel). Thankfully, it looks like I had a sense of humor about it all, too. (I have not edited anything, spelling or otherwise, on these stories).
In the year 2000, I will be on my deathbed as the result of an assassination attempt. I will reveal pertinent information that will save the world from eminent destruction. Throughout my life, I had received strange, unidentified messages from somewhere inside the Russian Kremlin. Several of the USSR’s top leaders decided to defect, causing the total downfall of all communist organizations. Little did the U.S. know that another group of non-conformists, the Moscrows (named for their home in Moscow) had multiplied by secret underground means and were planning a major attack on the Pentagon, the White House, and the Secret security building that contains all the U.S. thermo-nuclear war strategies. Because of my heroics, the military discovered the planted bombs and I received a ticker-tape parade (even though I was dead by then). My name went down in history, books were written about me, and my life story was made into a movie which won 12 Academy Awards.
And another story:
It is the year 2000, and Queen Anne’s County High School has now become the George Orwell University of Nuclear Studies. This school is situated on Saturn. Earth and her moon have demonstrated a nuclear big bang theory and they are nothing but stars. I am a security guard at this university. I arrive at my job at 13:75 in the morning. Because of changes in the atmospheric pressure and the position of Saturn’s rings, we have been forced to alter our system of time. There is a major missile base beneath the school. Because of this, security must be very strictly enforced. My job is to control the rings of the planet as a means of allowing military space vehicles and security personnel to enter and depart. It’s a very safe job because I control them from Jupiter. That way, if Saturn is attacked, I will live.
Apparently, I had grand visions of saving the world. After graduation, I explored joining the Air Force. I wanted to fly planes and be a fighter pilot. I didn’t end up joining (although I did learn to fly) and instead got my degree in Mathematics and Computer Science and went on to sell telecom to the aerospace industry. The world has changed in so many ways since I was a teenager but in some ways not. Many of the things we worried about didn’t end up coming true but I never realized the impact they had on my life until now.
Note: This post is not intended to incite one-sided rants about which political party is right or wrong (those comments will be deleted). It is, however, an invitation to share how the political and global climate of your youth shaped the choices you made into adulthood.