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Well be back after this

Sallie Satterthwaite's picture

Has there ever been a time when the world felt truly safe? A few years will pass quietly while we think, “Ah, maybe we can relax, maybe we can practice peace instead of war. Maybe we can trust both our leaders and those of other governments.”

Like the industrialists who said there’s less oil in the Gulf than we thought there was. Instead, there’s more, much more. Church leaders who despoil children and enter into a pact of cover-up. Lessons learned: Don’t trust anyone.

And would anyone actually fly airplanes into tall buildings? Of course not. Sometimes I think I’m the only American to whom terrorist-suicide is still beyond comprehension.
In all of history there have been those who can’t imagine that things can get worse. But they do.

Dave and I were dating in the early 1950s when Brinkmanship was the name of the game. I’d wake up every morning thinking, Well, we’re still alive. That may have been an overreaction, but then I was young and prone to fear the worst.

One dark, dark night as we were driving home from college for the weekend, a massive red glow suddenly lit the sky in front of us. It seemed to rise from the earth and appeared to glow all the way from Washington. At the very least, Harrisburg, the capitol of Pennsylvania, must have been the target of an atomic attack.

(Harrisburg? Why?)

We were frightened, deeply frightened, especially that such a horror could have happened while everything around us looked so normal. Traffic did not stop nor speed up, and the radio we were listening to remained the same.

We learned later that the glow in the sky was caused by the pouring of molten slag at the Bethlehem Steel plant in Steelton, reflecting from a cloud bank. But that night, all we knew was that we were living in times when the Soviet Union and the United States had enough weapons pointed at each other to wipe out civilization worldwide.

We knew people were building fall-out shelters to protect themselves and their families. To what avail? we argued. To live for weeks in subhuman conditions, only to emerge and discover the world we had left no longer existed? And to face the certainty of lingering radiation and terrible death?

This was when we had two beautiful little girls and a brand-new baby, and I sat nursing her in stark terror, watching news reports that the U.S. and Cuba (hence, the Soviet Union) were facing each other down just 90 miles from our shores. Clearly I remember wondering what kind of a world I had brought these children into.

Young mothers think a lot in “what ifs.” What if there were a nuclear war and somehow our babies survived us and were left helpless? It was more than we could bear to think about.

Every one of these scenarios has happened somewhere in the world, some time in our history. War in one’s own country, the loss of a spouse, single parents working to survive, homes torched, marketplaces blown up. From biblical times to this very minute, these are the subplots of the history of the world.

I remember Pearl Harbor dimly, as a child who noticed only that the grownups were very serious and worried, but I remember the Cold War when it sometimes blew hot. I remember the death of a young president and not knowing whether it was the first in a series (it was – a series of gifted leaders). I remember the pit-of-the-stomach hopelessness that descended over me when I read, like a fool, Nevil Shute’s “On the Beach.”

I smile now, but it was so real then that I nearly canceled an appointment to have the children’s teeth cleaned. What was the point of having perfect teeth if we were all going to die?

I remember death pacing alongside our lives: Daddy first, then my brother, then a daughter, in-laws, mother. I remember reacting to ordinary, normal things. Look at those punks slouching down the street, shouting profanely as though everything was all right.

Everything is not all right. Don’t they realize it isn’t? My brother was so bright and good and talented. How dare you go on wasting your lives when such a treasure has been lost?

We’ve seen and seen the images, and we’ve heard, over and over, the stories, and yet the cardinals are busy on the sunflower feeders. The wren is warbling a new song she saved for the end of summer, and the squirrels are raining walnut shells down on the porch roof.

The sky is a clean, clear blue, not a smudge of smoke or dust in it, and the mail comes and choirs practice and school buses run. The library is open, committees meet, the church looks just as it did on Sept. 10, solid and safe, and sunlight sifts through green leaves our deck. Contrails make chalk lines on the sky, the Internet connects, and the crack of the bat is heard once more, interspersed with commercials: “We’ll be back after this….”

Yes. We’ll be back after this….

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