I never expected it would be like this. I imagined armored cars, tanks, bloodshed, women screaming, men begging, children lined against school walls and shot. Clergy would be tortured, churches burned. Families allowed to live would not be allowed to live together.
Most times I expected worse: The Conelrad alert would sound and be real. Twenty to 30 minutes until death and no time to go home. How would I be brave? How would I not cry in those final moments, not plead for my father and mother?
I read Hiroshima and On the Beach and my skin burned and my neighborhood disappeared, and I wondered if I would ever plant flowers knowing that I wouldn't be alive when they bloomed.
Too active an imagination? I don't think so. This was the Cold War, a war that chilled the present with its prophesies, a war in which the future was fiction.
I never believed in the future. It was important at all times to be in the state of grace in case the Russians came, in case they sent The Bomb. There was little danger outside of that, no worry about being robbed or shot on the way to school. We had only one fear: that the ground under us might at any moment be blown away.
Salvation would come only if we prayed. That's what we were told. That's what we believed. And that's what we did. Pray for the conversion of Russia, the sisters said. We prayed the Rosary in the morning, the Acts of Faith, Hope and Love in the afternoon. On the first Friday of every month we offered up the The Stations of the Cross. Sometimes when we were singing Gregorian chant in the darkness of a church lighted solely by candles and the sweet scent of incense rolled like sea air from the altar, it was possible to believe that prayer alone could soften the heart of this tyrant Khrushchev who made our young hearts swell with fear.
But in the classroom reality would return. "Look at this map of Europe," the teacher would say. "The Communists have taken over all of these countries," and the pointer would tap, tap, tap and we would hear the footfalls of invading soldiers approaching our classroom door.
"With the Cold War at its coldest, and a military build-up under way in the United States _ What's the mood of the Russian people?" U.S. News and World Report asked in August, 1961.
Russia was gaining economically, we read. "The symbol of the Soviet Union is no longer the hammer and sickle; it is now the construction crane and assembly line."
The giant, so fearsome and huge, was growing bigger and stronger.
How could we ever win this war? It seemed impossible. Every time we looked, more of Europe was gobbled up by this evil that seemed destined to reach out across an ocean and seize us, too. What could we do? What should we do? "Pray," sister said. "Continue to pray."
Did the prayers work? Who knows. Look at the monumental things going on now, happenings so incredible that I read the papers and watch the news and am awed. The Wall is down. Church doors are flung open. Freedom is blooming like dogwoods in winter, miraculously, prematurely, incredibly. So shouldn't there be joy now? Celebration? Dancing in the streets, not just in Europe, but here? Where are the parades, the rallies, the shouts of thanksgiving? The Cold War is over but no one is lighting fireworks.
I don't get it. What's happened to us? We were raised on the inevitability of the domino theory and here now is the domino theory in reverse. We haven't capitulated to communism. Communism has capitualted to us. Yet we go on as if it's no big deal.
Do we not trust this moment? Are we indifferent because we're suspect? Or are we so caught up in our drug problems, our tax problems, our personal problems that we have forgotten that our biggest, most pervasive, most frightening problem for decades was the seeming inevitability of being Red or dead.
Now communism in the Soviet Union is dying and it's almost unbelievable. But what is truly unbelievable is that it's ending not with a bang, but with a yawn.
- Beverly Beckman contributes occasionally to the Times. She lives in Boston.