At McGrath Elementary up in Michigan we were learning a lesson no other generation of children had ever been taught. Our school was new and the paint smelled fresh and the metal trim of the windows shined even on the innumerable gray days. The desks we had been given had separate chairs and glassy Formica tops and our books had stiff bindings with rich paper smells.
I loved school as a boy and I was especially happy when there were deviations from daily lessons. Consequently, I was excited when a teaching assistant rolled a film projector into the back of the room. A screen was pulled up and hooked on a three-legged stand and Mrs. Hagemeister was acting very serious. I did not know what we were about to see, but I knew my classmates and I were certain to be a part of something important. After the projector had been plugged in and the screen scooted to the front of the classroom, Mrs. Hagemeister spoke to us in a tone of voice I had not heard all year.
"Class, you are about to watch a short film from the government, but you should think of this as a lesson and it might be the most important lesson you ever learn."
Her words immediately excited my imagination and I wondered what magical door was about to be open to me. Instead, my eagerness was about to be smothered in a darkness I was to share with my entire generation.
"Children, you all know already about war. Many of your fathers haven't been back from the war for much more than a decade. There are always people who start wars and we have to be prepared. That's what you should be thinking about when you watch this movie."
Mrs. Hagemeister, matronly and tall with her hair born up in a net, walked silently to the wall switch and turned off the lights and in the back of the room the assistant clicked the toggle on the projector to cast a cone of light toward the screen. We listened to the whirring of the un-spooling film sprockets and watched the leader count down. There was a title on the screen that I don't remember exactly, but I think it referenced school safety in the nuclear era. A formal male baritone made vague references to politics and government disagreements and powerful new weapons in the world.
I lost track of what the narrator was saying and was drawn into the strangest scenes a child might have ever encountered. A classroom of students just like ours was shown taking instructions from their teacher who told them to do something like "drop, roll, and curl" under their desks. A siren wailed in the background and then there was a mushroom cloud rising darkly from the earth. I did not sleep much for many days.
In those days we lived in an 850 square foot house surrounded by other families that had come up from the south to work in the car factories of Michigan. Daddy and Ma did not worry much about nuclear weapons and all of the bright and waxed vehicles and new homes made them believe they were going to prosper even though he was a laborer and she made $51 a week as a waitress and neither had finished high school. The electricity bill was of greater concern than international politics. Our house had been built in a flat spot under the approach to the airport and at night as I lay in bed I heard the prop-driven airplanes feathering their engines to land. I never paid them any attention until I started watching the war movies that began showing up on television.
I had noticed something odd when the cameras showed airplanes on bombing runs. Not too long after the bomb bay doors had been opened and the weapons were released there was a reduction in the airplane's power to keep it longer over the target and to improve sighting. A kind of silence hung in the air, which reminded me of the passenger aircraft passing over our house as they neared the runways at Bishop Airport. The movies and the newscasts about Russia and film of the nuclear explosions in Japan convinced my impressionable mind that every plane over our house feathering its engines was a Soviet bomber that had slipped undetected across the border and was about to drop a deadly explosive into our hillbilly neighborhood.
"I'm scared, Ma," I told my mother one groggy morning.
"What about, son?"
"The airplanes at night when I'm in bed. They might be carrying bombs from the Russians."
"Oh son, that's nothing to worry about. Nobody will drop a bomb here."
Ma was wrong when I was 8 years old, and anyone who thinks that way today is even more mistaken. There are angry people in the Mid East that have dedicated their entire existence to finding a nuclear weapon to harm America, and alleged former intelligent agents are whispering to web sites about plans to explode suitcase nukes in small airplanes over major U.S. cities. A new nuclear fear grows in the hubris of our adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan and is compounded even further by some of our allies.
Israel, according to published reports by many defense industry analysts, has the fifth largest nuclear arsenal in the world, but has refused to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty or even formally admit to possession of such technology, even though it is widely-known that the Dimona Reactor in the Negev Desert has been on-line since the 60s. Pakistan and India, sharing a border and contempt for each other, have also refused to be signatories of the treaty. North Korea was once a party to non proliferation, but has since withdrawn and threatens to develop and launch a thermonuclear device. There are also reportedly weapons missing from former Soviet satellite nations.
The two current American wars are augmented by the tensions between Iran and Israel. Iran says it has a sovereign right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes and Israel says it does not trust Iran's unstable leadership and will take appropriate measures. The U.S. attempts mediation but where does any country's moral authority originate when it has deployed nuclear weapons, still has an arsenal, and is telling another sovereign nation that it cannot develop similar armaments? No one has ever answered this question. Iran also wants to know why Israel is permitted by the world community to have nukes while Tehran is told no. Does not one sovereign nation have the same rights as another sovereign nation? Israel, Pakistan, and India felt geo-political threats and developed nuclear weapons as deterrents, which is the aspiration of the powers in control of Iran and North Korea -- or do they have evil intent?
No nation needs nuclear weapons. They all ought to be destroyed. How hard is this to understand? Non-proliferation is not sufficient; complete disarmament is required. Why can we not make this happen?
I'm still scared, Ma.
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