Open mouthed skeleton in an oval frame

I am working on some writing, blocking out distractions with my headphones, streaming music, when it starts. A baby techno beat, a hint of guitar, and a sudden shift to bass. The sound of tentative hope. The kind of hope that held sway for a brief, naive moment at the dawn of the 1990s. It was a moment, a breath, in which an old fear had lessened. The lyrics begin, “A woman on the radio talks about revolution when it’s already passed her by.” You may know the song if you are of a certain age and a certain culture. It goes on with “I was alive and I waited for this. Right here, right now . . . watching the world wake up from history.” 

If you grew up in the 1970s and 80s, nuclear war was a very real possibility. The end of civilization, nuclear winter, death (both agonizingly slow and shockingly sudden): these concepts were woven into the backdrop of Western life. Do a quick search of songs about nuclear war and Wikipedia will supply you with a list dominated by ‘70s and ‘80s tunes. By the ‘80s, many of those songs had an upbeat take on the end of the world (as we know it). In my childhood household, the film The Day After was banned as “liberal propaganda” – I managed to see it anyway.  When The Terminator came out in 1984, my brothers and I watched a grainy, bootleg VHS tape and accepted, without hesitation, that the cyborg came from a post-apocalyptic future in which the earth had been scorched by nukes. Of course. The cyborg and the time travel might be science fiction, but the apocalypse was a logical prediction.

Having grown up in an Army family, I moved back and forth between stateside locations and West Germany. The Cold War defined my youth. I’d seen maps with circles around cities and areas of importance. The concentric circles represented immediate death, slow death, possible survival, and likely survival. People generally agreed that the immediate death zone was preferable to the slow death zone. We talked in science class about EMP, radioactive fallout, iodine tablets, and the relative efficacy of a basement with mattresses covering the door. The days of ‘Duck and Cover’ were over. At the dinner table, my father extolled the wisdom of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction).

By the late ‘80s, we learned words like glasnost and perestroika. From a living room in Illinois, in 1989, I watched the Berlin Wall fall under sledgehammers. Ordinary Germans drank and sang and collected pieces of the wall. These chunks of concrete had been transformed from ugly and ordinary into artifacts as Jesus Jones would say, “in the blink of an eye.” A couple of years later, housesitting for my boss on New Year’s Eve 1990, I first heard the pithy Jesus Jones tune, “Right Here, Right Now.” The wall had fallen, and the Soviet Union was falling apart. Jesus Jones assured us that the world had woken up from history as a new decade began. Coups, uprisings, and countries declaring independence dominated the news throughout that year.

Shortly after my father returned from the Gulf War, I started my enlistment in the military.  I watched the collapse of the Soviet Union unfold in the form of Sunday papers during basic training and glimpses of evening news reports in the breakroom during advanced training. We were using up our green and brown temperate camouflage as the tan and brown dessert camo went to soldiers heading to Iraq.

In 1991, the West took a little breath as the Doomsday Clock moved away from midnight – seemingly oblivious to the continuation of human misery that had nothing to do with nuclear war. Ironically, “Right Here, Right Now” was inspired not only by the fall of the Berlin Wall but also by Prince’s “Sign o’ the Times” from 1987. While Prince asks, “Will anybody see the dawn?” after a bomb falls, most of his song looks at the everyday tragedies that would not end with the Soviet Union. Prince sings of AIDS and gang violence and drug addiction and poverty. Prince sings of the doomsday of the individual. I look back now at the angst and energy we spent on the idea of nuclear annihilation and wonder, what might have happened if we could have devoted that level of concern to the everyday doomsdays, for the individual annihilations. I listened to Prince’s song today and thought sadly of all the ways that the world has not woken up from history. I think of how Jesus Jones could sing of the bright wonder of the end of the Cold War in the middle of a new set of conflicts. They sang as if war weren’t becoming a way of life. They sang as if the policies of Thatcher and Reagan had not created a new era of human misery. They sang as if we had escaped the global scourge of AIDS and poverty and violence. 

Looking back now I see the era differently. It’s not that I have lessened the real fear of nuclear war. The threat persists. What I do see is how the Cold War was a distraction as well. While the great battle between communism and capitalism was waged across the globe, it wasn’t just monetary resources that built the battlements. The resources that fueled our gargantuan military were resources that should have been making life better. They still are. The Cold War held our attention while the middle class diminished, unions fell, climate change accelerated, and corporations grew. We pledged allegiance to capitalism instead of people. We found new forever wars to fund. We found new villains to star in our naive narrative. 

But hey, I am not all gloom and doom here. I also learned that through all the gloom and doom everyday lives continue and continue to matter. While the powers that be distract us with the threat of armageddon, wokeness, diversity, and devalued stocks, we can focus on the lives around us. I am no politician. I don’t have the intellect and influence to change the big picture. I am, however, not powerless. I have kindness. I have small actions. I can care for those around me right here, right now.

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