Fear Itself

“Fear can do many strange things. Even though water run low, their mouths caked and their bellies burnt dry, not one soul put a foot outside. No one had that much courage. For they feared the peasants and their world outside. So they played it safe and didn’t move. And one by one, they perished and died.” From “The Black Plague.”

    It was a warm spring evening in the sleepy little town of Eureka, California. As fortune would have it, the sky was cloudless; a not too common occurrence for this coastal town at any time of year. Family, friends and neighbors were gathered in the grassy field near our homes. We were there to observe the passing through the night skies of something called Sputnik.

    It was the year 1958, and I, being all of eight years old, had no notion of what this Sputnik was. The significance of the event was foreign to me. My young mind was preoccupied with notions of playing baseball for the New York Yankees, and of course, my budding crush on Diane Smith. Tonight, however, all took a backseat to the much ballyhooed transit through the heavens of something called Sputnik. This was front page news in the local rag, the Humboldt Standard. To be precise, this was actually Sputnik II, or “Muttnik”, so named because of its canine passenger named Laika.

    Time seemed to come to a halt and the minutes dragged interminably along. As the last vestiges of daylight faded into darkness, the conversation of those around me became dark and ominous. I heard about “Russians” for the first time and learned that they were responsible for this Sputnik thing. This was all their doing, and somehow it portended great evil for we who were gathered that night. I was truly afraid because around me were afraid. These were the very ones I looked to for protection from things that go bump in the night. If they were fearful, I knew I should be fearful too.

“There it is” came the cry. I didn’t want to look, choosing to hide my eyes from this terrible manifestation in the firmament. “If I don’t look, it can’t hurt me.” I was terrified. And yet, the irresistible urge to have a peek at this evil Sputnik overcame my dread. I looked in the direction my father was pointing. At first I didn’t see what the others were gazing at. All I could discern was stars, a bazillion stars.

“Where is it”? “What am I looking for”? I looked to Dad for directions. He pointed at the sky in the general direction of west. Then I saw it. A tiny pinprick of light was the only thing moving among the stars. This was Sputnik the terrible, Sputnik the harbinger of the apocalypse that was certain to follow.

Despite the prognostications of the adults gathered there, the world did not come to its cataclysmic demise that evening. The new dawn broke, and with it the realization that I would have to endure another day of the drudgery known as school. I can’t recall that I ever cared much for school. Point of fact is, I can’t remember ever not hating every minute of it. But all things considered, I guess it was preferable to whatever doom Sputnik was to have unleashed. And Diane was still my girlfriend. I knew this to be so because she told me of her affection for me when we kissed for the first (and last) time. Diane’s parents soon moved to another city far away. The love of my life was gone forever.

The years went by, slowly and inexorably, as they always do in the eyes of a child. Eventually however, the days at Worthington Elementary School were over and I was a seventh grader at Eureka Junior High. The first week was a rather interesting one and I quickly found myself at odds with the powers that be. All seventh grade newcomers were ushered into the gymnasium and shown films depicting the power of a nuclear bomb. After observing the devastation, we received much needed information on how to save ourselves in the event of an atomic attack.

“When you see the bright flash of light in the sky, a flash as brilliant as the sun, hide under your desks.” I couldn’t resist. Up went my hand.

“Did you just see what just happened to that air base and the small town around it? It is gone. It’s not there anymore. It’s just gone. So is everyone who took shelter under their desks.”

Thus began the first of many trips to the vice principals office. Mrs. Davis had a face that would curd milk and a sense of humor to match her countenance. She was quite angry with me, but more than that, she was genuinely afraid. I learned more about the “Communists” and their plans for our obliteration. They were everywhere. There was one behind every tree and they were out to get us. Just like the Russians who did that awful Sputnik thing. It wasn’t long after this initial “office visit” that I learned that the Russians were the Communists.

I didn’t understand what a communist was or better yet, what communism was. No one could tell me. Even my parents had no clear notion of whom, or what a communist was. They just knew that Russians were communists. That was bad because our government leaders told them it was bad. Without knowing why I believed them, I did nonetheless.

Then came October of 1962 and the Cuban Missile Crisis. For the first time, I was really afraid. At the tender age of thirteen, I wasn’t ready to die just yet. But I could sense that this was very real and along with everyone else, I held my breath, waiting for the bomb to drop. On Saturday night, the air raid sirens went off in town, and even though my family lived several miles outside the City, I reverently placed my head between my knees and said good-bye to my gluteus maximus.

Much to my relief, the night skies never lit up and it turned out to be a five alarm fire that caused the sirens to scare the hell out of all of us. It seems a drunk driver went headlong into a gas station, causing a huge fireball and the burning of quite a large block of town. I awoke Sunday morning to the news that cooler heads had prevailed and the immediate crisis was over. This was indeed welcome news to somewhat who thought we were all goners. It wasn’t until I was much older that I learned just how close we were to the unthinkable.

Many years have gone by and much water has passed beneath the bridge of my life. The cold war is a thing of the past. The evil “Iron Curtain” has collapsed and the foe has been vanquished. But some things remain, seeming eternal. We have a new “ism” to contend with, one that we are being led to believe is infinitely more evil that the old. Terrorists have replaced Communists as the enemy of the day. Just as in Orwell’s novel “1984”, the face of the enemy is ever changing, depending on political and economic expediencies. Today’s ally will be tomorrow’s foe. We continue to live in fear of each other and even ourselves. Fearful people are easier people to control.

    In conclusion, I hearken to the words of one of our greatest Presidents, Franklin D. Roosevelt. During one of his famous Fireside Chats, he told America that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Indeed, fear can do many strange things. Let us hope that as citizens of Planet Earth, we will awaken to a new age, a true age of reason. I, for one, choose not to let live in constant dread of unseen enemies, whether real or imaginary. My prayers are that the world will do the same.

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