The Forbiddenness of Growing Up During the Cold War

Memories of young love, broken arms, and James Bond while growing up during the Cold War.

| July/August 2013

Men then were more alike than they are now. In their alikeness, which the time required, they had a conscientious, replicable beauty—boy cleanliness, haircuts that showed their ears, white shirts, black ties. Fresh handkerchiefs. Shoes whose shine needed vigilance. In winter, imposing overcoats that made them seem like soldiers in the army of seriousness and made it hard to tell them apart, especially from a distance, so that if a child saw her father far down the winter sidewalk she would have trouble knowing for sure it was her father and she would stand in her oversized rubber boots, using one mitten as a gas mask to diffuse the freezing air, until it was him or it wasn’t. This was long ago, during the war known as Cold. The early-morning unison of the fathers’ departure would have shamed a flight of blackbirds; under the vaults and domes of the Capitol, behind locked doors, at the fathers’ gray steel desks, at the ends of their pencils, the war was going well, it was going badly, it was a matter of interpretation, it was work. The daylight absence of the men, the fathers, imbued the suburb with the suspense of desertion. Every blade of grass in every lawn was waiting. Every wife was waiting, every dog with pricked-up ears and metal tags tinking on its collar was waiting, and each blade of grass, each wife, each dog and child, whatever else they did, held still. Whatever else it was for, the suburb was for holding still. Look: black circles have been cut from the lawns and into these circles have been inserted slim upward-striving trees. Against the possibility of their flying away to unite with other trees they are tethered to the earth with wires.

The explaining voice pauses; the pause is not a lull, not neutral, but active and soliciting; the voice belongs to the movie you are watching, and watching is what has been asked of you so far, but you learn from the pause that watching no longer suffices and some other engagement is required, but what that might be, you can’t say, there isn’t time. Over the Hiroshima of the black-and-white classroom movie, the bomb floats from the belly whose riveted steel plates have a homemade frankenstein crudity: how strange to see how the plane is made; that clouds float by; how serenely, with what destined aplomb, the bomb peels away into the long arc of descent. In its scrolling slowness it’s left behind in air; it’s smaller and smaller and farther and farther behind; it could almost be forgotten about. Below, between parting clouds, a plain, the city-feeling of a grid, a clutteration of tiny roofs, infinite holding still.

Saturday you might See your dad in a t-shirt, your brother might be asked if he’d like to throw a ball around, and from a corner of the lawn you might sit and watch, wild with the wrongness of being a girl, wild with stoppered grace. Saturdays your dad was his own man, he said. Whose was he when he wasn’t his own? Opposing the soft amused handsomeness of his face his glasses had an architectural authority, the naked lenses dominated by the heavy black plastic bridge and earpieces. His hair memorized its side part. On a high closet shelf lived the hats forsaken when Kennedy took his oath of office bareheaded, trusting in his rashness and eloquence, in how young he was and how that was suddenly what was needed, and how it seemed to mean he could face things without the old inhibition and correctness, with, instead, shameless resourcefulness, undeluded cunning; and how fear relented with the bareheadedness of JFK; how fear was no equal for wind rifling the dark hair of a handsome man.

Deprived of my mother’s attention my father would narrow his eyes lonesomely and try to set something on fire, some dogma or other, till she faced him to argue. His voter registration was discreetly partyless to insure his survival from administration to administration, but he was a Democrat. Wounded by her Republican convictions, offensive not only in themselves but as the emblem of some ultimate elusiveness in his wife, he persisted in the belief that she could be harangued into converting. Ph.D. or not, he came of a long line of forceful soul-savers, river-dunking, hellfire-extolling Baptists. When troubled, he would take nail clippers from his pocket and excruciate tiny parings from his already short nails. He didn’t seem to regard this as a private act, and the fact that he wasn’t aware this habit repelled other people filled me with wretched solicitude, as if nothing stood between him and disaster. When he took his glasses off it was as if he lifted away his sly intelligence and left a face naïve as a sleeper’s. When he crossed his legs the striptease shock of the white calf with its intimate corkscrews of black hair alarmed us all (my mother wondered aloud sometimes why no shank showed when JFK crossed his legs). He was an avid taker of offense. The word hillbilly overheard by chance—in a joke on TV, say—riled him like a just accusation. His gaucheness wasn’t completely lost on him and in the right mood he could mock it with a kidding lightheartedness impossible to reconcile with his prevailing touchiness: my little brother and sister and I longed for these fits of clowning, but they were like weather, immune to coaxing. In the token sartorial task assigned him, his oxfords submitted to the polish-stained shoebrush. The happiness of buffing called for snatches of sinister, lilting Hank Williams. Oh I know a gal lives over the hill. If she won’t do it, her sister will. 

On the coffee table: glorious oversized magazines whose pages exacted from a usually slapdash child the delicate touch and visual insatiability of a curator. Whose arrival was an event—at dinner: “The new LIFE came today”—and whose disposal elicited an elegiac tone—“Are we done with that LIFE?” There was TV, of course, but TV watching was closely monitored: these magazines were the source of my knowledge of the world beyond the suburb. These pages had held the sullenly unremarkable book depository, the knoll where a father in swiftest reflex had flattened himself against the grass, taking his crewcut sons with him (there was so little touch in our family that I envied those boys, I wanted an instinctive arm to press me down while sirens careened, or maybe just to feel adrenalized protectiveness radiating from a male body—maybe it was Freudian, the wish to be toppled and yanked close while emergency wheeled through the air), Oswald’s lean fox face, its expression not much different from the shamed, dissembling insolence of certain boys in my class, boys known for cornering and tormenting, whose meanness was revered. There was Audrey Hepburn in a striped sailor shirt; there was the hammy smile of a chimpanzee in an astronaut suit, harnessed into the padded socket of a space capsule; there was an American soldier, rifle on his knees, watching five slight Vietnamese men, hands bound behind their backs, step barefoot into the narrow boat with him. In those pages Jenny Small and I read that when police entered the apartment of a woman murdered by the Boston Strangler a record was still spinning on the turntable. From the hulking cabinet stereos in our living rooms we knew the grainy hiss and snap of the needle riding that last groove, the diamond of needle with its gliding listlessness and its failure to notice it had come to the end, and it came home to us on the rattly aluminum-framed faded turquoise-and-white plastic-webbing chaise lounge in Jenny’s backyard that as girls we were on the way to becoming wanted by rapists. We might feel cunning and self-sufficient and male, but look, none of those things was true. It was as if we had been two boys, till we read that. It was just luck that we read it on Jenny’s mother’s chaise lounge, me on the rickety end where a sunbather’s feet belonged, Jenny sitting close to but not leaning against the cranked-up back support, the magazine spread across her lap, a flexing slippery V of glossy pages with, on each side, an island of brown knee. I seemed to see the left knee with the keenest focus I had ever brought to bear on any object. The horrifying page that rested against it made that knee exquisite in the composed human beauty of bone under skin. What did what we had read do to us? That it was terrible, Jenny and I could discern in each other’s eyes. We were in this together, but what did being in it mean? Later, in the hour after supper when nobody cared where children went, we looked for and found each other (we were not best friends, and didn’t possess best-friend telepathy) and went to Jenny’s backyard again, behind an overgrown lilac where, with the boy scout knife borrowed from her older brother’s drawer and singed for sterilization with matches also found there, Jenny and I nicked x’s in the palms of our hands and, sitting crosslegged, held our palms together, interlacing our fingers and gazing nobly into each other’s eyes while the x’s bled into each other. Only they didn’t. One of us noticed and said wait, there’s not enough and it’s not getting into each other. From the edges of the cuts emerged little rubies, bead after luscious bead, but, true, it wasn’t flowing, so we rubbed and smeared our palms, and that was the only thing that hurt, the edges of the cuts peeling back, the nervy insideness of one hand in electric contact with another, the streaky fingerpainting mess we were making of our palms, meaning bleeding into each other was not glamorous, but messy and determined, amateur and startling. That didn’t matter too much compared to the feeling that this was working—that it was doing what we’d wanted it to, hard though it would have been for either of us to explain.

Set apart: time of mid-morning departure, time of highways’ infinity, time of the gritty-glassy echo-y unscrewing of the lid of the red plaid thermos usually reserved for the beach, time of lemonade a-tilt in the red plastic cup-cap. Time of that cup’s rim, wiped between turns so no one would die from the other’s germs. Time of children’s immersion in the atmosphere of their parents’ marriage. Time of getting lost and whose fault it was. Time of the hotel swimming pool with its confidence-inspiring stench of chlorine. Time of signs warning there was no lifeguard, of the cement margins where the chaise lounges held sunglassed mothers and fathers whose shy nakedness causes the child’s heart to thump in the child’s skinny chest from delight at this exposure, which the child feels as a coming closer, a confounding of realities. Every unhappy family is periodically ransacked by joy. It is the way the family haunts itself, through the unknownness that is always, powerfully, in the parents’ possession, the unknown whose sudden casual revelation on the chaise lounges on the hot cement margins of the hotel swimming pool in a never-before-seen city causes a child’s heart to beat hugely in the first intimation of breaking—of the child comprehending why grownups say of something or other that it is enough to break your heart.

Where was this? The chainlink fence that warned there was no lifeguard, the mothers who called no running, I mean it, no running. The shouted names of other children revealed to us, though our mother, a violent admirer of Jackie Kennedy’s widowed composure, would never raise her voice in public. The not-very-distant freeway doing a steady business in semis, cumulus clouds brighter for the level radiance from the west, our shadows’ legs marvelously long, our sleek wet heads so alike we were tribal, except within that tribe were the sharper alliances of brother and sister, and in our wet swimsuits we were more brother and sister than we had ever been before, eagerly, competitively, near-nakedly brother and sister, and when he followed me up the 15-foot ladder whose rungs I remember for their wet-metal smell and ascending dangerousness, the flattery of his following so close lit my skin like sunburn and drove my climb to the pinnacle whose galvanized aluminum slide slanted to a glancing, slapping, light-scattering heaven ringed with wavering child-bodies that left an open space for the next slider. My brother was right behind, and right behind him came the oppressive almost-sexiness of other children’s wet bodies clambering up the ladder. Maybe he wanted to impress these strange others, maybe too many cartoons whose victims rebounded laughing had led him to believe no real harm would be done (that was to be our parents’ theory)—whatever causes converged in his shove, I was off balance, trying to correct the asymmetry of my pose there at the top, and thus went over the metal-pipe railing, the arm thrown in front of my face hitting first, then my knees, and I was slammed flat, silence closing in, circling as if I was a drain it wanted to go down. It was a very quiet thing to be at the heart of an accident. Through wet eyelashes I saw a world peaceful down to the grains of sand or grit on the cement inches from my nose, each grain precisely cherished by its shadow, the grains brightly lit and far apart and astounding as an array of boulders on the moon, and whose meticulousness placed them with this unearthly distinctness—what did that, and did it know about me? Then: voices, grownup voices, grownup feet, confusion, thrilled interrogation, solicitude. Dark fur against gaudy whiteness: those were my father’s legs, this was my father crouching to ask questions, but the magnitude of my alertness crushed the desire to answer him. Nobody maintained in those days that you shouldn’t move a person who’d fallen, rescue was a more casual prerogative, and I was carried back to our hotel room in my father’s arms; this once, his arms. I was left alone on one of the double beds in the air-conditioned gloom while my mother and father conferred outside the door in the gentling heat of early evening, other grownups stopping by, their questions politely deflected, their kids’ voices ringing from the pool like clamor from a past life. Standing outside the room in his baggy swimtrunks, assailed by well-meaners, my father would feel humiliated and full of blame, these emotions unrelievable by the surgery he habitually inflicted on his nails, but sufficiently disguised by his charm that only I, listening in the dark room, could detect the hazardousness of his mood, which sought, which had to seek, an object. At 10 I believed nobody else had real insight into my father, not my brother or sister who understood hardly anything, not my mother whose adoration of him outwardly resembled suffering omniscience but who was in fact easily deflected by his contrarieties. Now it was she who intervened. My little brother had not meant to hurt anyone, had he? That tender, harassing spell cast by adults coercing a right answer: it was surprising how instantly we welcomed that (their welcoming it was plain in their voices, and as for my welcoming it, I could feel that). Of all of us, my brother was the only one beloved by the other four, his crying the only heartbreaking crying. Outside the door he was crying now, he was (I closed my eyes and knew this for sure) shuddering, goosefleshed, wet hair sleeked to his skull and pathetic ears jutting out, arms hanging at his sides, shaking his head no, no, no, no, no, no, and in that dark hotel room I was relieved that my mother knew how to manage the questioning by which he could be forgiven, and within relief a doorway opened into sleep.