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By Hank Beckman -
When I was in fourth grade, my family sat in front of the television one October night and listened as the president told us that the Soviet Union had snuck nuclear missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles away.
It was one of the first big news story of my life, and it made a significant impression. It sounds a little morbid now, considering the gravity of nuclear war, but it seemed so exciting, what with the newspapers running graphics showing which cities were in range of the missiles, the excited conversations among the adults on the block, and the Nuns at Resurrection Grade School leading us in prayers for our country and our president.
(They would have no doubt urged prayer for any president, but this particular president being the adored John Kennedy might have been responsible for saying an additional Rosary or two)
But as the crisis went on, it began to register on me that this missile thing was different. Maybe it was a neighbor telling us she was unable to find bread at not one, but two, grocery stores; maybe it was the serious looks on my parent’s faces whenever the subject came up; or maybe it was my older brother’s reaction, at first being indignant that the lousy Commies would pull something like this, but as the days went by he began wearing the same worried look as my Mom.
Any remaining doubt that the situation was a whole new level of serious was dispelled at school when our teacher, Miss Kaiser, instructed us on how to recognize the air raid siren, after which we were to immediately practice getting down under our desks and place our heads between our legs in what some of the older kids charmingly referred to as the kiss-your-ass-goodbye-drill.
It’s not that I began to be terrified. For this nine-year-old, fear was reserved for the neighborhood bully, the wrath of the Nuns, or whether I should admit my real sins in confession; I’d make up innocuous stuff to avoid telling any adult about the six-bits I took from my Mom’s nightstand.
This was an entirely different sensation, one that I’d never felt before. While fear was immediate and often demanded some sort of action—fight or flight, as the saying goes—the missile crisis prompted reflection, and that reflection led to that speculative area where doubt lives. What comes next?
And that’s exactly what the entire world is experiencing right now with this virus that seems as if it came out of nowhere; one minute we’re sniping at each other about politics, going about our everyday lives, and getting ready for March Madness or the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The next has us wondering if our lives, our nation-our world—will ever be the same. And no one seems to yet have the answer; not the president, not congress, not any of the smug, know-it-all talking heads on television have any real inkling if things will ever be the same. We know it will end eventually, but what we’ll look like on the other side of this mess is still anybody’s guess.
But people my age realize that we’ve entertained these nagging doubts before. No one alive in the Twentieth Century—even the relatively safe second half—can deny that we’ve gone through several periods where there was good reason to doubt we would survive as a nation that we still recognized.
Not long after the missiles vanished from the headlines, our cities exploded in race riots. My Mother and I sat on the front stoop of our apartment building in Summit and watched as the sky to the North turned orange/red from the fires ravishing our old neighborhood. “Hank, the West Side of Chicago is burning down,” she said.
After the fires went out, it became apparent that Viet Nam was a unmitigated disaster that the “best and the brightest” had led us into and that the unthinkable might happen—we might lose a war.
And then came the Seventies; a president resigning in disgrace; people who’d never known real hardship lined up for gas; the economy stagnated with double-digit unemployment, double-digit inflation, and interest rates approaching 20 percent.
The decade ended with Islamic fanatics in Iran taking 52 Americans hostage and reducing us to the “pitiful, helpless giant,” that Richard Nixon warned us about at the beginning of the decade.
In the new century the 9-11 attacks brought the nation to a screeching halt, we began ill-fated war in the Middle East, and we had an economic collapse that was the worst since the Great Depression.
During any one of these periods, there was ample cause for serious doubt. At one point we seemed headed for a race war that would tear the country apart; a president resigning under pressure brought unprecedented uncertainty to our political life; the debacle in Viet Nam, the Iran hostage crisis, and 9-11 shook our confidence in our nation’s ability to defend itself; and were gas prices ever going to level off?
But if we haven’t exactly become the brotherhood of man, the races have come to at least an uneasy truce, with all but a few fanatics recognizing our common interests; our political institutions survived, thanks to the wisdom of the founders who devised them and the steady hand of Gerald Ford; despite the setbacks we’ve had in the international arena, we are more than capable of defending ourselves when we need to, as Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, and Qassem Soleimani have had occasion to find out.
Our leaders have been imperfect, sometimes pursuing policies that, in retrospect, seem obviously foolish; most of the spending on the welfare state and identity politics, essentially leaving our borders open, and trying to turn the Middle East into a Jeffersonian democracy come to mind.
And maybe the American people have at times been too willing to follow the course our elites have charted. Some of the nonsense that passes for acceptable multicultural education should definitely be challenged; certainly the run up to the war in Iraq warranted more vigorous debate and scrutiny; and the idea that every American deserves to own a home, regardless of whether they qualified for a traditional mortgage, was embraced by far too many of us and led to the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
There will be ups and downs battling COVID 19, there will be mistakes made and false hopes along the way. But we’ll be alright if we just remember who we are.
We’re the people that took on and beat Hitler and the Japanese Empire. We faced off against the Soviets in the Cold War and ultimately left them on the “ash heap of history,” as Ronald Reagan promised. We put a man on the Moon, ignited the information age, and essentially reduced HIV-AIDS to a treatable condition. We’re Americans; we got this.