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When the Cold War was hot

Millions of Americans grew up with the fear of nuclear annihilation hanging over their heads. “Duck and Cover” drills were as common as fire drills in schools during the 1950s and early 60s. For younger readers, the drill consisted of two parts; at the first sign of nuclear attack students were supposed to duck under their desks, and then cover their eyes to shield them against the blinding light of a nuclear explosion.At the same time, our government was taking more realistic steps to protect the country. Shortly after World War II, Bell Laboratories and Douglas Aircraft began developing the Nike missile defense system. It was the first guided missile system, and its mission was to shoot down Soviet long-range bombers.Beginning in 1954, many Nike sites were built in defensive rings surrounding major urban and industrial sites. New Jersey had two such rings – one in the northern part of the state established to protect New York City and another in the south to defend Philadelphia.In 1957, one site was being constructed in my home town of Swedesboro, N.J. The government hosted an open house to alleviate any fears residents might have about the missiles. My grandmother decided she needed to go, and my cousin Dottie Mae and I tagged along.Dottie and I dusted off the wicker picnic basket and the large glass thermos jug that weighed about 10 pounds, while my grandma prepared our lunch. The missile site was less than five miles away, but grandma never went anywhere without enough food to fortify all of us for a week. She packed the basket with fried chicken, boiled eggs, chow-chow, pepper cabbage and chocolate cake, while we filled the jug with homemade lemonade. Then, she placed the checkered table cloth and napkins in a separate bag. We were almost set to go.But first Grandma had to run upstairs and change into her good clothes. Women, especially married women, wore dresses back then. Grandma never went to a social event unless she was dressed in her church clothes. That day, she came down the stairs wearing a blue flower-print dress, a white hat and short, white gloves. Aunt Bea from Mayberry was my grandmother’s clone.As kids, my cousin and I didn’t have such a strict dress code. We were allowed to wear sun dresses with our white Keds. We loaded the picnic basket into the cavernous trunk of her 1953 Ford. Grandma changed into her driving gloves, not wanting to soil the dress gloves and off we went at a fast pace of 30 mph.I was 7 years old so I didn’t understand the implications of a missile base. We were greeted at the gate by a man in uniform who escorted a small group of visitors around the base. I remember looking down at large rectangular concrete boxes in the ground with missiles inside of them. Then, the guide spoke into a walkie-talkie and a missile was slowly lifted on an “elevator,” I remember him saying, from a horizontal position into a vertical “launch position.”Next, the group was taken to an underground room with a lot of dials and gauges. I now know this was the command center where, with the use of radar, men would guide the missile to its target. Back then, I was bored by the guide’s monotone voice and was probably wondering when I would get to eat that chocolate cake.At the end of the tour, the guide asked if there were any questions. My grandmother raised her hand. She wanted to know the range of the missiles, how big of a blast it created and how many people it took to launch them.I was astounded. After all, this was my grandmother; the woman who gave me hugs every time I came through the door, baked cookies and gave me treats my parents wouldn’t allow me to eat because they would rot my teeth. The most violent thing I ever saw her do was pull a weed in the garden, but now she was asking about these missiles.When the tour ended, we found a picnic table and began to eat lunch, but I was sure I had missed the significance of the entire trip so I began to ask Grandma some questions.“Grandma, why do we need these missiles?”“For the next war, Kathy.”“What war?”“The war with the Russians.”My grandmother never lied to me before, so if she said there was going to be a war with the Russians, I believed her.“So when are we going to fire the missiles grandma?”“We won’t fire the missiles until the Russians bomb us.”“But then we might be dead.”“Yes, we probably will be dead, but the men in the control room will be alive, and they will fire the missiles so the Russians can’t destroy other parts of the country.”Suddenly, I wanted to be in another part of the country, but then the solution came to me.”So why don’t we just kill the Russians now,” I asked.”That wouldn’t be right,” Grandma said. “The missiles are just for defense. It’s like the bully at school – if he knows you will hit him back, he won’t hit you first, but if he knows you won’t do anything, he will pick on you all of the time.”I thought about this all the way home. I knew all about bullies because I was one of the only female bullies in my school. Back then, girls were taught not to fight and boys were never supposed to hit girls. But I had two older brothers who didn’t follow the rules, and I adapted by learning how to fight. So when someone annoyed me I thought nothing of socking them, and so far no one had hit back.The week before, I got into big trouble at school when I pushed Claudia Pomponi into a mud puddle because she didn’t want me to play jump rope with her friends. I think she said I had “cooties.”At any rate, Claudia didn’t fire her missiles. She sat there with a wet butt crying because her new uniform was covered with mud. The other kids gathered around to laugh at her.Thinking about that, I decided I didn’t want to end up in a mud puddle crying, or burnt to a crisp by the Russians. I wanted to kill them now, before they killed us. I hated the fact that the people in the control room and the rest of the country would live, while we might become a pile of ashes. Doing what was right didn’t mean much to a 7 year old – living did.For the next few weeks, I daydreamed about being down in that control room. If it was up to me, there wouldn’t have been a Cold War on any Russians.I knew I wouldn’t waste any time. “Fire!”

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