For the mass of humanity, the Cold War was one long, continual horror story. But still, it had its upsides.
For one, big business, the arms industry and politicians made out like the bandits they are.
Next, when it came to TV, books and movies, the spy genre reigned supreme. Spy shows were all over TV. Who could ever forget "Danger Man," "Mission Impossible," "Man from UNCLE," "The Avengers," "The Wild, Wild West," "I Spy," even the schlocky, anything-for-a-laugh satire, "Get Smart"?
For books, there were the works of John Le Carre, Len Deighton, Ian Fleming, Frederick Forsyth, Graham Greene and Ross Thomas. Great storytellers all, they brought the intrigue-ridden streets of East Berlin, Moscow, Vienna or wherever right to our easy chairs.
As for movies? The gold standard was -?and still is - Bond, James Bond, played by Sean Connery. In my not-so-humble opinion, shoddy imposters like Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan weren't fit to oil Bond's Beretta 418, much less carry it.
Beyond the media, if you, like Scaramouche, were born with a gift of laughter and a sense the world is mad, then the Cold War was an endless laugh riot. You think not? Well, if that's the case, then you were never in public school in the '50s, when the air raid drill was given more emphasis than art or music.
We called them air raid drills; I've also seen something referred to as "duck-and-cover drills." I guess there was a slight difference in execution, but the purpose was the same: teaching our youth how to survive a nuclear attack.
And just how do you survive a nuclear attack? You don't. But that didn't stop the powers-that-be from giving us a couple of bogus strategies. The duck-and-cover was literal: You ducked under your desk, squatted and covered your head with your arms. The one we did, the air raid drill, was much more secure. We went out in the hall and then squatted down next to the wall.
There were, of course, two delicious ironies about this lunacy that at the time seemed to escape everyone's attention. One was that ducking under your desk or clinging to the wall are equally useless when the whole building gets atomized. The other is, no matter how much I love My Home Town, it was never important enough for the Russian General Staff to want to drop a nuke or two on it.
Then there's an incident so weird it seems impossible to have ever taken place. But given the Cold War and all its mishegas, the weird was not only possible, but in too many cases it was the norm.
Teenage Russkies from the sky
So here's the scene. It's a cold gray fall day in 1958, and I'm with my gym class, on the football field, lined up in something resembling parade formation. We're dressed in sneakers, gym shorts and T-shirts, and though we've been there maybe three minutes, I'm already covered with goosebumps as big as cherry tomatoes.
I've no idea what kids do in gym class today, but back then we mostly played some sort of game where we ended crashing into each other full-on and kicking each other in the keister. It went by different names: Boston Bulldog, Red Rover, or our local favorite, Mossay. But whatever the name, the results were always the same: scrapes, bumps, bruises, black eyes, bloody noses and the occasional broken nose or collarbone. But this day would be completely different.
After we lined up, did our "dress, right, dress" and "parade rest," our gym teacher, Butler Sullivan, stood looking us over, clipboard in hand, whistle around neck. After a sufficient pause, he spoke.
"Ok, men," he said. "Down on one knee."
Uh-uh, I thought, here it comes - the Big Time.
See, we only went down on one knee for one reason: The coach wanted our undivided attention.
Mr. Sullivan waited, silent, slowly looking at us, individually. I felt his light blue eyes boring into mine, like some sort of death ray. I'd no idea what he had in mind, but whatever it was, it had to be really serious.
He took a deep breath and exhaled audibly.
"Men," he said, "look up in the sky there."
He pointed to a spot somewhere beyond the LaPan highway. We all looked.
"Now I want you to imagine something," he said. "I want you to imagine a plane flying in from there and then it comes over the football field, right there."
He stabbed his arm directly above us. We all looked up.
"And when it does," he continued, "out of that plane parachutes a troop of Russian boys exactly your age."
Poor buggers, I thought, especially if they were jumping out of a plane in gym shorts and T-shirts. I mean, I thought I was cold, but ...
I was jarred out of that thought by his next words.
"Then they land on this field," he said.
He paused ... a long time for dramatic effect. Then he delivered the bomb.
"Could you take them?"
He smacked his clipboard for emphasis and paused again.
"I'm not expecting an answer," he said. "I just want you to think about it. Could you take them?"
The red badge of stupidity
I looked around at the other kids.
A few nodded their heads, their expression smug, either confident they really could kick some Russian butt or, in the case of the insufferable brown-nosers, just giving Mr. Sullivan what they thought he wanted. Another few were looking off in the middle distance, as if they'd already forgotten Mr. Sullivan's question.
The rest of us fell into one of two categories. Either we were confused or amused. Luckily, I was among the latter, as was my boon companion Ralph Carlson, who was kneeling next to me.
One reason I liked Ralph so much was because he was the funniest kid I knew. Because he was shy, he was quiet, but he was a keen observer of human foibles and an even keener commentator on them.
"Those Russian kids. Do you think you could take 'em?" I said in my best Coach Sullivan imitation.
He slitted his eyes, looked to one side, then the other, then at me.
Then with complete deadpan, he said, "Nyet."
I felt myself slipping into a laughing fit. You know the kind - the ones that happen only when they shouldn't: at funerals, in courts of law, on first dates, or in this case in a gym class with a coach who'd never allow some kid to laugh at him, especially about something as important as the Cold War.
Luckily, just as I started a bout of heh, heh, hehs, Mr. Sullivan called us to attention and that somehow derailed my laughing fit.
After we'd lined up, he told us we could spend the rest of the class playing Boston Bulldog, which we did, with the usual lack of caution and excess of contact. When the period ended I limped back to the gym, nursing an egg-sized lump on my forehead and slight nosebleed.
Just when I got to the gym door, a thought hit me: If the Russian seventh-graders had sky-dived out of their airplane, landed on the Petrova field and tried to take us while we tried to take them, it was no big deal.
After all, there was nothing they could do to me that hadn't already been done playing Boston Bulldog with my allies, no less.