Baby boomers grew up fearing nuclear war. Now we fear something too small to see
As a kid, growing up in the 1960s, I feared death from above: the A-bomb’s immense, blinding flash, its mushroom cloud. Nights during the Cuban missile crisis, I sat in bed, ear pressed to the window as I tried to gauge the height of planes overhead because I imagined bombers would fly low. For years, I checked every home I rented for its safest, least-windowed room, just in case. And during a nap when I was 20, I had a nuclear nightmare so vivid I remember it to this day.
I never thought that in my life’s Act III, the terror would be death from something too small to see — a microscopic virus, carried on someone’s random sneeze. But it feels appropriate somehow, a reminder of something my generation once knew, then forgot: vulnerability.
I cop to the arrogance. We were told from day one how important we were. Around us, science was making real what had been science fiction just a decade before — jet planes, organ transplants, actual rocket ships. “Remember this day!” teachers were always saying. “You will be able to say I was there when the first American reached space...orbited Earth...walked on the moon.” Later, when we rebelled, we weren’t brats but a rag-tag youth army.
I acknowledge our many political failures, though honestly, most people I know did struggle to make change, and are still trying. And we do have an insane sense of invincibility to everything, including old age (weight training! Botox! Viagra! Bionic knees!).
But in the time of the coronavirus, our true sin seems to me that we let ourselves believe our specialness kept us immune from the world. When the bombs didn’t drop after all, when those terrifying geopolitical forces over which we had no control receded, we mistook our lives of relative privilege for a guarantee that we’d always be OK. Yes, we lost some of our generation to Vietnam, and later to AIDS — losses compounded by governmental bungling. But to us, the memories of walking the streets jobless and destitute, and of world war, which haunted our parents’ dreams, were ancient, irrelevant history.
We were safely vaccinated against once-fatal diseases, saw the civil rights movement suggest that the arc of history really was bending toward justice, went to college in droves and left mostly debt-free — my four years at a University of California campus combined cost about $6,800 in today’s dollars — and pretty easily found jobs that paid the rent.
Nobody burned our homes, the attack helicopters didn’t hover overhead, the freeways hummed, new movies opened, beaches beckoned and store shelves stayed full of goodies. Sure, 9/11 was a reminder that it can happen here but for those living thousands of miles away without a personal connection to New York City, the dreadful, iconic images were only that. We were filled with a complacency so pervasive we stopped recognizing it.
My own unacknowledged belief that I was immune from suffering was what most shamed me when I got to know people who’d grown up in other places, their lives irretrievably shaped by war, repression, famine. In 1970 when I was in my bedroom burning incense to irritate my parents, one of those people was being exiled from Shanghai to pick rice in the countryside. In the mid-1980s, while I fretted about losing a rent-controlled house in Santa Monica, another was searching the San Salvador morgues for the body of her disappeared brother. They knew quite well that the world could step in and smash everything they loved. Who was I to imagine otherwise?
Now, I’m holed up at home, with my millennial daughter, who herself grew up with a constant sense of doom. Of course there’s another market crash, she says. Of course another tsunami, hurricane, flood, mass shooting. I send “are you OK?” texts to friends as we all watch the death toll rise and our savings shrink, just when our laid-off kids and grandkids will need financial support.
This new bomb was a message to boomers — and maybe to all of us. History, like biology, doesn’t care who you are or what stories you tell yourself. No one, not even a golden, blessed generation, escapes its hand.
Carol Mithers is a Los Angeles journalist and coauthor, with Leymah Gbowee, of the memoir “Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War.”
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