If it’s not my first memory, it’s certainly close.
I am lower than my mother’s waist, lower than everything: the galvanized trash cans and steel newspaper machines lining Denver’s downtown streets; lower than the drinking fountains in the city’s industrial green hallways; lower than the gray and putty-colored furniture in her drab offices. The chairs and desks in these buildings are overbuilt and heavy–sturdy steel objects that squat beneath fluorescent fixtures mounted firmly to rigid ceiling tiles. Everything is overbuilt: the water fountains, the walls themselves, even the sensible shoes of the important men who sit behind the big metal desks. I am lower than everything but the shoes, a young boy clinging to his mother’s sturdy hand.
I do not know what her business is in this drab building. It is the business of adults, and I am just a child sitting on an overbuilt chair, quietly waiting for it to conclude. It does, and we return to the light green hallway, hand in hand. I notice a yellow sign near the stairwell. In the middle of the sign rests a black circle, and inside of that three yellow triangles. I’m unable to read the words beneath the black circle.
“What’s that say, Mama?”
“It says ‘fallout shelter.'”
“It means that basement is a safe place to go if the Russians bomb us,” my mother says.
I don’t know who the Russians are. I don’t know how to return to the yellow sign if I need to.
My little brain is so empty at this age that when my mother tells me that Indians once roamed the land upon which our neighborhood is built, I lean on the back of our green velvet couch, stare through our picture window, and try to picture a war party tearing down the paved street, arrows flying at horse-mounted cowboys who charge toward them. I can’t imagine how their horses’ hooves gripped the pavement, or why the cowboys didn’t just hide behind the houses.
In front of the green velvet couch sits a 21-inch color TV. It is overbuilt, too: its electronic guts packed into a black metal cabinet that rests on four sturdy silver legs. I like to stick my feet under there when they are cold, but if my parents catch me they scold me. They don’t want me to “get radiation.” Every evening when my father arrives home from work, he turns on the black TV and watches the news. There are lots of guns and soldiers on the news. Sometimes bleeding men are rushed to helicopters or the jungle bursts into flames, and always in the middle of it all stands a man with a microphone, telling us what’s going on.
“Is that where Grandpa was?” I ask.
“No, this is Vietnam,” my father says.
“It’s the goddamned Russians is what it is.”
I do not know how close Vietnam is to Denver. I do not know how to get back to the yellow sign.
I grow taller, so tall that I can reach any water fountain I choose; so tall that I am no longer dwarfed by overbuilt office furniture. That’s all gone now, anyway, replaced by chairs with chromium pot metal legs and molded fiberglass seats, and desks made of paper wrapped particle board. Vietnam is gone now, too–not the country but the war, and with it any talk of the region. The fallout shelter and civil defense signs disappear.
My father is offered a job in Iran. “Wouldn’t that be something? You’d be the only kid you know who lived in Iran. That’d be something to brag about.” I agree, but he doesn’t take the job. Not too long after that, the Iranian hostage crisis happens. The nightly news has something terrifying to talk about again: great Satans, death to America, bound and blindfolded Americans. I don’t know where Iran is beyond “the desert” and “the Middle East.”
I don’t know why they want me dead, either. My days consist of riding my Stingray and playing with my Evel Kneivels.
The ’80s dawn. America boycotts the Summer Olympics in Moscow. This is no surprise given the spirit of the times. Throughout the ’80s, Russians remain America’s favorite bogeyman. Even Rocky fights them. Reagan labels the Soviet Union the “evil empire” and wants billions for something called the Strategic Defense Initiative–a border wall in the sky that will keep the Russkies out. Before the decade ends, Lebanon, Grenada, Libya, and Panama join Vietnam, Iran, and the USSR on my growing list of places that want me dead but I can’t locate on a map.
Reagan jokes on a hot mic: “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.” It doesn’t strike me as funny so much as expected. It’s the moment my entire life has been creeping toward: a long, slow death march toward a fallout shelter I cannot find.
My friend and I stand in the hallway of our high school. The walls are not industrial green but rather sparkling white, protected from footprints by a vigilant principal with his head on a swivel: “Tuck in that shirt tail….Get to class….Get your feet off that wall. Do you put your feet on the walls at home?….”
“I don’t care what Reagan says, I’m not registering for the fucking draft,” my friend says. “What about you?”
“I don’t care,” I say.
“How can you not care?”
“Because I’ve had a nuclear missile pointed at me every day of my life. It’s not a question of if, but of when.”
“I’ve never thought about it, but you’re right,” he says.
New York City.
I am old now, probably twice the age my mother was when she took me by the hand for a day of errands in drab Denver office buildings. At least 45 years have passed between the day of the fallout shelter sign and Memorial Day 2017. For half a century I’ve been told that I’m hated, hunted, that I must remain vigilant, that I should be afraid or brave, or brave and afraid. I have lived 50 years in a state of war, and I am not a soldier.
That’s not entirely true. For a brief moment near the turn of the millennium, I was blissfully unaware that someone thousands of miles away wanted me dead. The Atlantic Monthly’s May 2001 cover story was entitled “Russia Is Finished.” The October edition that year (on newsstands in September) featured the cover story “Peace Is Hell.” My children were young then, only two and four. “What lucky souls they are,” I thought to myself. “They won’t grow up surrounded by war, wondering when the bombs are going to go off. They will never have to worry where the yellow sign is or how to get there.”
And then the Towers fell and the cycle started all over again. Thirty years from today, they may tell how wars that weren’t theirs clung to them like smoke from a crematorium, how the unyielding threat of guns they’d never see killed something inside of them anyway.
Maybe they will sit down to write, and maybe they will begin with these words: If it’s not my earliest memory, it’s certainly close.