Life in Interesting Times (Updated 4/14/24)

I’m moving this post from March 2020 back to the top of the blog for new readers. The Covid pandemic hit the United States four years ago last month, and I was interested to see what I’d written about it as things were unfolding. Then, earlier this week, a younger friend asked me about the “duck & cover” nuclear war civil defense era my Boomer generation grew up in. I remembered writing a blog post about that and went looking for it in the archives. Turns out the post I wrote four years ago addressed both subjects. I think it’s worth resharing, and hope you’ll agree.

– Paul

RS8630_1470142391965, the height of the Cold War. I was behind the base exchange on Wiesbaden Air Base in Germany, taking a smoke break on the loading dock. It was unnaturally quiet and I was alone; nothing was moving, not another person was in sight. The sky, normally busy with military aircraft, was empty.

I jumped as a deafening siren went off, its tone wavering up and down, on and on. Having been around military bases all my life, having practiced duck & cover drills in every grade from kindergarten on, I knew what it meant: attack imminent. A chill settled on me. All those years of practice, and now here it was, the real thing. A couple of hundred miles to the east, Soviet tanks were rumbling into West Germany. Nuclear-tipped missiles were inbound, seconds from detonating over the military installations in and around Wiesbaden. I stared at the sky, looking for the contrail with my name on it.

Then, as the siren continued to wail, a co-worker appeared at my side, asking if I could spare a cigarette. I snapped back to reality. It was noon. It was Wednesday. That’s when the Air Force tested its warning sirens at bases around the world. Of course I knew that; I’d grown up with those weekly tests. But that day it had hit me fresh. I believed it was real. For a few seconds, I had stared into the abyss. The abyss had stared back. I’ll never forget the feeling.

Mainly because the feeling’s coming back. Just the occasional abyssal yawn for now, triggered by photos and videos of empty shelves in big box stores, deserted city plazas, empty airline cabins, isolated cars and trucks zipping along LA freeways normally choked bumper to bumper. The most vivid flashback so far came last night while listening to a guest on the Maddow show say things that made even Rachel squirm, describing triage teams in Italy deciding who to treat and who to leave to die (“she’s young and has kids, we’ll save her; grandmother, goodbye”), saying American doctors and nurses will within days be making the same decisions.

Anyone know where Donna and I can borrow some kids? Just kidding. Actually, kids are well ahead of the curve, already calling COVID-19 the “Boomer remover.” My generation may not be around to drain the Social Security trust fund after all, and after the cull (they say Iran’s mass burial pits are visible from space) Gen Xers and Millennials might get their own whack at it.

What’s sad is that while the pandemic is real and dangerous, transcending national borders and politics, the reaction to it … certainly here in the USA, probably everywhere else as well … is driven by racism, nationalism, and partisan politics, which in turn make it even more dangerous. I can handle “may you live in interesting times.” “May you live in stupid times” is the curse I’m trying to dodge.

Well, enough doom and gloom for one morning. Are you ready for a little comforting? I am.


Mister B says “There, there, everything’s going to be fine.”

Update (4/14/24): A friend from a former life shares his own Cold War recollection. His experience, like mine, occurred during the mid-1960s … a most interesting time indeed.

— Paul

I relate to our growing up in Laramie schools about duck and cover. I relate to young military experience as I remember my feelings in the fall of 1964. When I got out of high school for the summer in 1964, I had already been a member of the WY-ARNG since September, as a radio mechanic. I shipped off to Fort Leonard Wood for my basic. I completed that, and came home for a quick leave prior to reporting to Fort Riley, KS. I was home for my 18th birthday! My Advanced Individual Training, was OJT (the army didn’t want to spend the money on guardsmen to go to a school), on arrival at Riley I was assigned to A Co. 1st Engr Bn, 1st Div (INF). The Big Red One, oldest Engr Co in the army. I was one of a handful of guys in our Hqs Plt commo section. I never did need to work on the radios, but was familiar and competent with their operation, and the message procedures aligning with the army’s logs and message books.

Late in the fall we went on a war games exercise by driving to Forbes AFB, loading onto an old Globemaster, landing at Little Rock and switching to a C-130, then landing on a dirt strip on the Leonard Wood reservation. We spent almost three weeks doing infantry games, and at one time I was stuck out on a point position, fifty yards or more in front of our perimeter of defense. Not really knowing what to do, but being sure I made a lousy one man defense, I decided I would do my best before the OPFOR guys killed me. I never saw any action all night long, and my life was spared.

Most of the time I worked the radios in the back of a 3/4 ton, and as we had the best signal, we became a relay station for the division network. I split the duty with an E-4, twelve hours on, the twelve off. During the night shifts I had several young second lieutenants come to me, during their sleep time, to learn commo procedures specified in their SOI, signal operating instructions. Unknown to me, they knew they would be heading to Vietnam.

At the end of the games we reversed travel back to Fort Riley. That was operation Goldfire I. I didn’t know for decades the whole war game was an exercise to determine if the Air Force could airlift the entire division in one movement. I found that out while reading a W.E.B. Griffin book, when he referred to Operation Goldfire. The army won their battle and received their own rotary wing aircraft for troop movement. Horse cav was done, and the cav became air mobile.

I also found out I was not a chickenshit!

The day in December that I left Fort Riley they had a full division layout inspection on the airfield, but I think the big red one didn’t go until spring or summer. The day I left my basic, I was called in to talk with the company commander. If I were to leave the National Guard, they offered to send me to West Point prep school, based on my scores recorded in my records jacket. I declined. Had I gone on to become a cadet, I would have received a hell of an education, and a lot of opportunities for officer promotions. But, coming out of West Point as an officer in 1968 or 1969, the survival rate for a new lieutenant in Vietnam was not great, especially for a signal officer.

3 thoughts on “Life in Interesting Times (Updated 4/14/24)

  • My physician friends all tell me the same thing: This bug is more severe than the common cold but less that most influenza strains. And like the flu, it will impact the Elderly and Infirmed more severely. It is more contagious than most flu variants but less so than the common cold.

    And I’m not buying the whole Iranian death pits thing. Less than 1000 deaths so far and those images show a lot more than 1000 holes in the ground. Not the first time CNN / MSNBC / FOX News have misreported stories in order to “get the jump” on the competition. Imagery analysis is and has always been a tricky business.

  • I, too, doubt the Iranian plague pits story. I mean, wouldn’t we have seen them in China first? My sister, my friend Carol, and I are all staying safely ensconced, busily rescheduling get-togethers and appointments, with grocery orders that can be picked up, Amazon deliveries, and wi-fi entertainment. Once, long before the internet, I spent four days over Christmas when London simply closed down and the situation was so bad that radio stations and borough governments were setting up hot lines you could call for emergency services, to find out what was open, “or just for a chat.” It occurs to me that we have never been so well-prepared for mass hibernation as we are now, where online contact will make up for social distancing. Now if only the creature squatting in the White House…oh, what’s the point? Stupid times it is.

  • I linked to a short article describing satellite images of burial pits said to be for victims of the Coronavirus. There are more such articles in today’s news. I also offered an opinion on the politics, racism, and nationalism driving the reaction to the pandemic. I would not be terribly surprised to learn Iran is experiencing many more deaths than they are willing to acknowledge. Would you?

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