March 29, 2011

Behind the Book: Growing up on the brink of war

Behind the Book by
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In 1962 I turned 14. It was the year that West Side Story won the Academy Award for Best Picture, the Beatles’ first record was released in England, astronaut Scott Carpenter orbited the earth three times in a space capsule, Marilyn Monroe died from an overdose of sleeping pills and James Meredith became the first black person to register at the University of Mississippi.

But for me, more than anything else, 1962 was about the Cuban missile crisis. On October 14 a U.S. spy plane flying over Cuba took photos of the installation of Soviet nuclear weapons. The United States demanded they be removed immediately; the Soviet Union would not back down. The administration of President John F. Kennedy did not make this news public until the evening of October 22, when JFK himself went on television to announce to the nation that warheads were being built in Cuba that could reach as far as Canada. In other words, the world was on the brink of a nuclear war.

For seven days we lived in a state of panic, listening for the sound of planes from nearby Scott Air Force Base, discussing who had bomb shelters and whether a hole in the ground would really protect you, picking at our dinners while watching somber television newscasters who seemed scared to death themselves. Finally, on Sunday morning we could breathe again: A deal had been brokered with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and the missiles were being dismantled. Looking back, I think of that week as the end of my childhood.

We were certain that the nuclear age meant we were the end of the line, the last children on earth.

One of my strongest memories from those days is walking downtown with two girlfriends after school. We had lost our usual interest in checking out record albums or new lipstick shades at Kresge’s and were just wandering aimlessly, talking about the bizarre fact that we no longer expected to grow up. We would not, we firmly believed, live to be old enough to marry and have children as the generations before us had done. We were certain that the nuclear age meant we were the end of the line, the last children on earth.

We spoke of it as a fait accompli, and I don’t think we were particularly emotional about it. Certainly there were no tears. But I remember feeling as if my head would explode with this new information I was being forced to accept. The possibilities that lay ahead were so terrible that I couldn’t claim them for myself. I couldn’t weep for my own loss when there might be no future for anyone.

There are moments like this for all of us when the knowledge of how brief and unpredictable human life is seems unbearable. We begin to ask ourselves, What is life for? As a teenager, my thoughts were more along the lines of, “Why did I spend every night this week studying for that algebra test? What difference does it make whether I go to bed at nine o’clock or stay up until midnight? I might as well eat as much ice cream as I want because nothing matters anymore!”

But the world did not end. A few weeks later my friends and I were once again practicing the Twist in our bedrooms, trying on lipsticks and giggling over boys we were afraid to speak to. And yet, as I recall it, our laughter was no longer so deep or so satisfying; it was loud and forced and sassy because we were no longer sure why we were laughing. The world didn’t belong to us anymore. We could pretend it did, but we knew the truth now, whether we wanted to or not. It was all beyond our control.

Growing up means understanding that the world affects you more than you affect the world. It’s not an agreeable lesson to learn, but if we are to leave behind the self-centeredness of childhood, it is a necessary lesson. After the Cuban missile crisis I began to question my parents, and then to question science, and then to question God. Because if 14-year-olds can be annihilated in the blink of an eye, they want to know why.

I had been thinking for a while that I wanted to write a novel that took place in the early 1960s, during the years I was in high school. Those years were full of poignancy for me: the missile crisis, the assassination of JFK, my own first disastrous attempt to fall in love. I wanted to set the novel in the very place I remembered, a small town in southern Illinois, near the Air Force base, behind the neighborhood grocery store that my parents owned.

But my best memories of life at the store seemed to be about my earlier years there, when a pack of neighborhood kids ran up and down the alley, played ball on the side street and rode bikes out into the countryside. Ten had been a perfect age for me. Boys could be friends, I could eat as many Fudgsicles as I wanted, and the highlight of the month was the day my new Mad magazine arrived.

So I decided that for This Means War! I would be both ages. Juliet, the main character, would be sort-of-me at age 10, and her sister Caroline would be sort-of-me at age 14. In fact, I lifted many truths from that old neighborhood, right down to the name of Mrs. Shepard’s dog, Boneguard. My father was a butcher and he did forbid me ever to go into a supermarket, and his store did eventually go out of business due to the competition down the block. My parents both worked long hours in the store and I resented it and felt lonely, but I loved being able to raid that candy counter as I walked out the door.

In my neighborhood there were often boys-against-the-girls spats, and that seemed useful to my story in terms of a metaphor for the larger war that threatened. The kids whose parents worked at Scott Air Force Base cycled in and out of our school system, staying only a year or two at a time, but bringing with them the mystery of foreign places and the slightly sad romance of having no real home. I had a friend like Juliet’s friend Patsy who I worshiped for her strength and confidence during the year she lived in town, and who I’ve never forgotten, though once she moved I never saw her again.

I am 62 now and my parents are gone. I don’t go back to Belleville, Illinois, much anymore. But I loved visiting it in the book, the alley owned by the neighborhood kids and their bicycles, the old dog pen where we kept the returnable soda bottles, the customers just the other side of the screen door from our house. I even liked remembering how real life sneaked up on us in our little town and made us part of a larger world. It was the beginning for me of looking life straight in the eye and not taking any of it for granted.


Ellen Wittlinger

Get the Book

This Means War!

This Means War!

By Ellen Wittlinger
Simon & Schuster
ISBN 9781416971016

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