The public schools of Arlington, which go in for psychoanalysis under the guise of "English," recently had my 10-year-old son write an essay in which he was required to list what he was afraid of, and tell why. In it, he said that he was afraid of war, and that he did not know why. In fact, he is afraid of it partly because it is damn well worth being afraid of, and partly because of that obscene yellow trumpet of an air-raid siren that the federal government, with its typical thoughtfulness, has built to tower over his grammer school -- a trumpet that, once each month, they let him hear good and loud, as a kind of reminder. But I wonder if they have really got to do that?
A few years before the Cuban missile crisis, there was a shorter crisis over the tiny islands of Quemoy and Matsu, which lie just off the coast of mainland China. They were controlled by Chiang Kai-shek's forces, and used as platforms from which to fire artillery barrages onto the mainland. Suddenly, it seemed as if there might be world war over those; that Communist China would start it, that the Soviet Union would be drawn in, that we would be drawn in too, and that everything would go up.
In those days I was working my way through college by free-lance editing, and my chief employer was an Oriential political scientist whom I shall call Dr. Shan. He was a very nice man and he lived in an apartment just off Lee Highway with his young wife. Both of them were new to America, and bewildered by it, but they had bought a guidebook that told them, among other things, that Americans were immoderately fond of hotdogs and lemonade. And so I would go over there several times a week to help him write his book on Red China, eating hotdogs and lemonade for breakfast, lunch and supper, as well as for the between-meal snacks they pressed on me.
In the guidebook, which had given Dr. Shan the inside dope about American culture, there was also an all-purpose phrase, "Do something." And, whenever questions would come up, such as where to put the chapter on the Trans Siberian Railway, he would smile, say "Do something," and beckon for more hotdogs and lemonade.
At last, the Quemoy-Matsu crisis reached the flash point. War, it was thought, might break out any moment. And you walked around scared in the chest and sick in the spirit about what you stood to lose. When it was announced that NBC would carry a special show on the crisis, everybody I knew made plans to tune in.
Three hours before air time, the phone rang. It was Dr. Shan. He was going to be one of the expert panelists on the NBC program, and had to open the show with a short statement on whether nuclear war was going to break out, or not. What he wanted from me was a draft of that statement.
Picking up a pen, I waited for him to dictate the thing, or at least give general guidelines. But there was only silence at the other end of the wire. When I asked him whether there would be nuclear war, he said merely, "Do something," and rang off.
I knew nothing of political science and very little of Red China. And later on, sprawled out on the warm, sunny grass of Dupont Circle, I wrote 400 words that said that the crisis was a trivial one, that there would definitely be no war and that everybody should relax.
Air time found me sitting in Brownley's Bar and Grill on Pennsylvania Avenue, sipping the cold, delicious beer and watching as my fellow citizens, pausing in their lubrications, grew quiet. The jukebox was unplugged, and the place grew utterly silent as everybody waited for that NBC special to come on -- a tense, miserable scene that contrasted pleasantly with what broke out after Dr. Shan made his statement, upon which there was much laughter, and a great sense of relief that caused one man, famous for his stinginess, to order drinks all around. After that, it was a wonderful night at Brownley's, with the good records of Miles Davis and Gerry Mulligan and much laughter.
Just before dawn, I found myself standing alone on Key Bridge, looking downstream toward Roosevelt Island, and at the Georgetown waterfront, which was lovely in its stark contours; at the white obelisk and whiter dome; and at the way the city's million lights, mixed with those of a billion stars, shown in the dark waters. It was a night of awesome beauty, and the sirens did not howl.
But if they had, I still would have felt that I had done right. What was the use of any warning? There did not seem to be any point in spoiling the last minutes, or any minutes, with announcements of doom. Everybody I knew, whether he admitted it or not, assumed that all-out nuclear war was inevitable. In fact, life in Washington was made more sweet by that knowledge. And under the circumstances, it seemed best to pass the interim with as little inward agitation as possible.
Are things any different today? And if it is absolutely necessary to have political scientists and air-raid sirens, shouldn't they be, in these ultimate matters, as pleasant as possible? Perhaps those sirens could even be programmed to play a little Miles Davis -- which is better than what they've got on there now.