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OPINION | DEBRA HALE-SHELTON: Our innocence, interrupted by fear

by Debra Hale-Shelton | August 16, 2020 at 10:06 a.m.

When I was a little girl, I lived in a green house on Union Street. It had two bedrooms and one bathroom. Life was good, even fun.

We had a sidewalk long before anyone had heard of walkable cities. We had a rectangular screened porch and friendly neighbors with friendly children, dirty from playing outside, kids whose only idea of a phone was one with a rotary dial and a cord.

We knew the neighbors' names; they knew ours. There were Helen and Bill, my parents' regular pinochle opponents; Maurice and Thelma, who commuted to college and later taught school with my mother; and Mary, whose husband died before her daughter, my best friend Kathy, was born.

Kathy was the pal with whom I played house, hospital and even war on the front porch. That's where we hatched a plan to stake out Santa Claus on Christmas Eve and where we debated the facts of life, specifically whether a woman wearing pajamas could get pregnant. (I don't recall which side I took.)

Inside our green house in Marked Tree, we had a window air-conditioning unit. On the front porch, we had the shade of a huge tree whose roots ran under the sidewalk with an ever-

widening crack.

The backyard had its own tree, likely much older than my grandparents were. We had a green shed there, too. That's where our Boston terrier Frisky gave birth to two puppies. One died; we gave the other one, Tina, to Betty and Joe across the street.

We had a burlap bag-swing in the backyard. Kathy and other youngsters--Ronnie, Dale and Randy--would join my sister Terri and me and stage occasional bag-swing shows for our moms, grandparents and a few elderly women who lived nearby.

For a nickel we provided each adult with a chair where they could sit and watch each of us climb a couple steps onto a wooden table, grab the burlap swing hanging from the tree, and begin our performances with a leap and plenty of showmanship.

Terri was the youngest, so she played Cheetah when we performed a Tarzan skit. We were the closest thing Union Street ever had to trapeze artists.

Yet the 1950s and '60s were never as idyllic as I remember. Memories have faded with time, just as the first few pages of an incomplete novel I started as a child disappeared long ago. A few Google searches and History.com helped bring those memories back, though I never have forgotten my novel's setting--the United States during the Cold War.

In 1959, Fidel Castro, a young Cuban nationalist and future ally of the now-former Soviet Union, had driven his guerrilla army into Havana and overthrown Cuba's U.S.-backed president.

Fears of a Cold War with the Soviets and their leader--Nikita Krushchev, a balding and short (5 foot 3) peasant's son but a formidable foe--escalated. There was the notorious 1960 scene in which Krushchev took off his shoe, a loafer, and banged it on a table during a debate at the United Nations.

The Cold War lingered into the 1960s and became far worse than any shoe banging.

In 1961, there was the failed CIA-launched Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba. In 1962, even schoolchildren talked during recess about the Cuban Missile Crisis, which involved a U.S. naval blockade until the Soviets agreed to withdraw their nuclear-armed missiles from Cuba.

We children might not have understood the details. But we knew that nuclear plus missile plus Cuba plus Russia created an incredibly dangerous situation. And we knew that's why so many Americans wanted to build bomb shelters.

Our fears, meanwhile, had begun appearing on television, too.

In 1959, Americans for the first time saw the famous "Twilight Zone" episode in which Burgess Meredith plays a bespectacled man who survives a nuclear bomb and rejoices in the discovery that he is alone and can now read all of the books he wants without interruption, until his glasses get broken, leaving him unable to read.

TV grew more frightening in 1963 when, at then-President John F. Kennedy's behest, stations began interrupting regular programming with an Emergency Broadcast System test warning that featured a high-pitched siren. That same year, on Nov. 24, two days after Kennedy's assassination, many Americans saw nightclub owner Jack Ruby fatally shoot presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald on live television.

Even so, the late '50s and early '60s in America were in some ways more innocent times than those of the 21st century. Kids enjoyed programs like "Leave It to Beaver," "Captain Kangaroo" and "I Love Lucy." Adults got more than enough illicit romance out of soap operas like "Search for Tomorrow" and "As the World Turns."

Little did we know that soap operas would give way to real-life characters like Donald and Stormy; Bill and Monica; and an unzipped evangelical leader named Jerry Jr. with an unzipped, auburn-haired, pretty pregnant woman who he says "couldn't get her pants up" either.

And no, I've no idea why their pants were down in the first place. "You know, it was weird," Jerry Jr. explained. Also no, I'm not mentioning the wives of Donald, Bill or Jerry Jr. They're not the ones with the zipper problems.

There was a time when the public and the news media rightly or wrongly chose to ignore such sins, no matter which political party was involved.

The Vietnam War would become the older generation's cruelest gift to my generation, costing 58,220 American lives and an untold number of maimings, suicides and lifelong mental-health struggles.

Now, the coronavirus--a deadly pandemic negligently allowed to spread in this country despite many warnings--is being forced upon our children and teachers with the return of in-person school classes this month.

The virus had already cost the United States more than 164,000 lives as of last week, and the killing isn't over.

Debra Hale-Shelton can be reached at dhaleshelton@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter at @nottalking.

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