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My Cold War Hang-Up

How I learned to stop worrying and make peace with my nuclear phone

I found an old rotary telephone in a junk shop. Firetruck red. High gloss.

“Ten bucks,” said Fred, the shop owner. The newspaper spread out before him, amid more junk, was open to the harness-racing results.

I handed him a one dollar bill and he put it in his cash box, never lifting his eyes from the paper.

“Works,” he lied as I headed for the door.

“I’m sure,” I lied back. You could count on two things at Fred’s: everything was authentic, and anything that once did something didn’t do it anymore. I wanted the phone because it was the real article.

It was square, with a receiver that lay on the top like a drunk’s arm across your shoulder, just like the black phone that sat on the hall table in our house in 1958.

That year I was in Miss L’s third-grade class. “Only the president of the United States and the leader of Russia can have a high-gloss red phone,” she told us. My mother said Miss L had a flair for the dramatic and referred to her as “your teacher, Miss Loretta Young.”

“And when President Eisenhower picks up the receiver,” Miss L continued, “it connects directly to Mr. Khrushchev’s phone on his desk in Russia. Someday one of those two men is going to pick up the receiver and say, ‘Bombs away!’”

That’s why we practiced crawling under our desks every Friday. Bangor, Maine, would be their first target, Miss L added, because we had a military base in town.

We practiced saying “Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev,” as if we could appeal to his compassionate side if we pronounced his name correctly. Grown-ups talked in hushed tones about the cold war, secrets, missiles, Communism, bomb shelters. They changed the subject when we walked into the living room.

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