My Cold War Hang-Up

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

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Miss L, who did not talk in hushed tones, told us that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had had a terrible fight with Vice President Nixon about kitchen appliances. The Soviets thought Americans were so lazy that nearly everyone in the United States had a washing machine, she said. “Vice President Nixon poked his finger at the Soviet leader, so today might well be the day,” she added brightly. I faked a stomachache. We all wanted to go home.

Forty-seven years later, when I walked into Fred’s junk shop, I knew that only two men in the world had been allowed to own red telephones in 1958. By the time I walked out, I had convinced myself I had just purchased either President Eisenhower’s or Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s red telephone.

Nothing from Fred’s ever worked, I reminded myself. I could plug it in and find out for sure in two seconds—but what if the Curse of Fred’s was no match for a nuclear-related device? What if somebody answered?

Them: Da?

Me: Huh?

Them: Da?

Me: Could you speak English, please?

Them: Bombs away!

I spent a week with the phone in my hallway, where its mute challenge reproached me every time I passed. Miss L started appearing in my dreams, her tangerine-lipsticked mouth saying, “Today might well be the day.” (Why is it that none of us ever ratted her out to our parents?) My living room seemed to echo with hushed tones and halted conversations.

Finally I stowed the phone down in the cellar, in an old backpack. I still sleep uneasily, knowing it’s down there, but at least I sleep: thanks to my vigilance, no one’s going to accidentally nuke the world by, say, dialing for Domino’s.


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