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.

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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