Living in a Dangerous World

My first awareness of the immediacy of danger in the world around me was a certainty spreading through the ranks of first graders at Ardmore Avenue Elementary School in suburban Philadelphia. 1954, perhaps. One of my friends had learned that there was a bee of sorts – a big bee — known as the Seven Stinger. It could sting multiple times, but its seventh and last sting was so venomous that the unfortunate person who received it would die instantaneously. Eyes focused on low lying branches of trees and border gardens in yards, my daily commute to school (we walked back then) was marked by a cautious screening of the neighborhood for these winged killers. Recess provided an opportunity to recount sightings and near misses of Seven Stingers identified and dodged. Each day above ground was a victory for vigilant children and a loss for insectoid denizens of death.

I don’t know whether my undeveloped First Grade mind linked the localization of danger embodied by Seven Stingers with the wider atmosphere of national menace provided by the infiltration of communists in every level of government assured by Senator Joseph McCarthy. The full scope of live broadcast of the Army-McCarthy hearings on our living room Zenith may have been beyond my elementary intellect, but the subtext was clear even to me – America is awash in unseen dangers.

[Parenthetical aside: it wasn’t until much later that I realized that election to high office was no guarantor of the quality or character of those elected. The most unprincipled often wind up in office thanks to the inability of the American electorate to identify and elevate good men and women. This is as true today as it ever was.]

Television continued to provide iconic images of widespread threat while playground bullies kept danger close to home. Nikita Kruschev and his banging shoe assured me of communism’s goal to bury me while an overweight neighborhood thug named Dominic who brandished a bicycle spoke as a weapon and took a particular interest in whipping me, presented a more immediate threat.

Dangers, rather than ebbing and flowing, continued to mount steadily. Adlai Stevenson waited until hell froze over, teachers urgently insisted we kneel before our hallway lockers with our heads tucked in around our galoshes – the assured method of surviving a nuclear attack in our first strike neighborhood. Frequent air raid drills bolstered by grainy black and white films of mushroom clouds and buildings being vaporized by atomic blasts somewhere in New Mexico created and sustained a subcutaneous level of certainty – our destruction was not a question of if, but when.

As the years passed the players changed, but the danger remained the same. Assassination, Vietnam and the lottery that would determine whether able bodied young males were to become Cong-fodder, Americans in uniforms hosing and beating other Americans hungry for fundamental rights. 1968, when the whole world was watching. Watergate.

The passage of years did little to lessen the danger – like referred dental pain, it just kept it moving around. Vietnam ultimately became a tourist destination while the Middle East emerged as the locus of destruction (when, O when will the all expenses paid guided tours of Baghdad begin?). Continuing Congressional nonsense as the elected behave more and more like the unAmericans that McCarthy was looking for.

And now, rather than being a 10 year old terrorized by bullies in the playground and worrying about death raining from the sky, I have a 10 year old grandson who attends disaster preparedness workshops, pretending to be mortally wounded (replete with gory makeup) while practicing first responders decide whether he should get attention instead of the bloodied actor next to him. He has his own emergency bug out bag that contains items necessary for survival in the event of catastrophe. Instead of cowering in a hallway locker, he practices barricading his school room preparing for lockdown in the event of a maniacal shooter’s arrival. As I did, he has bullies in his life, so the danger is as close as it is widespread.

There is an interesting difference between my childhood and his: the stories that inform and shape our world. I read books like Tom Swift and Nancy Drew – thin-as-dishwater novels that emphasized the ability of clever people to overcome any obstacle, solve any mystery through wit and inventiveness. He reads books about dragons and demons, magicians both bilious and benign: stories that begin with the assumption that danger is beyond ordinary human ability to manage let alone overcome. Death continues to rain from above, but men and women haven’t created it, and we can’t stop it. Super-something is required. Unfortunately, we happen to be a little short of super-stuff where I live.

Every generation learns to manage dangers, both local and global. Certainly, the ancients faced terror as do we. Most ancient texts deal with the Spidermen and Batmen of their day – superhuman deities who tinker with men and women as playthings, indicating their belief that most human misery is beyond our control. There is a certain fatalism evident in the Psalms (the span of our life is seventy years, perhaps in strength even eighty; yet the sum of them is but labor and sorrow, for they pass away and we are gone [90:10]), even though it is coupled with the hope that the righteous will be spared from undue suffering.

I suspect that each generation’s terror is its own and that successful living depends in part on our capacity to acknowledge its presence and get on with other things. While the dangers faced by the generations determine our obstacles to progress, it is the response to those obstacles and the higher things we create in the face of that adversity that will ultimately define us.