Tuesday, December 22, 2009

One Night during the Cold War

I was walking around today in Manitou Springs, once a spa-resort town, located in the foothills west of Colorado Springs.

You should know that there are no springs in Colorado Springs--real-estate developers lied in the 1870s too. The springs are in Manitou.

But Colorado Springs has several important military installations: Fort Carson, NORAD, and so on.

Manitou is in a tight valley, and Ruxton Avenue, one of the main streets, goes up a side canyon, where the sun rarely clears the snow and ice, so you step carefully past the little storefronts where various hopeful artsy types open galleries and craft shops and then are gone six months later.

I looked down at one of the Victorian houses across the creek, and a memory of the Cold War years came back.

It was winter then too. M. and I, not long married, lived elsewhere in Manitou.

One night in the early 1980s, I was visiting friends who rented that particular house then, and I came out around 10 p.m to see a narrow view of the sky to the north.

The sky was glowing blood red.

Faster than you can read these words, I thought, "That's it. Soviet missiles have hit Denver. We're next. We'll all be dead before I can get home to say goodbye to her."

Then my rational mind belatedly suggested, "Maybe it's the Northern Lights."

At 38 degrees-something north, we do not see the aurora borealis often—in fact, almost never.

Had it not been for the planetarium shows I had watched as a kid at the natural history museum in Denver, I might not have known what I was seeing.

I went home then to find M. also a little shaken by the sight. After we reassured ourselves that we were still alive, we watched the aurora until it faded. It was front-page news in the next day's local papers.

It all came back to me as I walked back down to the main thoroughfare to look for her Christmas present. We're still alive.

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Anonymous Rombald said...

I'm astonished by the aurora at 38 deg. Is it something to do with the mountain air?

The whole of the UK is north of 50 deg, yet southern England never gets the aurora, northern England and southern Scotland only maybe once in 20 years, and it's only when you get into northern Scotland, 57 to 60 deg, that its a frequent occurrence.

12:10 AM  
Anonymous Rombald said...

Although I know it as a fact, I'm always surprised when reminded how far north Europe is compared to Asia and North America. 38 deg is the latitude of Palermo, Sicily - I doubt if they often see the aurora there (LOL).

12:17 AM  
Blogger Apuleius Platonicus said...

What a beautiful story. It's really astonishing how deeply the cold-war is embedded in the psyches of those who lived through it. Throughout history human beings have had dark fantasies about the "end of the world" -- but for us it became a fact of life.

8:05 AM  
Blogger Denis said...

It is always interesting to read or hear recollections of what happened beyond the Iron Curtain. Americans tend to describe experiences similar to yours. I always wonder why didn't we, the Soviets as you called us, never had this strongly instilled fear of nuclear war. I cannot imagine myself or my parents thinking of nuclear war after we saw a red sky. Obviously, we had a different propaganda pattern.

8:39 AM  
Anonymous Chas S. Clifton said...

Denis, I realize that "Soviet" has a different meaning in Russian, but we lacked a noun in English to mean "people from the USSR," knowing that "Russian" did not include everyone. So "the Soviets" was often used in that colloquial sense.

As for the different sense of apprehension of World War III, perhaps citizens of the USSR were better at keeping it out of their minds? I have no idea, really. That could be an interesting topic to explore at the intersection of history, literary, and sociology.

8:43 AM  
Anonymous Chas S. Clifton said...

Rombald, it was a freak phenomenon, all right. I had seen the aurora once before in western South Dakota, about 44 degrees N., but then it was only a soft green glow in the north.

This time the whole north sky was crimson, almost to the zenith.

8:46 AM  
Blogger Denis said...

the word Soviet means council. That is why to my ear, at least, it always sounded funny when applied to people.

"citizens of the USSR were better at keeping it out of their minds" Or maybe we just trusted our government more that you trusted yours. If the Party promised us peace, there would be peace. :)
Or I may be completely wrong. I don't know.

9:02 AM  
Anonymous Chas S. Clifton said...

@Denis: I know what "soviet" means in Russian, thanks. That was my point.

9:58 AM  
Blogger Apuleius Platonicus said...

Denis, "Soviet" was actually the polite term during the cold war, as opposed to "Commies". "Commie" was also my nickname in high school, since I lived in a small town in Indiana and had long hair and wore peace buttons (in the mid 70's).

And to the extent that Soviet children did not grow up fearful of nuclear armageddon, well, more fool them. The US had a "first strike" policy, while the USSR did not.

9:58 AM  
Anonymous Pitch313 said...

I grew up in a town that was a primary target for atomic weaponeers--nuclear powered attack and missile submarines were built and maintained there.

Questions, fantasies, fears, and curiosity about attacks by atomic weapons and what would happen after those attacks played a large and ongoing part in my emerging world view. Images of he destruction done during WWII by "conventional" weapons and a pair of atomic weapons were accessible. Both warships and survivors of WWII could be found in my home town. The ships usually mothballed. The survivors marked.

And the will of some people to use those weapons again for whatever reasons persisted.

The fathers of some of my school friends were, at the same time, the men who would, at need, "push the button" launching an atomic combat.

The phrase "black humor" scarcely describes the psychospiritual furball that growing up at a Cold War primary target generated in me.

Yes, this experience helped guide me along as a Neo-Pagan. But it also produced the kind of reflexes that you talk about--the sight of a rare natural phenomenon provokes that atomic destruction "Oh, crap! It's the end!" response.

Let me tell you, I do not miss that aspect of the Cold War at all!!!

10:06 AM  
Anonymous Rombald said...

"I realize that "Soviet" has a different meaning in Russian, but we lacked a noun in English to mean "people from the USSR," knowing that "Russian" did not include everyone. So "the Soviets" was often used in that colloquial sense."

Even now, only parts of the Russian Federation are Russia, and even within Russia there are people who are ethnically non-Russian.

Words for nationalities are tricky, and it's even more of a minefield when ethnicities are involved.

Although the Spanish say "Estadounidense",
"Unitedstatesish" has never caught on in English, so people use "American" to mean "US ctizen". However, "America" should include N and S America, and one part of the USA, Hawaii, is not even in America.

People often use "Britain" as synonymous with the UK, but the UK actually includes Northern Ireland(I'm talking fact, not politics here). Mind you, USers (LOL) often seem to use even "England" as equivalent to the UK.

"Holland" is used to mean the Netherlands, but actually just means one province. But then "the Netherlands" (ie. Nether Lands) can include Belgium (in Dutch, a distinction is made between Nederland and Nederlanden). Furthermore, the Kingdom of the Netherlands includes parts of the Caribbean.

One solution is to be pedantic. Another is to just not give a damn.

10:27 AM  
OpenID mageprof said...

I had a moment like that once, back in the early '60s, during my college years. I lived in Berkeley, and had driven through the Caldecot tunnel to have dinner with my grandmother in Danville. Coming home at night, driving west, almost at the tunnel's entrance, a huge ball of green flame passed overhead and over the crest of the mountains. Then the entire western sky lit up as whatever it was exploded where San Francisco was.

I thought it probably had been a missile and that the next War had just begun. I had already passed the last road off the highway, so I had to keep on driving through the tunnel toward what I was grimly certain would turn out to be a cauldron of radioactive destruction and my own imminent death.

It was an . . . interesting . . . feeling. I grew up a little more in that instant.

I hadn't thought about that for decades. It's very good to be reminded of such moments. Thank you, Chas, for calling the memory of those days back to mind.

10:37 AM  
Anonymous Chas S. Clifton said...

Mageprof -- Seeing the "missile" must have been chlling.

I no longer have a copy, but William Kittredge, literature professor at the Univ. of Montana, had an interesting experience in May 1980.

He and a lady friend were camping in western Montana. They woke up in the morning and their tent, their campsite, and the surrounding forest were all covered with gritty grey ash.

Cell/mobile phones did not exist, and they had no radio.

Imagine what you would do in such a case when your first thought is that the ash was the radioactive remains of Seattle, carried east by the prevailing wind!

Do you stay where you are? Do you try to get out?

Of course, it was the ash from the big eruption of Mount St. Helens in western Washington.

11:48 AM  
Blogger gl. said...

i'm so envious you saw the borealis, even though it's mingled with fear and horror. i've never seen it at 45 degrees, though i really was hoping to see it when we travelled to edmonton, canada.

1:24 PM  
Blogger Hecate said...


I've lived in Colorado and, if they come for Springs, they've already, in the 9/11 words of the Alabama judge for whom Son was then clerking, "got the rest of the country." I live in Arlington, declared a disaster area on 9/11. We don't waste time worrying about stuff like this. Ya'll out in the country shouldn't either.

3:39 PM  
Anonymous Chas S. Clifton said...

"Out in the country"?

Color me perplexed.

Or do you mean "flyover country" in a snarky way?

Not sure what your Alabama judge meant either.

3:48 PM  
OpenID mageprof said...

It was quite the moment, Chas.

Memory is a tricky thing. If I can trust mine after nearly half a century, what I felt was, "OK, so I'm driving right into my own death, and I can't turn aside. Everyone else I really care about on the planet will soon be dead too. At least I can try to get to them, so we can all face this together and die with as much comfort as we can manage to give one another." But it was far more an instinct than a conscious decision.

I'm half Danish-American, and the first myths or sacred tales that I heard as a child were the Norse ones (as the d'Aulaires retold them). There even the Gods and Goddesses die, just as we do, and nothing we or they can create will last forever. So it all comes down to how we live and how we die, not what we have made. And I had already discovered T. B. Macaulay and memorized some of his poems: "To every man upon this earth / death cometh soon or late. / And how can man die better / than facing fearful odds / for the ashes of his fathers / and the temples of his Gods ..."

Only a few minutes later I came out the other end of the Caldecot tunnel. There lay the whole San Francisco Bay, spread out before me in the night, brightly lit as always and entirely undamaged! That was quite another kind of moment, though less powerful that the first one.

They never did quite figure out what caused the green fireball and the explosion, which very many people saw that night. A meteor was the best scientific guess. It doesn't much matter to me what it actually was.

6:05 PM  
Anonymous Rombald said...

It's just clicked why you see the northern lights so much further south in the USA than in Europe; it depends on proximity to the magnetic, not the geographic pole. Obvious when you think about it!

The magnetic pole is at 81 deg, in northern Canada, so, subtractng 9 deg from the required latitude in N America, and adding 9 deg in Europe. gives 56 deg as the European equivalent of the American 38 deg. 56 deg is the latitude of Edinburgh and Moscow, where seeing the northern lights is infrequent, but not extraordinary.

However, both Colorado and the magnetic pole are at about 110 deg west, not much over halfway found from Edinburgh, so it's wrong to apply the full 18 deg. Someone here more qualified to do these calculations??

8:11 AM  
Anonymous Micah said...

I remember those lights, too! I was in high school, living near Greeley at the time, out too late just driving around the countryside with a bunch of friends.

We stopped in a field to drink or something, and I looked up, and saw three tall, white columns in the sky, seeming like thousands of miles high. We were scared and excited, too, but we were convinced they were UFO's, not nuclear war. (although I think one friend thought it was the Rapture, the three columns being god, jesus, & the holy ghost)

For hours, we drove all over the area trying to find them, they looked like something coming down to the ground, like they were landing and could be driven to, not obviously up in the sky like the Northern Lights are supposed to look.

The next day, our science teacher talked about them, and we found out they were the Lights, and a really interesting lesson about the science of them came out of that.

It's funny, looking back, that none of us thought about war at the time, since I do remember spending so much of those years freaked out about the possibility of nuclear annihilation, I guess that night, it was just magical and beautiful and a reason to stay out later.

10:22 AM  

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