"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," reads the opening line of Dickens' 'A Tale of Two Cities', a now-trite contrast of polar-opposites.
It is the lesser-quoted line, "(i)t was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair," that exemplifies one day for me: November 20, 1983, in my sixteenth year. It was the best day of my childhood, it was the worst day of my childhood.
It was my grandmother's 56th birthday. Now 83, I can only imagine that she is now as cantankerous and disagreeable as she was then. Her birthday party felt the same as any day my mother, sister and I spent visiting her: Painful, uncomfortable and sickeningly tense; she and my mother would fight at some point in the day, to be sure. We just didn't know when.
At least there was cake.
I remember being disconnected from the 'festivities' from the beginning: I focused on two things; the report I had to write for a made-for-TV movie I was to watch that evening, and how I was going to ask Kim to be my girlfriend.
The spring of hope.
"Dude, I'm gonna fix you up with my neighbor, Kim," said my friend Charlie. "Blonde hair, blue eyes, beautiful. And her tits are, like, out to here."
Needless to say, I couldn't wait to meet them. I mean 'her'.
I saw her coming through the shortcut over my backyard fence, wearing blue-jeans and a sweatshirt I imagine fit her more loosely the year before, not that I minded its tight-fit.
We got along famously, and began dating that day. Now, on this unseasonably warm November Sunday, the weekend before Thanksgiving, I planned to 'ask her out' -- the 1980's-Philadelphia-parlance equivalent of 'going steady'-- before watching the movie with her.
All of my pre-rehearsed lines escaped out of my sweat-covered forehead the second before I attempted to pop the question:
"Do you have a boyfriend, Kim?" I asked, in a way that is opposite to suave and cool.
"No," she answered, then recognizing that I was a gigantic a--hole, I imagined.
"Do you want one?" I responded. Jesus, what a turd.
And that was it. Kim was now my girlfriend, and remained so through the rest of high school.
The Winter of Despair.
The Russians were the stuff of my nightmares: Commies were had only one reason to live; to kill me and my family, and destroy America. Every bang of Khrushchev's shoe on that table in the U.N. represented the sound of a nuclear missile being launched from that big, red country on the map; his
"we will bury you" the assurance that his military will eventually kill everyone I love.
By 1983, the spectre of mutually assured destruction his in a closet in my attic; not an imminent threat, but what would be my undoing, should I climb the attic's stairs. To this day, I make a mental note of those buildings that have the Civil Defense symbol on them; a behavior conditioned in me by countless "nuclear attack drills" in grade school. I knew what to do when I saw the 'flash' of a detonated atom-bomb: Lie down in a gutter, cover my head with my hands, and wait to be vaporized.
"We'll never experience the aftermath of a nuclear war," my third-grade teacher forever imbedded in my impressionable mind. "Because we live so close to the Frankford Arsenal ( a United States Army ammunition plan just a few miles from my home), we'll be the first to be killed."
My entire class had to watch The Day After on ABC, and write a report on it. While asking Kim out was the focus of my thoughts before the movie began; by the time it was over, I could think of nothing except my imminent death.
The Day After portrayed a fictional nuclear war between NATO forces and the Warsaw Pact that rapidly escalates into a full scale exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union, focusing on the residents of Lawrence, Kansas, and Kansas City, Missouri, as well as several family farms situated next to nuclear missile silos.
The city may as well have been Philadelphia, and those silos perched on the curb near Morrell Avenue: I was traumatized by this film, convinced that the missiles were already on the way.
I can now understand what purpose the movie served; a warning, especially to the children that would soon reach adulthood, hoping that an allegedly objective view of the real-life death and destruction that such a travesty could cause, and an empassioned plea for the viewers to recognize the folly of the threat of nuclear war --which hung over each and every American like the Sword of Damocles, tethered above our heads by just a thread-- in the hope that the generation that followed that which oversaw their proliferation could find a way to undo the damage that even the threat of mutually-ensured destruction caused.
My day began with the prospect of entering into a relationship with the girl with the "tits out to here", and ended with the prospect that my relationship with her would end with our deaths, at the hands of the Communists, who clearly did not love their children as much as American parents loved theirs.
For me, that day began my spring of hope and winter of despair.