Cold War Kids

In the fall of 1980, I was a sophomore in high school enduring another American Literature class, probably trying to figure out how to do damage control on the previous spring’s dating debacle, when Sister Pat Duck got off on a tangent about the Russians. The Russkis. Commies.

What’s that? Oh right. Her name wasn’t really Sister Pat Duck. It was Sister Pat something — I don’t remember. But one day, a friend of mine drew an infamous portrait of her with — well, a duck’s bill. And it stuck. We were, of course, oh so clever making quacking noises in the back of the class and in the halls afterwards. Talk about sophomoric humor.


So, despite living in a convent, with its communal living space, lack of personal property and being part of the world’s largest religious bureaucracy, Sister Pat Duck was a seething anti-Communist. And one day, she hit us with this: (I paraphrase)

“Not only do the Russians seek to defeat us militarily, they want to destroy from the INSIDE! You see, kidsths (she did have a bit of a lisp) in Russia, they’re raising kids that are brought to America and are programmed to infiltrate society, corrupt it, all the time spying for the Commies. They won’t have Russian accents. They will look and act – JUST! LIKE! US!”

For a moment, we all looked uneasily around the classroom at one another, suspiciously. Then someone let out a muffled quack, her brief command of our attention shattered.

Well, it seems that maybe rather than a high school English teacher, Sister Pat Duck should have been a Hollywood screenwriter, because this week the F/X network debuts a new drama, The Americans. In it, a couple of KGB officers are trained to be EXACTLY WHAT SISTER PAT DUCK WARNED US ABOUT!

JUST! LIKE! US!! (Only really good looking, apparently)

JUST! LIKE! US!! (Only really good looking, apparently)

I have to say that I’m curious to tune-in to the new show (and by “tune-in”, I mean DVR and watch sometime later). It’s good to see Keri Russell playing against type and I’m curious as to whether they’ll be able to capture the grim Cold War vibe that I grew up with as a teenager.

I recall my friends and I having bravado-laden discussions of the Mutually Assured Destruction of nuclear war, taking an absurd pride that the Philadelphia area — a major refining area and then the 4th largest metropolitan population — was sure to be on the Russian’s “first strike” list. So we didn’t have anything to worry about. We’d all be vaporized, probably while we were playing the ultimate no-win Cold War video game: Missile Command.

Missile Command

Missile Command

I wonder sometimes how that affected us as teens — blithely pretending we didn’t care about the end of our civilization. Most folks born after say 1985 probably never really considered the possibility that seemed so very real to us. Of course, I didn’t have to worry about getting gunned down in my school, church, or movie theater. So there’s that. But, of course, teens today play a lot of video games with rampant shooting, so maybe we’re really not that different — only the method of pointless slaughter changes.

I wonder what Sister Pat would have to say about that.


24 thoughts on “Cold War Kids

  1. I think she would say “quack”.
    I heard some people blathering about communists on our cruise. Apparently President Obama is a socialist muslim but everyone who voted for him is communist. *shrug*

    • She might say “quack” indeed. It’s funny how being a communist, or a socialist is still a derogatory term even though the people using them have no idea what they really mean.

  2. I grew up right next to a huge military base where short-ranged nuclear weapons were stored and folks were trained to use them … so we knew we were at the top of the target list and that our “get under your desk and put your heaviest text book over the back of your neck” drills (the same drills we used for tornadoes) were useless. I don’t really remember stressing out about it that much. Fatalism I guess.

    Oddly, an episode of the new show “Elementary” (a new take on Sherlock Holmes) had an episode dealing with ‘sleeper agents’ from Russia in the present day.

    • GOM — it’s funny how even as kids, we knew that “duck-and-cover” wasn’t really going to cut it. I guess the adults figured they had to tell us something other than “you’re all dead”.

      We saw the Elementary episode! (We’ve like that show more than I thought we would.)

  3. We got that, too. I got beaten up a lot for being a Commie and a Socialist. I always told them there’s a difference. Finally, they decided that I was a Satanist. It’s amazing how people get shite in their heads.

    We *did* have to practice hiding under our desks…That’ll help.

    I always took great comfort in knowing that the nearest city (St. Louis, which back in the day was the FIFTH largest — funny to think now and it’s hardly a cow town) would be in the first hit (no mamby-pamby fallout for us, just BLERP and we’re gone) due to a Defense Mapping Agency being ours along with McDonnell Douglas HQ. Literally less than 2 miles from MY house is an airbase. I’ve talked about our area being a dampening zone (seriously). They used to test (explains a lot, really) over us in the air space. I got to see DOGFIGHTS (not canines) and I still see the ‘secret’ transports since we’re still their hidden highway in the sky. True shite.

    • In my school, kids got harassed by being called gay or fag as much as I can recall. We didn’t bring too much politics into it… ;)

      I remember how STL was such a big city. Seems like the last quarter of the 20th century has passed it by. Strange.

      • ‘Politics’ is the right word for what was said but the KIDS didn’t know what they were on about. That’s why I shared that–we had a lot of Sister Pat Ducks brainwashing kids that unless everybody said and thought the exact same thing, they were a commie. The fact that I’m half-Irish and half-Jewess? I was doomed. I protected all the gays and kids of darker complexions but I was on my own with that heredity and propensity to not allow bullying others!

  4. I remember the feeling of those times, that dread that was so big you couldn’t wrap your arms around it, and that thought that if only the Soviets would put in charge someone younger and less calcified in their views, the world might avoid that seemingly inevitable war that would destroy us all. Sting wrote a poignant and dark song called “Russians” that really summed up that attitude. Then Gorbachev came along and seemed to offer that very hope. I recall poring over an interview he gave to Time in 1985 when he called the international situation “explosive” and used the vivid image of how others in government kept hammering nails into the coffin of peace that he was trying to pull out with his teeth. You wanted to root for him, but wondered if you could trust him; he was, after all, the Enemy. Wasn’t he? When he was arrested in August 1991 by the hardliners, it felt like a physical blow, the refutation of the idea that real change could actually happen, and then, astoundingly, he was free and the Soviet Union was collapsing, collapsing so fast that it felt like a hallucination that it could be happening at all. It’s still inspiring, after all these years.

    And I still have that drawing. Somewhere. I just hope the kids don’t find it…

    • DB — I wondered if you still had that somewhere. I assume it’s with all the things that I am to destroy in the wake of any untimely demise.

      Remember when Gorby came to DC and how people just CHEERED for him?! That seemed like one of the first unbridled gestures of HOPE in the Cold War — that maybe, just maybe, we might dodge it.

  5. You should so find Sister Pat Duck on Facebook and send this to her. I’m guessing she either changed her ways or she’s more paranoid than ever. And yeah, the idea that someone could “just press a button” and the world would glow like Ghostbuster’s slime mold is not a fun thought.

    • Amelie — it’s so so weird to think back about it. How “getting nuked” seemed like it was almost inevitable. And real discourse about how an assumed WWIII in Europe might play out and whether we (or they) could use “tactical” nuclear missiles in the field. Good lord.

  6. I’ve been offline for awhile so I didn’t see this. I wonder if I missed the television show as well. Odd to think there is still this idea that we are so important, everyone wants to invade us or snatch our bodies and threaten our American Way of Life.

    I remember, a bit later in the 80s when there was increased anxiety about the spread of nuclear weapons all over the world, our local newspaper speculating if our city would be a prime target for a nuclear attack, owing to the number of high-tech industries located there. There was almost this contest among cities to see who was the most “nukable.” My own thought was that no one would bother dropping a bomb on Minnesota. We were flyover country; I had to explain to people from the West and East Coasts where our town was located. California seemed like a more likely target since it was closer to the Soviet Union, North Korea, and China. And now that I’m thinking about it, I think I want to move back to Flyover Land.

    • HG — no, you haven’t missed much — though you’ve been missed! — it just started. I’m not sure if it will be really good, but the premiere was pretty tight.

      We used to have the conversations about where — you know, in a post-apocalyptic world — we could go and create a haven. I’m not sure a bunch of teenagers from New Jersey were going to be successful, errr, come to think of it, nor a bunch of scientists from suburban southern California. (We still have those conversations, but now it’s about when society “breaks down” instead of getting “blown up”). Sigh.

      • I’ve noticed the conversation has moved from nukes (still a real possibility with Iran and North Korea having atomic labs) to zombie apocalypse. I think you’re right, we’re not so much worried about The Big One as much as the idea we’re all going to turn on each other. :(

        • HG — I’ve always read that movies and media mirror the fears of their time. In the late 60s early 70s, it was countrer-culture turns into Satanism. In the 80s, it was fear of computers taking over. I think it’s fascinating to see the ebb and flow of “what’s scary” — zombies are completely IN right now because I think we look at so much of the rest of us as endless, relentless, insatiable consumers.

  7. I grew up in DC, and had the same fatalistic thing – we’d get hit first for sure and it’d be over quickly. It was such an eye opener to get to college and have a professor point out that the Russians loved their kids too.

    • Om – it’s funny, but I remember that Sting song about the Russians that came out in the mid-late 80s and it was so different than the monolithic Evil Empire we’d been inculcated with.

  8. Pingback: 2013 Favorites — Television | Stevil

  9. Having just finished S1 of The Americans and then reading your posts made me remember something. In 1987 or 88, Bob Dole came to speak at my high school when he was running for President. It was required to go hear him speak, so I went. During his speech, he spoke of the “Godless Communists” and literally shook his fist at the sky. I remembered being pissed off that instead of giving me (a first time voter) facts, or telling me what he was FOR, I was getting propaganda. 17-year old me was totally unimpressed.

    • Val — as a politician, you could get a lot of people riled up with flags, the Bible, and Commie-hating. These days, you just swap out Commies for Muslims. Or Democrats.

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