October 26, 2001
A Clutch of
By Virginia Dare
Why I write
"Virginian" on forms
that ask my nationality
I was 16 years old and living on a U.S. military base in Europe when John Kennedy was shot. It was early evening, and some of my classmates and I were preparing for an informal mixer at the base Teen Club. While several of us rolled up the rugs and moved chairs and sofas against the walls, a couple of the boys tinkered with the radio.
The first news reports breaking into our search for the Beatles were sketchy and sporadic, but it was clear that something bad was happening "back home." We quickly abandoned AFN, the Armed Forces Network, on the assumption that it was being censored. Various European signals brought us what later turned out to be the typical rumors that populate the airwaves in the early moments of any breaking mega-story: the vice president was also dead; the speaker of the House was wounded; the president pro tempore of the Senate was missing and presumed dead. Eventually things got sorted out somewhat, but it was still apparent to us that we were in big trouble.
Remember, O Best Beloved, we're talking about a period in our history that featured nuclear-attack drills in our schools: Crouch under your desk with your head covered by your geography book and wait for Armageddon, kiddies. (As we proceed, keep in mind the bad faith inherent in the government's "duck and cover" propaganda.) The Berlin Wall had recently been erected, and the Soviet premier had declared that his country would bury us. So there we were, stranded on foreign shores, with our government in chaos, and the Russians had their missiles trained on our European military bases and airstrips. We Americans abroad were sitting there with cross hairs on our forehead, just waiting to be vaporized.
Of course, there was an escape plan, carefully rehearsed at least once a month. Each of our military families had a closet full of emergency gear: jerry cans of drinking water, five days' rations for each family member, clothing, blankets, and other essentials. Each family with a motor vehicle had been assigned motorless people whom they would transport. When the Big One came, we were supposed to load our emergency kits into the cars, collect our passengers, and, headlights glowing, set off down a major highway to the closest seaport, where troop transports would be waiting to ferry us safely back to the United States, while our men went to war.
It wasn't until several years later that I realized the fatal flaw in the plan and the creepy implications of that flaw. (I've never claimed to be the sharpest bayonet in the drawer.) Troop transports would have other urgent business, and wafting us safely home was low on the list of priorities compared to moving troops and equipment around the theater of combat. There was no good way for the soldiers left behind to communicate with their evacuating families, and in the days or weeks that it might take to get us aboard ship and en route across the Atlantic (during all of which time we would be sitting targets for enemy fire), we would be mental distractions, an ever-present concern that would tear attention away from our men's immediate task of blowing hell out of the encroaching forces of darkness.
On the other hand, if we innocent noncombatants were nuked to a crisp before we ever reached the docks, what a powerful motivating force that would be for our survivors, who would rage against our killers in a massive surge of vengeance. If a cache of secret orders from that distant Cold War era was to be unearthed revealing that a tiny cadre of commanders at the highest level were prepared to wipe us out and blame the Russians, I wouldn't blink an eye. Remembering the disparagement and contempt in which all we military family members were held by our leaders, and knowing how those bastards have acted since can you say collateral damage, boys and girls? I see it as an elegant solution to a thorny problem. If it were demonstrated that they hadn't come up with such a plan, elaborately worked out and neatly documented, somehow I'd think worse of them.
Several weeks ago, when the flag-making industry was demonstrating itself to be one of the few booming businesses in the country, a friend asked me to deliver a small American flag to a mutual acquaintance who hadn't been able to locate one in the rush on the variety stores. I told her that I'd really rather she found another way of delivering the flag, because I'd prefer to fry in hell than have anything to do with wearing, displaying, waving, saluting, pledging allegiance to, or otherwise acknowledging the Stars and Stripes. She was somewhat taken aback, but I hadn't left an awful lot of room for discussion. A couple of weekends ago the same friend came over for dinner, and as we were mellowly polishing off a most satisfactory Pinot Grigiot, she asked me how come it was I had that peculiar reaction to patriotic display. She granted that things were getting cloyingly sentimental and that I'd never been one for group hugs and other public displays of maudlin mindlessness, but still she thought that a renewed commitment to love of country was sort of nice.
I told her the story I've just told you. She was strangely quiet. "Quite frankly," I concluded, "reflecting dispassionately to yourself, 'My country wants me dead,' is a rather powerful disincentive toward any displays of love or loyalty to either the flag or the Republic for which it stands." After a minute, she agreed that I might have a point, and we got up to do the dishes.
Ask not what your country can do for you. But you might want to spend a few minutes taking inventory of what it can do to you.
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