For those of us who recall the duck-and-cover drills of the late 1950s and early 1960s, the president's recent remarks directed at North Korea were a chilling reminder of a time in which nuclear war seemed an ever-present possibility.
I remember when the family who lived across the street began building a fallout shelter in a vacant lot next to their house. I had only the vaguest idea of the purpose of a fallout shelter, but it seemed like a good idea to have one in the neighborhood.
Adults talked in hushed tones about the missiles in Cuba and discussed exactly how long after a nuclear attack it would be safe to emerge into broad daylight. More often than not adults talked over us, not to us, about the headlines on the evening news.
I remember hearing my mom talking on the phone with a friend. She didn't know I was listening. "The neighbors said the girls and I could come to the shelter, but Fred wasn't welcome - because he was born in Denmark. They said he wasn't really an American."
I couldn’t make sense of what I heard. Was mom really saying that someone thought my dad, a naturalized citizen who had served in the U.S. Army and loved his chosen country beyond words, wasn't really an American?
Mom was furious with our neighbors even while wondering aloud if, should it come to that, she should go to the shelter with my sister and me, or stay with my dad in our home. Mom didn't approve of eavesdropping so I never asked her about what I had heard. But I thought about it – a lot.
In time, the threat of nuclear war subsided. Our neighbors never did build a fallout shelter though they went as far as digging a very large, very deep hole in their vacant lot. And, thankfully, Mom never had to make an impossible choice.
All this has come back to me as I watch coverage of the escalating rhetoric between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump. I recall the fear I felt as a child when the possibility of mushroom clouds lingered in the national consciousness.
Hearing the president talk, almost casually, about unleashing "fire and fury like the world has never seen," was more than unsettling. After all, the world has seen some pretty devastating "fire and fury" We need only remember Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Of course, in WWII, the U.S. was the only nation to have the A-bomb and President Truman ordered it be used to stop a terrible war, not to start one. Imagine if the world had as many nuclear armed nations then as it does now.
As I reflected on these things, it occurred to me that adults who loved me and wanted to spare me worry in fact created more anxiety by avoiding honest and calming conversations. In the 60s, there were only three news channels and the evening news with its ominous headlines played but once a day. In today's 24-7 news cycle, saturation coverage is the norm.
Whether we know it or not, our children are watching - and listening. And adults need to find age appropriate ways to talk to them, to help them make sense of the news. That's more easily said that done. It is difficult to explain to a child something that is almost impossible to comprehend as adults. But it is important we make the effort.
We need to teach our children the lessons of history in words they can understand. We must encourage them to ask us questions that they may be afraid to ask. And we must model resilience by showing our children that, in a republic, citizens have agency. We have the power to write letters to the editor and to our senators, members of congress, and other elected officials. We can attend rallies, speak our truth, and campaign for candidates who will work to stop the saber-rattling and promote civil discourse. And we can prepare our children to hear false narratives from people who are ill-informed or indifferent to the truth. We can show them where to find reliable sources they can trust.
When I wrote the first draft of this essay, I was focused on tensions with North Korea. Now, the violence and racism on display in Charlottesville weighs heavily on my mind. It seems that each day’s news reminds us of the danger and destruction so easily unleashed in the world. But this is all the more reason to have those difficult, critically important conversations with our children and, not only with our children, but with each other.