A baby boomer reflects on threats old and new

To say that our generation of baby boomers has lived through some interesting times is an understatement. And as freelance writer Estella Clifford writes from Glenside, Pennsylvania in this Boomer Opinion piece, we’re still living in interesting times. Interesting, and threatening.

There’s a Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.”

I was in 4th grade when the Cuban Missile Crisis went down. Old enough to know the outcome could be really bad. Mom did a credible job explaining to a nine-year-old what an atomic bomb was, and how radiation could pass through anything except lead, and make you really sick, or even kill you.

It was not our first experience with Civil Defense drills. In first grade, we and the kindergartners, the most vulnerable to radiation, were marched down to the basement gym and chivvied into enclosed locker rooms to wait for the All Clear. Fast forward several years, and hale and hearty fourth-graders didn’t need no stinkin’ walled locker rooms. Instead, we were arrayed around the perimeter of the gym floor. I stared up at the sun streaming through chicken-wire-reinforced, pebbled glass windows that stretched a good ten feet down from the top edge of the two-story high ceiling. Windows that would leak radiation in like a sieve. “We’re doomed,” I thought silently.

At home, I went from room to room in our house, and in my grandmother’s house next door, determining where we should stand to avoid the invisible rays that could pass through storm windows, inner windows, and metal blinds like hot air through a screen, should the bomb drop. The basement seemed ideal, with its concrete walls, minimal windows, and subterranean location. My parents never noticed me casing the basement. I never told them I was afraid.

Estella Clifford with her geiger counter.

There would be a problem, of course, if a nuclear attack came while I was at school, or anywhere other than home. How I would get back to my family? What if my dad were at work? How would he get home? We wouldn’t be able to go outside. I fantasized about finding my way home underground, through sewer pipes. The details on the how-to were sketchy.

Not long after, young people became activists for change. We stopped a war. We agitated for ecological protections. We protested inequality. We sang about stopping injustice. We agitated, cried, and some, as at Kent State, died. Sometimes we broke barriers, and we cheered.

In 1989, I watched the Berlin Wall fall. In January 1992, the Soviet Union dissolved into component countries. Finally, I thought, our world was safer; we had retreated from the abyss.

Tearing down the Berlin Wall.

Today, as I listen to an unimaginative man ask, “If we have nukes, why can’t we use them?”, as I listen to Putin boast of his huge “invincible” nukes and threaten the world with his presumed power, as I watch high school students forced to see their friends die, and to confront mortality when they shouldn’t have to confront anything more threatening than an SAT or asking a date to the prom, these memories have resurfaced.

A recent demonstration by students in support of Parkland, Florida, teens and demanding heightened control of guns and safety.

Lockdowns and active shooter drills unite these young people with us veterans of Civil Defense drills. American children were threatened then, and they are threatened now by both the old nemesis of nuclear war AND home-grown dangers. The threat remains. We need to support the Parkland survivors, and the survivors of previous domestic terrorist acts, be they shootings or bombings.

The Establishment did not support us. It lingers in Washington even now, STILL not supporting us, or today’s young people. We need to protect these new activists from false accusations and nefarious plots to discredit them when they have barely begun to grieve. There is hope in these articulate young people. We owe it to the world to support and nurture them.

Interesting times? We’re there.


  1. I totally agree. We should support these young people. It feels like the circle has been going full round and is closing, back to the starting point…But I do hope they’ll manage to build a better world than we did!

    1. We did try. And I think we did make the world a better place, to a degree. Then we sort of dropped the ball. With this coming back full circle, hopefully we will nudge the world further towards a peace and tolerance and understanding.

  2. I’m familiar with the adage… interesting times. But has there ever been an ‘uninteresting time’ in this ‘vale of tears?’ We boomers had ‘the bomb’ and nuclear attack drills, but we got through it, most of us without scars. Previous generations had the Blitz, WWI trench and gas warfare. There were the unending wars of Europe, the conquest of the New World and its attendant carnage. And, ever since there were humans, they were little more than prey, unless they were hiding in their caves or in a large group, armed with spears and clubs. I fear that our modern comforts, wealth and culture of instant gratification, has led too many of us into believing that a hurried embrace of the most ‘popular’ solution to our latest problem will truly make the world ‘safe at last.’ Wasn’t that the promise of communism? And where did that lead for millions?

    1. Well put. The “hurried embrace” has always led to multiple “fixes”, at least in the legislative arena, no matter which party is in control.

    2. We are not a perfect species, that’s for sure. Fortunately, we are a curious species, and our inventiveness has led us to learn more not only about our world, but also the vastness of our universe. We talk about going to the stars, or at least the near planets. It’s time we stop trying to divide ourselves, and realize we are all related creatures, hurtling through space at 67,000 miles per hour around the sun on this little mudball we call Earth.

      We’ve (most of us) moved out of the cave. Now we need to look back on what we’ve learned about ourselves, about violence, about mental illness. Little to nothing has been done in the US to address this problem of gun violence. Congress stopped the CDC from investigating gun violence as a public health issue (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/12/health/gun-violence-research-cdc.html ). The needle hasn’t moved on this issue. And nowhere do I suggest we embrace “the most ‘popular’ solution.” We need a solution, however, and a lasting one. That means we need to do some research, and real work.

      (Communism died in 1992; some tried it, to their detriment. It didn’t work, and that was a fitting end. Oligarchy isn’t looking so hot, either.)

  3. It was the protests of the 60s that promoted the creation of the #1971 #PowellMemo, corporations’ manifesto. It was and is the blueprint for the neocon takeover of our government.

    1. As I understand it, the Powell memo was drafted two months before he was appointed, but wasn’t disclosed until after, much like McConnell forced the withholding of the discovery of Russian hacking before the 2016 election. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll be a little smarter this time. I hope.

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