WASHINGTON, December 23, 2014 — On the evening of December 24, 1962, I was a first-grader riding around Cape Cod with my parents and siblings, out to look at Christmas lights. The radio was on, playing Christmas carols (so I assume; the Big Fear is burned into my memory, though some details have been lost), when suddenly my heart froze and my world came crashing down.
A voice on the radio broke in for a special announcement: NORAD radars had detected some small objects headed our direction from over the North Pole.
Two months before, the United States had come to the brink of nuclear war. My father was in the Air Force, stationed at Otis Air Force Base on Cape Cod. He piloted radar planes that flew over the Atlantic, watching for incursions from the USSR. The base had been on high alert, and in my school we’d done the famous “duck and cover exercises” when the alert sirens blared, and also learned where the shelters were that even then I knew would do us no good.
And so for me, objects coming over the North Pole didn’t mean Santa Clause and his tiny reindeer. They meant fireballs, radiation, and either fast incineration or lingering death. Our house was on the base; I wouldn’t even get to open Christmas presents.
And yet my parents seemed happily calm, almost serene as they looked at Christmas lights. My dad has always kept a calm face in an emergency, a rock of stability, but my mom has never been any good at keeping her feelings hidden. If she wasn’t freaking out, there must be no reason for me to panic.
The announcer occasionally broke in to update us on the location of those tiny polar intruders. He sounded excited, not terrified, and even at that age I knew that warheads would have hit within ten minutes of that first announcement, so when they were still over Canada a half hour later, I knew the world was safe. At least for that year.
I don’t remember what I got for Christmas that year, but I’m certain that I woke up very happy just to be alive.