“In my life, I have dreamt of seeing the great hearts of animals, jungles and rainforests full of birds and butterflies, but now I wonder if they will even exist for my children to see.” The then twelve year old daughter of Dr. David Suzuki, Severn Suzuki, then asked,
“Did you have to worry about those little things when you were my age?
No Severn, I didn’t, actually. I only had to worry about living long enough to see out the end of the week. You see, my twelfth birthday came on October 14, 1962. Smack in the middle of the Cuban missile crisis. Every day and every night we were riveted to our tiny TV sets in our tiny working class homes on the poor east side of Vancouver, a world away from the upscale west side of town you grew up in, where celebrity environmentalists oblivious to our hardship travel about to scold us for over-consumption. As you will read in the following testament, my generation too, had its “little things” to worry about.
THE GENESIS OF A CAVE-DWELLER
My life as a cave-dweller really began during the cold war while I was in my mother’s womb. Our house had the misfortune of being situated just two blocks from the air raid siren on the water tower that dominated the hill, which was in fact a 750 foot mountain.
Like a Pavlovian dog I was trained to drop everything, turn and run in full flight for home when that siren went off, and it went off randomly about once or twice a week for the first dozen years of my life. At times I felt that I was living in a firehall, except I never was guaranteed a block of four days respite with union pay.
Most of the time I kept within a five minute sprint of home base, but when I started kindergarten at age five, I was three blocks away down the hill, and had to content myself with taking cover under one of Mrs.Yorston’s desks, along with the other children. In September of 1955, just one month shy of my sixth birthday, I had to make the long one mile trek down the other side of the mountain to the elementary school to Grade One. I was so terrified of being that far away from my mother’s protection that she accompanied me to school everyday for the first ten days and actually sat in the classroom with me. When the siren finally went off, the teacher, Mrs.Gillespie, had all the kids hide under the desks just as in kindergarten. But somehow, I felt safer with my mother there as an added psychological buffer.
A year later I was walking home from school with my neighbour and girlfriend Daphne, whom I had promised to marry. We had managed to get within just two blocks from home when that damned siren went off again. We ran for our lives. By the time she reached her mother she was in hysterics. Welcome to the 1950s. The Golden Era.
I managed to hold it together until my twelfth birthday, which I sincerely thought was going to be my last. October 14, 1962. Yes, I truly believed, along with most of my classmates and I surmised, many adults, we were all going to die very soon. The Cuban missile crisis. This was it. 9/11 Terrorism.Y2K. Bird Flu. Al Gore’s Global Warming were a piece of cake. Nothing in life will ever match the feeling of despair and doom of those ten days in October of 62. For most of my boyhood I begged my parents to build a bomb shelter. But sensibly, they refused to build one. They had many reasons. But their main one was, “What if we are the only ones with a shelter and the bombs drop--- are you going to keep your friends out--- can you keep them out?”
I never realized how the Nuclear Terror affected me until about a year ago, that’s right, four decades later, when I observed my dog Barney. That requires an explanation.
As a boy, I would frequently do a disappearing act. My mother would call me without success and then two brothers, a father and two grandparents would scour the house and the yard looking for me. Invariably they would find me sleeping in a cupboard or a drawer with a pillow or blanket even when I was as old as nine years. My father would not build a bomb shelter, so apparently I would find a place that would give me that feeling of safety.
Barney, I notice, is much the same way. I offer him the very best and most capacious of three different beds. But when I turn my back I often find him curled up in the cramped , dark confines of the back of my car where he feels it is safe and cozy. The first seven months of his life were spent in a crate like that.
To this day I must sleep in the inner most recesses of the house, in the basement, in the darkest room, with the windows covered with cardboard and foam to block out the light. I feel threatened by light, brightness and brilliant sunshine---a nuclear blast is my definition of hell. “Gloomy” landscapes inspire comfort. The venues of the Bronte novels, dark stately manors, overcast skies that shadow dark moors also soothe me. There is also nothing that tempts me more than a trail through a dark forest. The Munsters were the first normal family I ever saw on television. When I arrived on Quadra my doctor suggested that I buy a special lamp from the drug store to counter-act SADS (depression) during the winter. On the contrary, I really need a dark shroud to cover the house to combat depression during the summer. Or better still, build a bomb shelter and live in it. Hitler’s residence in the dark forest of East Prussia, “The Wolf’s Lair” would be my Dream Home. The last place I would ever go for a vacation would be sunny Mexico. The last thing I would ever wear would be sunscreen.
That is what the Cold War did for me. I am a Cave-Dweller. Only my dog understands.
Every generation, it seems, faces a unique test, and emerges stronger or traumatized. Those that follow sometimes arrogantly assume that they invented the end of the world. Biodiversity loss and climate change are indeed calamities that could deal our species out of the game. But so was nuclear war, and it is in our fixation on environmental threats, that we have forgotten to notice the gathering storm clouds. I look over my shoulder at Iran, Israel and the White House, the probability of resource wars, and I just can’t get the monkey of fearing the Bomb off my back. Much in the way my parents couldn’t forget living through the Depression. Like a huckster at a carnival, the Grim Reaper may be playing a shell game with us. We are looking at the two shells labeled climate change and species loss. But the pea is under the one that says “all-out nuclear free-for-all”. Wouldn’t that be the irony. Both Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon lose their bet. To Dr. Strangelove.
Quadra Island, BC
August 30, 2008