I’ve always considered myself to be part of a strange in-between sort of generation. I was born in 1961, so I was too young to be part of the sixties and too old to be part of Generation-X. There was no cause that my generation was excited about. We were at the tail end of the baby boomers and the start of the me generation.
The music my friends and I listened to in high school was the stuff playing on the FM stations, not the top 40 disco that was popular. We listened to rock and roll from the late sixties and early seventies, as if we were disappointed in what our own era had to offer. Most of my high school friends got married and had kids right away and those that went on to college were intent on professions most likely to guarantee the highest income possible.
I don’t remember any artists, poets or saints.
I went into the Air Force when I was nineteen. I was in the San Antonio airport, waiting to get on a bus to basic training when all the television screens went live to New York City. It was December 8, 1980 and John Lennon had just been shot. It was the quietest I’ve ever seen an airport and it seemed that the world stood still.
I took it as an omen.
President Reagan was sworn into office the following month and when I think of my thirteen years, seven months and twenty-three days as an airman, my time was defined by those Reagan years.
I’m a cold war veteran.
Lots of people I’ve met over the years have been surprised and occasionally stunned to discover I was in the military. I guess I don't seem like someone who would have enlisted. They see what’s happening in Iraq now and they wonder why anybody would enlist.
I wonder the same thing.
Those were different times. People like me joined the military because we didn’t have a lot of other options and it was a way to pay for college – at least that’s what they told us. There were guys who joined because that’s just what the men in their families did. There were guys who’d run into trouble and it was either the military or jail. There were a lot of us who didn’t know what to do with our lives. We just knew there was nothing for us where we were.
We never thought about the possibility that we could be killed. We talked about it now and then in hypothetical terms, but the reality was that we had a lot of years where the United States didn’t get involved in any significant military actions. Now and then we got reminders that life could be a little more dangerous for us than for civilians. There were terrorist threats and bombings, but that was the kind of thing that those of us in our twenties knew only happened to other people.
There was one thing we were afraid of that most people have forgotten and younger people never experienced. We were afraid of the Soviet Union. We were born afraid of them. It’s strange when I think back on a lifetime of that fear of the unknown and the idea that at any time, a global nuclear holocaust might happen and end life on this planet as we know it. Our culture was obsessed with the possibility.
I was stationed in Europe for the better part of the 80’s, and we couldn’t travel to Eastern Bloc countries. We had to report contact with anyone we ran into from one of those countries to the Office of Special Investigations.
Not much chance of that happening in those days.
I had just moved back to the states when the Berlin Wall came down. I couldn’t stop watching the news. I cried. I was jealous that I’d left too soon because I felt like I should have been there. I never believed it would happen in my lifetime and then it did. It seems like a nearly forgotten part of our history now, but to that point, it was the biggest thing that had ever happened in the world as far as I was concerned.
Everything changed overnight.
I never met a Russian until a year ago. Irina moved to Denver from Moscow six years ago. She’s twenty seven years old and after the first time we talked, I realized that she has no concept of how people my age were raised to think of Russians – well, we called them Soviets – and how her parents’ generation thought of us. We thought of the Kremlin and Soviets ready to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles at us and we thought of Soviet people standing in lines for toilet paper. I have no idea what they thought of us.
I watched our fifth year in Iraq pass us by with no end in sight and I wonder what event will mark the end of this for the generation fighting this war. I hope the day will come when those kids too young to remember life before the first Gulf War can experience the feeling I had when the Cold War ended.
It didn’t take long for us to forget about it, but it was a nice feeling while it lasted.