The first time I heard of a wishbone I was standing in my next door neighbor's kitchen. Mrs. Rykoff explained the custom, holding the clean, dry bone out to me and her son, Howard, my playmate.
I remember taking the information in quite solemnly. I had the sense of this being an auspicious occasion. With various older members of Howard's family looking on, we silently made our wishes and pulled.
I won. I shyly, firmly refused to tell them what I'd wished for. Not a Madame Alexander doll. Not an ice cream cone.
I had wished for world peace. It was sometime during the winter of 1944-45 and I was about 4.
Not too surprising, my wish. Even little children knew about the war--the blackouts, the ration books, the tense adults. And then many kids, like myself, knew the service flag in the front window. Ours had a single star, meaning one person from that household, my Uncle Bill, was away at war. Thus the exciting letters and snapshots that had started arriving from England, and later, elsewhere in Europe.
Aware of the Bomb
It is not too surprising to me, either, in the discussions of what we teach children about nuclear war, to hear that children are only too aware of the bomb, to hear even that they fear a nuclear holocaust that will prevent their ever reaching adulthood.
They are aware. Just as I was aware. Just as I, some years later in the fourth and fifth grades at St. Salome's parish grammar school, was aware of the horror stories when the scientists came up with the hydrogen bomb. ("It's even worse," we were assured.) I would sit on the hall floor in a line of students during air raid drills, heads on knees, arms wrapped around our legs, trying to imagine the real thing, as Sister Borgia patrolled among us, leading us in the rosary.
Those were the years of the Korean war. That war had me scared to the point that several times I, having seen it first, hid the evening paper from my parents when the headlines were particularly grim. It was not my parents who were so upset, however. It was I. And since I was a child, I somehow thought if I kept the information from the grown-ups, I would have foiled the reality of the news.
Throughout those years of my childhood I had two minor, but rather persistent obsessions. At the time I did not see them as related.
The first was my dread of the end of the world. It was not a constant or crippling fear, but to the degree that it was a part of me, it was entirely within a religious, or biblical context. Catholics didn't much use the word Armageddon, but that's what I feared. It promised to be pretty terrible.
Whenever I went to Mass and received Communion, which was almost daily since I sang in the choir, I would come back from Communion, cover my face with my hands, (standard procedure) and beg God not to let me live to see the end of the world. The irony was not entirely lost on me that I, as is the case with most children--continuing well into adulthood--did not really accept the inevitability of my own death under any circumstances. But even death sounded better than being around for the end of the world. Better some sweetly sad bedside scene during a more normal time.
My second obsession was a lighter, more fanciful one. I was always fascinated by the approach of the year 2000, which would occur, it was reasonable to expect, within my lifetime. The other side of the millennium. It was not the same, not remotely comparable, to the turning of the century experienced by people of my grandparents' generation. That was just a 100-year milestone. We would have more in common with the people who saw the dawn of the year 1000--if they were counting. Time and space merged in my perception. The year 2000 loomed before me, awesome and a little frightening. What was there on the other side of the millennium? What would I be doing, who would I be, on that New Year's Eve when it came time to step into the future?
Fears and Dreams
My two obsessions did not go away. They have caught up with each other now. Will we make it to the year 2000 or will we end the world first?
Well into adulthood now, with the same fears and dreams.
I spent last New Year's Eve with a few old friends. We had made it through 1984, that year that had received all the advance publicity, without incident, and we sat there, before dinner, drinking champagne and idly commenting on that. The ominous 1984 was about to become yesterday's news.
I asked: "Do you think we'll live to see 2000?"
To my great dismay, they did not. For once I would have preferred to discover that I was alone in my fears. They were not talking about the precariousness of individual life. They knew very well the "we" of my question referred not to the four of us but to all of us.
These were not people given to talk about nuclear war. It was the first time I could remember us talking about it at any length. It was logic that made them answer like that, it became apparent as we continued to talk. Logic and a feeling of powerlessness.
Kid stuff? Kids aren't the only ones who hide newspapers. Only, adults tend to hide them from themselves. Or, having seen them in their peripheral vision, turn quickly aside to eat, drink and get out the credit cards.
Up against the specter of a nuclear holocaust, our coping mechanisms seem no better than those of children--hide, deny, cower, ignore, joke, make a wish.
As we talked however, my friends and I were not without hope. That I think is the adult part. Hope is not wishful thinking. It demands courage and action, even if for some of us all it amounts to is the will to keep going and do what we can. Against the odds. In all our vulnerability, and notwithstanding all our childlike fears, we head for the year 2000. I have the same kind of wonder about it that I always did. I still think it will be an awesome occasion.