Daniel’s World: what made him

kids(One of a series of posts about my estranged son, Daniel)

So we moved six-month old Daniel and his eighteen-month old sister to a rented house in the summer of 1962 – three bedrooms, more space, our very own washer and dryer, nobody thumping around overhead and a fenced backyard waiting for children. Blake still had three jobs going on, so we could make ends meet – maybe.

The sewing machine had pride of place in the living room in the front window, just as my mother’s had for years. The bookcase sat next to it, filled with our university texts and a 12- inch black and white television set, mostly wooden cabinet, a hand-me-down.

People were poorer then.

I made drapes for the front window out of burlap, tape with pockets sewn in for a heading and wire hooks that pleated the fabric. Sort of. I had also made the baby overalls that were passed from Julia to Daniel, pounding in the rivet-like snaps that ran up the legs for diapering access. One pair lost a snap. I couldn’t fix it. Too bad. The garment got worn anyway.

I had been trained for this. Along with Latin and French and algebra, 18th century literature and Kant and logic, I had been taught home economics. I had even passed -with a little help on those blouse sleeves. I knew how to price out individual portions of a balanced meal -not that I actually did – and set a table. I could mitre bed sheets with the best of them. I didn’t need to be taught how to clean a house within an inch of its life. My mother drummed that into me. Literally.

But what was I thinking?! I absolutely hated home economics. I loved Shakespeare and Samuel Johnson and thinking about whether a tree falling in the forest really did fall if nobody was there -subjective or objective reality. (Well, okay, nobody loves Kant.) I wanted children and I wanted ideas, but I was finding the two mutually exclusive.

Television was no help, even if we could actually make out the shadowy forms our rabbit- ear aerial pulled in. The radio was better because we got CBC. And, of course there was the library, even if reading had to wait until bedtime when I was worn out.

Meanwhile Daniel learned to crawl. Whereas his sister had humped along on one hip, he used an inch-worm or caterpillar method. Such mobility began his differentiation. Julia soon discovered that he wasn’t just an audience. He wanted that toy too and could grab and hang on for dear life.

To get things done I let them play together in their child-proofed room with a baby gate across the door, but I could hear them as I scrubbed the kitchen floor – on my knees of course, my mother’s injunction ringing in my head: mops don’t work. I let them work things out until murder seemed imminent and then I would fly up the seven steps to the bedroom level. Daniel would have to go in the playpen and Julia sit in the high chair, but, hey, that was fine with them. They could watch me scrub and talk about it in baby-speak.

The evenings were hardest, especially during teething. I remember one such evening. We had moved them to separate bedrooms by then; otherwise, they never went to sleep. They stayed up chatting from crib to crib. The big green rocking chair had found its home in the middle bedroom with Daniel’s crib. He couldn’t get to sleep, so I sat him on my right knee and Julia climbed up on my left. We rocked and rocked. I sang. Everything I knew. All the old country songs from my childhood, all the camp songs, all the love songs – Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, After You’ve Gone.. Still they were awake. Then I cried.

I cried because I was lonely. My husband was never home and when he was, he was marking papers or studying. I had no friends. Moving hadn’t helped, of course, but I had never had many. The neighbour women treated me warily. I spoke like the English teacher I was. I cried because I was depressed. I cried because I was bored. The kids knew that instinctively, no doubt, but now they knew it because my tears ran down their faces as they comforted me. Something had to be done.

But first …. we had the Cuban Missile Crisis. October 1962, suddenly there really was going to be World War III. The new twist was none of us were going to survive. They say it lasted only 12 days and yet I had a stock pile of canned goods down in the crawl space as well as a can opener, so the run-up to the crisis must have been menacing. I actually convinced myself that we could survive down there until the radiation blew itself off, if only Blake could figure out how to tap the water heater. We were all terrified, but I seemed to have a special gift for hysteria.

John Kennedy fixed it. My babies were not going to die for the present.

At some point, by some miracle, Blake and I were able to sit down at the kitchen table to address the situation, a grey card table, I might add.

“If you could do anything you wanted right now, what would it be?” Blake asked.

What an amazing idea! But I just sat there, stunned into silence.

“Come on,” he said. “say what comes into your head.”

“I’d go up to the bedroom and put on my navy suit,” I said.

“Then where would you go?” he asked.

“To Cedarbrae Collegiate,” I said.

“You want to go back to teaching,” he said.

The blood rushed away from my head. I almost fainted.

“Well, I can’t do that,” I replied.

“Why not?” he said.

“What would happen to the kids?”

So we began to sort it out. Someone could be hired to come in and look after them. Even if it cost half of my salary, it would be worth it. I would have no problem getting a job. Teachers were in such short supply now. All I would have to do would be to show up at the job fair in the spring.

The next day and for the next week, I kept deciding this was a crazy idea and then deciding that I had to do it. My anxiety level got pumped up almost to Missile Crisis levels. The deciding factor was the money. Among other stresses, I was being pestered by bill collectors for the landlord’s debts, including mortgage payments. Our rent money was just disappearing apparently. If we had two incomes, we would be able to buy the house.

I got a job at Thomson Collegiate, a few blocks away. As it turned out, it was the worst job there, consisting of three different subjects, six classes and a different classroom for every class, but I would be paid the same as Blake.

I hired a housekeeper strictly on instinct. I watched her interact with the children. She was a Scots woman from Glasgow who had worked in a Canadian munitions factory during the Second War. She was tiny and feisty, smoked like a chimney and turned out to be a secret drinker. In other words, she was so wrong, but she was also so right. She was happy as a clam mothering and keeping house, and in my defense, in 1963, we didn’t know second hand smoke was bad.

In retrospect, I’m not sure whether Daniel got a worse start than his sister because I abandoned him when he was eighteen months old or whether he got a better start for the same reason.

High Anxiety: Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAOn January 24, 1961, a B-52 developed a fuel leak while being refueled mid-air. Unable to jettison the fuel inside its left wing, it went into an uncontrolled spin and began to break up over North Carolina. Four of its crew parachuted to safety. One died in the attempt and two died in the crash. The two Mark 39 hydrogen bombs it was carrying fell from the plane. In the process, various locking pins and arming wires were yanked out of one of them and the bomb responded as if it had been deliberately armed. The bomb hit the ground crushing crystals inside the nose, the firing signal. “But the weapon did not detonate.”  (246 Command and Control). A simple switch in the ‘safe’ position had saved the eastern seaboard from devastation. The other bomb, unarmed, hit the earth, part of it burying itself more than 70 ft deep, never to be found.

A news item in the National Post on September 23, 2013 telling that long-secret story indicated that Eric Schlosser had revealed it in his new book, Command and Control: nuclear weapons, the Damascus accident and the illusion of safety.

I snapped to attention. I remembered that day very vividly. I was in a state of high anxiety myself. I was about to give birth to my first child and true to the wisdom of the day, I was all alone in a cold room high above a wintry street, listening to the shrieks of the woman down the hall who definitely wanted “Momma Mia”.

I saw the day in an entirely new perspective. Instead of latching-on problems in mid-January 1961, I could have been dealing with radiation sickness in a semi-destroyed civilization.

I didn’t want to know that. And yet, knowing it, I rushed out to buy the book. The book seller said, if I liked Fast Food Nation, I would love this. I hadn’t read Schlosser’s best seller, figuring I didn’t need to be convinced that many people eat badly. I’m a born-again feeder myself, converted by bad health. And goodness, what a thick book – over 600 pages.

The framework story around which Schlosser builds his book is an accident in a Titan II, ballistic missile silo in Damascus, Arkansas in 1980, which began when a mechanic dropped a socket. Ordinarily, a dropped tool just ended up in the W-shaped support at the bottom and had to be retrieved. This one ruptured a fuel tank. Warning lights came on all over the command panel. The silo crew evacuated. Now it was impossible to say exactly what was happening inside the silo, except that it was dire. Schlosser feeds us this story bit by bit, concluding it at the end of the book. In between the Damascus chapters, he recounts the story of atomic weapons, the struggle to make them, to determine who would control them and how to use them. Throughout it all, the public was lulled as much as possible in spite of unbelievably inept handling, accidents and near misses, like the time the rising moon over Norway was mistaken for a fleet of Soviet bombers.

Schlosser’s research is topnotch. He seems to have interviewed everyone involved in the Damascus incident, for example and the many characters involved come to life because of the detail. If you do get confused, there’s a handy glossary at the front, not only of the major players, but also of acronyms and abbreviations.

Some of you will understand the physics Schlosser outlines better than I do. It’s true that at school, some of my best friends were physicists and I lived across the road from the university’s reactor, but, no matter how many times I am told the difference between fusion and fission, I don’t get it. I’m pretty much stuck at really big bang and lots of destruction and unimaginably big bang and destruction. The latter would be the Mark 39, H-bomb.

So my baby daughter came home un-radiated, never did learn to latch on, but took to a bottle readily enough. She learned to walk and loved her baby brother deliriously. They were both short enough to walk upright into the crawl space of our new house. That was a good thing because we were likely going to have to live there for weeks, drinking out of the hot water tank and consuming stockpiled cans of food, after the Soviet missiles took off from Cuba.

But that didn’t happen either.

Still Schlosser doesn’t want us to be lulled into a false sense of security. And I’m willing to inform myself when a book reads this well. I’ll finish it and then slip back into willful ignorance.