24 January 2015
Mind has wandered off trying to pre-solve the challenges awaiting me at the office while glazed eyes subconsciously take note of flickering digital numbers on the gas pump. The loud click of the auto-shutoff jolts me back to the present moment. I blink a couple times as the numbers don’t seem quite right. Holy smokes, I never thought the day would come again when the tank on my Tahoe could be filled to the brim for under $40. Often over the past several years, as I’ve watched the numbers spin past 70, I’ve reminisced fondly about the days when my truck was young and shiny and smelled good and could be filled up for around 36 bucks. Remember those days when we paid with cash and had to stop the pump precisely on zero-zero?
Upon leaving the filling station, one part of my brain did the driving while another mulled over other things I thought I’d never see. Two things came immediately to mind. Growing up I never, ever, considered the possibility that one day the Berlin Wall would cease to exist, that I’d witness people tearing it down with bare hands as GDR Border Guards stood passively by. Nor did I ever think that I’d see the restoration of diplomatic relations with our neighbor Cuba in my lifetime. Both of these events caused me to reflect upon the Cold War world of my youth. Today’s world – my children’s world – has its own international dangers. Less institutional, the threats are less clearly defined and the dangers perhaps scarier by virtue of their being less predictable, more indiscriminate, more ethnic, more fundamentalist. Violence is less about territorial gain than it is about identity and feeling marginalized. But there was definitely something ominous about those years before the Wall collapsed and the Soviet Union rotted from within and imploded upon itself.
It’s amazing how quickly and thoroughly the feeling of that time has dissipated. It’s a struggle to recall what it truly felt like to live under the threat of nuclear annihilation, except that it was an ever-present pall. I never knew when it might come, sometimes it seemed so imminent in my young mind, but I knew where it would come from. Some days I’d look up into the perfectly clear, brilliantly blue sky and all I’d see were dark grey clouds of nuclear missiles.
Back then it seemed like the only things on Earth that mattered could be identified with just these four letters: U, S, A and R . . . USA/USSR. Or five, if you preferred USA/CCCP. The rest of the world had no say as these two superpowers held the fate of the world, the survival of life on Earth, in their hands. As Tom Clancy would write in his novel Red Storm Rising, “our survival would be at the mercy of whichever NATO (or Warsaw Pact) leader is the LEAST stable.” Back to letters, peace and life itself proceeded against the backdrop of the insane concept dubbed MAD – Mutually Assured Destruction. If you incinerate my country, my people, my ideology, you can be assured that my missiles – ICBMs – will instantly blot out you and yours.
The competition for world dominance was reflected in the world of sports, as well. In 1980 the United States and 59 other nations boycotted the Moscow Summer Olympics in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Four years later, citing security concerns and anti-Soviet hysteria in the US, the Soviet Union and 14 other countries boycotted the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. But when American and Eastern Bloc athletes did meet in Olympic competition, it made for some of the most epic, and sometimes controversial, sports matches and performances in history: the 1972 Soviet victory over perennial basketball Gold Medalist Team USA; the ’72 redefining of gymnastics by Olga Korbut; the surprising dominance of American boxers and Romanian Nadia Comaneci’s perfect 10 in 1976; and the US’s 1980 ‘Miracle on Ice’ victory over the powerful Soviet hockey team. Fierce competition even extended to the cultivated world of chess where, in 1972, American Bobby Fischer wrested the World Chess Championship from Boris Spassky of the USSR.
Since the end of those bad old days, my own level of sports fan passion has rarely risen to the level of those Cold War sports contests, with the exception of the great Cowboys-Redskins and Cowboys-Niners rivalries. How things have changed. Who could have ever foreseen the day I’d cheer on a forward for the 2014 Russian Olympic Team?
( Dallas Stars in 2014 Winter Olympics: Jamie Benn and Coach Lindy Ruff, Canada; Kari Lehtonen, Finland; Valeri Nichushkin, Russia)