There are demons all around us – external and internal.
The visit by President Obama last week to our longtime enemy Cuba reminded me of a time long, long ago and one of my first friends, Ray Winn.
Though only a month older than me, Ray seemed much worldlier, wiser. As much as a 6-year-old can be anyway. He lived one block over from me on Baldwin Street, which seemed like miles away as a kid. But midway was a vacant lot. It wasn’t very large, but it was an absolutely glorious place where one could find jungles, dinosaurs, quicksand, Tombstone, Arizona, foxholes, prisons, Mars, rivers and oceans – basically anything courtesy of our imaginations. Every kid should have a vacant lot.
The year was probably, 1961 or 1962 and Ray and I would be fighting World War I, II or possibly III, depending on the ornateness and expanse of our imaginations.
Living in Fort Worth at the time, the Cold War not only screamed from the TV, and shouted from huge newspaper headlines (thanks, Fort Worth Press, for the paranoia!) but also from the whispered mutterings of adults. Fort Worth, word had it on good authority by someone’s brother’s wife’s second cousin twice-removed, was numero uno on the Soviet’s hit list for a nuclear strike to take out Carswell Air Force Base and General Dynamics. Whoa, little ol’ Fort Worth was that important! Whatever adult was whispering these words in a menacing, quiet tone, left the clear impression that merely living in Cowtown meant one was sacrificing oneself and one’s family for freedom.
So it was our patriotic duty, we thought, to be extra vigilant. Know where your fallout shelters are, with those cans of 10-year-old beans and canned water. Oh, joy, what a life that would be. What, we would only be down there for 30 or 40 years; surely we wouldn’t get tired of metallic water and beans.
But Ray was slightly wiser. He read, or at least pretended to read, the newspaper with his dad, something I soon adopted. I remember sitting on my father’s lap asking him to read the small print. I could read the headlines and I remember one, I assume in the Star-Telegram on the editorial page, that trumpeted “God is Not Dead!” It was some editorial taking issue with that early ‘60s notion that God is Dead. I remember my dad patiently explaining that to a 6-year-old.
Because the editorial page had a cartoon on it, I though it must be something funny, so I’d have my dad explain what the “joke” was. I’m sure my typical reaction was “That’s not nearly as funny as Nancy.” Yep, parenting is a tough business.
I was a pretty carefree kid, but Ray took the communist threat pretty darn seriously. So we would be out playing in our vacant lot taking out Nazis when a plane would fly over. Ray would look up observantly and ominously intone, “I don’t think that’s one of ours.” Translation: Get ready for the big one.
We would then rush home, turn on the TV and wait for Walter Cronkite or Chet Huntley to tell us Armageddon was upon us.
When the Cuban missile crisis was upon us in 1962, Ray upped his game. Every sonic boom, every contrail, every plane in the sky was a potential enemy. Even larger, bolder newspaper headlines only fed Ray’s vigilance. Surely, the end was near.
But it wasn’t. Crisis averted, at least until our own self-inflicted Armageddons occurred later in the 1960s. Ray and I went on through high school and even spent some time in college together.
Tragically, Ray’s life ended too soon, in convoluted circumstances that I still don’t – and doubt I ever will – completely understand.
I’m not sure the Russian or Cuban threat is really over, but I do feel like telling Ray he can rest easy. His vigilance has paid off. But Ray’s life did serve as a lesson to me and many others: Sometimes those internal demons require vigilance too.