2012-02-08 / Excursions

The war that came in from the cold

w. deanPULLEY

Anyone who encountered puberty in late 60s U.S. was inoculated against polio, smallpox and the Soviet Union. As the Cold War raged between Moscow and Washington, popular culture bloated with allusions to the unsettling nature of “the enemy.” James Bond owes his lavish martini budget to the collective currency of our poorly defined fears.

As kids, we knew that there were intercontinental ballistic missile installations on both sides of the world. Submarines lurking the deep with push button mass destruction. Nobody talked too much (to teenagers, at least) about this. Once in a while you’d see an ominous fallout shelter symbol over the steps of a government building. A Civil Defense siren would be tested at noon on Saturdays. We knew they were out there, though. A nation of people with nothing less than the subversion of our way of life on the agenda. Robotic drones of the state, ready to give all for the defeat of apple pie and TV dinners.

Once in a great while there was some effort to lighten the national mood. In 1966 a movie titled “The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming” got a lot of laughs and four Academy Award nominations. A mid-’70s Hallmark Card television spot featured a working class Russian family receiving a strange envelope from the U.S.: it opened to show the single word MIR (Peace) on the enclosed card.

Most Cold War pop culture was scare and dare, though. Even up to 1984, movies like “Red Dawn” cast Russians as cold, cruel despisers of democracy. The dangers of two giant military superpowers poised for immediate deployment were real enough. The people in our two countries, however, were kept fairly ignorant of each other in that pre-internet world. Dehumanizing the opponent is such a hardwired competitive reaction that even today otherwise intelligent Republican and Democratic voters act as though they don’t have to live with each other after the election. Cold War propaganda was calculated to keep the citizens of the dominant political philosophies of the day locked in mutual fear and suspicion, and largely did. Except for a couple of guys sponsored by General Mills breakfast cereal.

From 1959 until 1964, Jay Ward and Bill Scott lampooned the Cold War weekly in the animated “Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.” A flying squirrel and a witless moose from Frostbite Falls, Minn., foiled the efforts of operatives Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale to steal secrets and gizmos for the glory of dictatorial Pottsylvania. Boris and Natasha faced performance pressure from scary Fearless Leader, failing enough to gain audience sympathy for their plight. Heavy-handed stereotypes, but a start toward shared humanity. Ward and Scott’s political and social parody was hip decades before “The Simpsons.” Beautifully outlined in Keith Scott’s book “The Moose That Roared,” including a bizarre connection between Bullwinkle and the Cuban missile crisis. I dug the pun-filled dialogue as a kid and the political commentary as a historyloving adult. Boris and Natasha’s plaintive catchphrase “Moos and SKWErill!” is branded forever on my frontal lobe.

In ’89, all that Cold War angst came down with the Berlin Wall. The Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. The curious on both sides of the mental block soon found that we were more alike than different.

For the last few weeks I’ve been a bit player in the reality version of “The Russians are Coming.” This time the destination is Miami, and they’re coming with welcome investment bucks and broad smiles.

Never underestimate the power of capitalism and sunshine.

One of the Russian friends I’ve made is an unassuming guy around my age, and we’ve laughed about the childhood history we shared a world apart. The irony is piled high by our proximity to Cuba, a flashpoint in the entire Cold War drama.

I feel more kinship with this passionate, forthright man than I do with the insular squabblers so many of my generation have become.

Picking up his wife, daughter and two dogs from the airport to begin a life in our sunny state left me proud and humble. For the brave and enterprising of the planet, the U.S.A. remains the last best place. The charms of South Florida are a bonus worthy of Goldman Sachs. After breaking out in song at the sight of a great heron in their new back yard, my friend’s wife exclaimed her love for all animals. “In Moscow, I feed... what is the word? SKWErill!”

Mir. It’s left the Hallmark commercial and come to live among us. ¦

Return to top