I can still easily picture Karen in her modest kitchen. It was her son’s third birthday party, and she seemed a bit flustered. “I’m sorry the place is such a mess,” she said, brushing her short, thick blonde hair out of her eyes. Trying to put her at ease, I commented, “Yeah-this place is gross. I NEVER have toys on the floor at my house.”
For just a second, her face fell and then all the moms burst out laughing. We pitched in, pouring juice, wiping up spilled juice, pulling the baby out of the cupboard, finding a lighter for the birthday candles. Karen still seemed tense, but then cancer had claimed her young husband the previous year. He should have been at this party; he should have been taking pictures. It had to hurt.
When the birthday boy ran his finger across the top of his cake, Karen apologized again. “I just can’t seem to make him listen!” she said, wiping frosting from his chubby fingers. I put my arm around her and said, “Hey Chica, remember what MY son did at the Sunday School picnic?”
My little son, while the two year-old class stood in a circle sweetly singing “Jesus Loves Me,” had pulled down his pants and peed into the center of the circle. Not only that, he continued singing, even swaying back and forth with the melody while he peed. The other two year-olds took no notice of this. The other parents grinned and I was the only one even slightly horrified.
But I won the Most Embarrassing Incident award. After all, I was the Sunday School teacher-that was my class, and my kid who peed in public. Karen smiled. I’m glad I made Karen smile that day, because three weeks later she was gone. Not just dead, but gone. No body to bury, nothing, gone; strange how the “gone-ness” makes it even worse.
Karen was a passenger on Flight 007, going to visit her dad who was in the armed forces somewhere. She had left the kids at home. On September 1, 1983 a Russian fighter plane shot Flight 007 out of the sky. It did not blow instantly to bits. It would have been better if it had blown instantly to bits. It took several long, long minutes to fall from the sky, crash and apparently explode. Nothing was recovered except some flip flops, some sneakers and someone’s dentures.
Immediately and inevitably, politicians started thinking how they could use this tragedy to advance whatever agenda they had going. Both American and Russian politicians lied, accused, covered-up, and propagandized. This always happens-always. As Rahm Emmanuel said, “Never let a crisis go to waste.” Reagan was in office and he had rejected a policy of détente as something fit only for sissies. He was going to flex the steely US military muscles in the face of the Red Menace, even though the USSR was already in terminal decline when Reagan came to power.
Having flexed the United States’ planned deployment of Pershing missiles in Europe and the largest fleet exercise ever in the North Pacific (FleetEx ’83,) the Russians were jumpy. When the Russians finally turned over evidence from the event many years later, it indicated that the pilot questioned the order to fire. But apparently spy planes could disguise themselves as civilian airliners. So he shot down Karen and 267 other people, including 22 kids, out of the sky and into very tiny tatters. Gone.
The pilot had made an error and was off course. The Russian commander had made an error-Flight 007 was no threat. The Russian fighter pilot might have protested more vehemently, like Vasili Arkipov, the Russian submarine commander who refused to fire a nuclear torpedo from his submarine during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. If Arkipov had followed orders, the resulting nuclear exchange could have been the end of all of us.
I mostly blame Reagan and his warmongering ilk, waving their missiles around like so many willies in the wind. “Look, mine is bigger than yours.” These tactics are designed to intimidate. Intimidation is designed for domination. I despise strong people who intimidate and dominate weaker people. They have zero concept that Karens get blown to tatters as a side effect of their willy-waving. They call it “collateral damage,” the most obscene phrase in the English language.
They are never sorry. They never learn. They won’t stop until we make them stop. Karen is gone. Her boys are grown and have children of their own, children short one Grandma. But I can still easily picture her in her modest kitchen.
Michael Dobbs, (2008). One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.