Time Enough at Last

Where buildings once stood in a bustling downtown, there remains almost nothing. Everything’s been smashed, much has been pulverized, and there’s litter all over the ground. Not just things like the remains of hamburgers and fries, soft drinks, bubblegum, cigarette butts that come to mind, but bits and pieces of brick and stone, the shattered remnants of buildings, shards of broken glass.  The wind kicks up small things that litter the ground and the dust of the once thriving city covers everything. Scraps of paper thick with gray ash roll and twist in the sooty air like dead leaves. Henry Beemis, seeking solitude during his lunch hour, has sequestered himself in the bank vault. When his hour is up, he opens the door and steps into The Twilight Zone. It is November 1959 – one month short of three years before the Cuban Missile Crisis.

I recently watched two documentaries about the Cuban Missile Crisis which occurred in October 1962. It was a sobering 13 days – a pivotal moment in the history of the world and a detailed account of “push and shove” the likes of which one sees on playgrounds all over the world. But this game would be “for keeps” if things went the wrong way – not just for two scrappy little kids but for the entire world.

Everyone was frightened, kids and grownups alike.  Bomb drills were frequent. School children dropped to the floor, got under their desks, and covered their heads when the sirens blasted. We talked about what was happening in our classes, at the grocery, with our neighbors, on the school bus, at home in the relative safety of family. Every waking minute wherever we happened to be. Many were convinced the world was about to end, that millions would die when the tip of one finger pushed that red button, and that millions more would follow, more slowly, in the aftermath of nuclear war.

We cried, hoped, prayed.

I was fourteen at the time and I can tell you, I was terrified. Every single person I knew was. And watching that documentary, listening to President Kennedy’s controlled and firm voice as he sat behind his desk in the Oval Office brought it all back. One of Kennedy’s advisers asked why they couldn’t use the word “quarantine” in their communiqué to Nikita Khrushchev instead of “blockade” –  “What difference does it make?” Kennedy replied, “Quarantine doesn’t sound as bad.”

Think of it – a nuclear war possibly hinging on the connotation of a single word. I choked back tears, even after fifty years.

There are wars of another kind, with equally high stakes. The threat of a nuclear bomb going off is present when we say something we shouldn’t, sometimes knowing we shouldn’t, but doing it anyway. The wrong words make us mindful of every step we take lest we tread on something sharp, something menacing, something that makes us or someone else bleed. We might get cut, might break an ankle. There are times we say nothing; we hide behind our pain. And still we say nothing, failing to pick up the debris, diffuse the bombs. Our wounds fester, and deepen. We cover up the scars we mark each other with, forcing them beneath the surface of our everyday lives. No one sees what’s bothering you, or me. On the surface, everything looks okay.

Looks okay. Must be okay.

It’s hard to mask the turmoil inside, but we pat ourselves on the back for our ability to hide that deceit.

It’s war – and war is hell. Its aftermath is collateral damage. The score of this dangerous game comes as no surprise – “0” all. Same as a nuclear bomb.

All because we don’t really hear what’s being said. We’re not listening carefully. We gloss over words on the page or those in the air between us, failing to grasp their intended meaning. We grab on to a couple of words in a stream that flows along the bottom of a movie marquis or hitch our thoughts to a couple of words that garner special attention. But the remnants of sentences picked over in this fashion offer no broader perspective, no full understanding. So we misunderstand what we hear. Grievance and regret are thus born in ignorance. They truly are.

A white flag of surrender ripples in the breeze. We cede the win to stop the fight but learn nothing in the process, understand nothing. and misinterpret everything. Collateral damage ensues. We think there’s time to repair the damage, but not today. We don’t pick up the phone, write a letter, shoot off an email or punch in a text. There’s time enough for that. Tomorrow. Or the next day.

With no one around now to bother him, Henry Beemis, truly happy for the first time in years, chooses the first book of the hundreds he plans to read undisturbed. He sits down, bends over, and reaches for the book on the ground. His glasses slip off his nose. Locating them with some difficulty because his eyesight is so bad, he retrieves them from the cement step. He feels deep cracks in their thick lenses just before the broken glass leaves the frames, falling to the ground in pieces.

“It’s not fair, not fair at all,” he laments as the irony of what he’s just won – and lost – rushes forward.

“The best laid plans of mice and men, and Henry Beemis, the small man in the glasses who wanted nothing but time. Henry Beemis now just a part of the landscape, just a piece of the rubble, just a fragment of what man has deeded to himself. Mr. Henry Beemis – in The Twilight Zone.”     – Rod Serling

The best laid plans…

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