“What about the police dogs?”
“Yeah? And what about the Russian tanks?”
IN THE fall of 1956 the front page news is the invasion of Hungary by Russian troops. Our ninth grade social studies class is drenched in cold war rhetoric and here is a perfect example of Russian “brotherly love” in action. But things get more complicated at lunchtime, as we stand around on Christopher Street opposite the Threepenny Opera marquee of the Theatre DeLys, munching on tuna salad sandwiches brought from home or Italian heroes dripping with vinaigrette salad dressing. My best friend keeps needling me.
“What about in the South? Didn’t you see those pictures of Negroes being attacked with police dogs? Even little girls. Just for wanting to sit next to whites in a bus station...or a lunch counter!”
“Yes...but,” I swallow a mouthful of salami and provolone, “they don’t kill them. The Russians are killing people for no…”
“And what about lynching? That’s killing for no reason!”
“Yes, but…” I know I am in over my head. “But that’s illegal…. And if you write about it, if you write protesting the treatment of Negroes and try to make things better, they won’t come get you in the middle of the night and send you to SIBERIA like the Communists do! They are really bad people.”
Suddenly my friend changes the drift of her argument. She fixes her big brown unblinking eyes on me. “What if you found out I was a Communist? Would you still be my friend?” I look at her and laugh. “That’s just a stupid question. In the first place, I would never be friends with the type of person who was a Communist, so that’ll never happen. I’ll never have to worry about that. You want the rest of my pickle?” I am stalling for time. What was I going to say in the second place?
She is tenacious. “But what if…just what IF?”
“Nope. Not going to answer,” I say, tossing the stem end of my dill pickle into the gutter.
DONG! DONG! DONG! Lunch was over. Saved by the bell.
On the way back to the rest of our day at P.S.3, my friend asks me how I know for sure that the pictures of tanks on the streets of Budapest weren’t retouched fakes. I retort with the same question about the German shepherds in Mississippi, but those, I know in my heart, are all too genuine.
Years later, I will learn that the fathers of two of my closest friends had been ardent supporters of the American Communist Party, New York City branch. For years, their children, too, had lived painful secret lives. This whole culture of “red diaper babies” was a revelation to me. All I knew was that these families had shared the warmth of their modest apartments and the food on their tables unstintingly with my ragamuffin self and I loved them deeply.
My own parents, vaguely liberal peaceniks who hoped for the best and voted for Adlai Stevenson, never talked to me overtly about civil rights or the Cold War. They muddled along, more afraid of the empty shelves behind closed cupboard doors than the imminent threat of a nuclear holocaust. Their first thoughts were for their supplies of alcohol and cigarettes, and their personal demons took up so much time they couldn’t be bothered to be afraid of Communists, if they were even existed. No, my mother and father were more afraid of themselves.
As my beloved Pogo would say: I have seen the enemy, and the enemy is us.