For each generation of children, there are fears of destruction hurtling at them from the outside world. Growing up in the 80s, we had many to choose from, but nukes, kidnappers, and serial killers topped the list.
The first of these was optimistically if grimly tempered with the conventional wisdom that Russia wouldn’t bomb us because they knew we’d bomb them back. However sound this logic may or may not have been, it was a comfort and whenever it rose anew, we kids all nodded sagely and hoped that it was right.
If my Uncle Eddie, who should have been moldy from carrying so many wet blankets around, were present, he’d say something like, “It’s Korea you have to worry about. Chinks. They’ve got nothing to lose.” I’ll leave that there.
Kidnappers seemed the more likely threat. Mom was always cautioning us against getting away from her in stores. “I just think of that made for TV movie I saw… That poor woman never forgave herself.” There’s a cold comfort in knowing only ABC ratings bait stood between us and a life of captivity in a backyard compound made of rusty car parts. Were a haggard JoBeth Williams in a ruffled working mom blouse even a skosh less haunted about leaving her son alone in the McDonald’s fun house to take a shit, one of us kids would have been decorating milk cartons. Thank you, JoBeth, thank you.
Serial killers still creep me out, as they darn well should. As a kid in the post-70s, the nation had come through so many hardships with Vietnam and Watergate and Sonny and Cher, that when the anchor people turned to the latest case of a missing woman in the greater metropolitan area, you could tell this was the new lighter fare. The gravity of their eyes lessened almost as much as if they were about to take us to footage of a family petting zoo getting a reprieve from a tax audit.
Stories about serial killers was such standard issue in the 80s, that when I started a kid detective agency with my sister and cousin, we wrote out detailed MOs about our made up killers. It was pretty professional grade stuff. Our sick sons of bitches tended to go after look alike nurses who drove similar cars. Case file notes included phrases like ‘pert nose’ and ‘strawberry blond’ and ‘dark green Pontiac’. We cajoled my mom, who worked from home as a medical transcriptionist, to type our reports up on her hospital-issue forms, but we had to draw our crime scene photos ourselves. No matter how grim the carnage, each shot wound up with a Crayola sun and flying bird in it somewhere. It wouldn’t have taken Judge Wapner to point out these were inadmissible in court.
The end result of all these fears was that it taught me the notion that people were possibly more apt to be monsters than heroes. Time has revealed a more nuanced truth: people can be disappointing and disheartening, but most of them aren’t planning to drop bombs, steal your kids, or toss your body parts into the Green River. But before I learned that, I saw the world as grimmer than statistically possible.
One night my folks drove us home from my grandmother’s house, the car wending through forests to left and right, and I passed out of childhood. Until then, I had thought of the woods as threatening, just as they were in fairy tales. Then we passed a small house with a sparse lawn glinting in the moonlight. There was only a single window lit and I imagined that someone was doing something horrible to someone else inside. The threshold was passed through in that instant and goblins and bears and wolves faded into fancy, leaving behind the big fear of adulthood: each other.