The End of the World

 Posted by on October 23, 2012 at 1:00 pm  Mad Men
Oct 232012

I’ve been thinking lately of a classic (but hardly typical) Betty Draper moment. In a New York City gripped by the Cuban Missile Crisis, the kids spend the night in Don’s hotel room, and Betty has an evening to herself. She’s pregnant, but she wishes she were not. She’s got a lot on her mind.

At a bar, she accepts a drink from a handsome man but declines his company … for a while. Later, she gives him a look as she heads for the restrooms, and the two of them end up having sex in one of them.

Betty Draper has gotten tons of flak for that single act. If I were to do the same thing today, I’d be willing to accept all of it.

But that was the Cuban Missile Crisis. That was different.

The Cuban Missile Crisis came to a head fifty years ago this week; those days in October of 1962 are still the closest the world has ever come to global nuclear war. It’s hard for those who lived through it to explain the feeling of that time to the rest of us, but when I was with my mother recently, she tried.

“We lived in Africa,” she told me, “and even we were afraid. We were all sure we would wake up not to a world at war, but to no world.”

No world. I remember how imminent that concept seemed, once.

I came of age in the 1980s, when the idea of global nuclear war was almost a product our leaders were selling. The only way not to have it, they said, was to be so “prepared” for it that no one would be fool enough to start it with us. “Prepared” meant having more ways to kill everyone, all at once, than anyone else. We called this idea “mutual assured destruction” (an amazing phrase, when I look at it now), and we made dark little jokes in the face of our collective fate. He who dies with the most toys wins.

But we had twenty years on our parents. We’d grown up with that threat; most of them had not. Their youth was a time when the idea of the world ending in that particular way was as immediately possible as it was new. By the time I was a teenager, the threat was still real, but it was also sort of everyday stuff, part of our background music. Literally: “Everybody’s got a bomb, we could all die any day.” Our parents had feared that, but we danced to it. The end of the world was our jam.

When did I stop feeling sure I’d die in a nuclear holocaust? Twenty years ago? Fifteen? I can’t remember. If you live long enough, it happens: something that has always been there slowly begins to go away, recedes further, then is gone.

In fact, the threat is not really gone; it just feels gone. There is a difference. There is also a difference between the feeling you’ll die, you know, soon, and the feeling that you’ll die tonight.

I think that you can’t look at the split-second decision Betty Draper made in a bar and ignore the world outside that bar. You can’t pretend that the Cuban Missile Crisis was just a story on the news to her.

She didn’t have sex with that guy in that bar because she really wanted to have sex with a guy in a bar. I think she had sex with him because she was still alive — for now. She’d already missed so many chances, to do so many things. Was she really going to die without knowing what casual sex felt like?

It’s the end of the world, Betty Draper. Now or never.



  9 Responses to “The End of the World”

  1. Both my parents are Cuban (well. my dad’s actually a Holocaust survivor from Poland, but that’s an emigration story for another time) even though I wasn’t even yet a twinkle in their eye, they have some intense stories about being on the other side during Bay of Pigs (being invaded by America ) and the missile crisis (being threatened with annihilation by America)…

  2. I was born in 1954 and grew up just four mile south of Washington DC.

    Throughout the 1960s, I attended a Catholic elementary school and even as youngsters, we were well versed in the very real notion of imminent nuclear destruction.

    In October 1962, I was eight-years-old. I had an afternoon paper route and I recall scary, screaming headlines announcing the presence of Soviet nukes in Cuba – complete with maps with lines, arrows and circles, indicating exact locations onto which certain annihilation would suddenly rain down from the skies.

    So many years later, we think in terms of “bucket lists,” but in the midst of what might have very well been The End, I doubt that Betty was thinking in terms of even a “bucket index card.” More likely, it was a “bucket fortune cookie slip” – if she was thinking at all.

    It’s a safe bet that her encounter with the stranger that night, had more to do with the instinctive act of simply being connected with someone – anyone – in some terrible, terrifying moments.

    • Matt Weiner says this as well. He says Betty’s an impulsive person: “She gets drunk and she wants to have sex.” He’s also said that what’s going on in an individual life is always bigger to that individual than whatever might be going on outside. True, that.

      When I wrote this post, I was also thinking of Rachel rebuking Don when he showed up at her place after Roger’s heart attack. “Is this like some solar eclipse? The end of the world? Just do whatever you want?” — and how easy it was for Don to surrender to that feeling. Betty (who’d later use the word “tawdry” to describe the idea of having sex in Henry’s office), for the longest time, never would.

      As someone whose formative-life dramas (Watergate, the Patty Hearst business, the end of the Vietnam War) were a bit less personally threatening, I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be a child in that time. I’m glad you shared your experience.

      • I was born in 1957. I had no idea of the situation at the time of the missle crisis and I had no idea the cans of food that we were collecting were going to underground bunkers. We never did the hide under the desk thing until I was in 7th grade which would have been 1968. we had a drill where we had to get under the desks. Not in an earthquake area, what was that about?

        • I was also born in 1957 and I’m surprised that you didn’t have to hide under a desk until 7th grade. I remember doing it from Kindergarten on. Several times a year. Starting in maybe 3rd or 4th grade, I remember us all realizing how silly it was to think that a desk could actually protect us from a nuclear bomb and joking about how stupid the teachers must be to think a desk had such power. However, I don’t remember anybody being scared over it, including me. It was just one of those silly things that adults make kids do. The fire and earthquake drills (which also included hiding under your desk) made a lot more sense to us but, then again, those threats seemed real while the nuclear bomb threat also seemed like something in the movies, not real life.

          • I was born in 1958 in the sleepy town of Anchorage (1960 population about 45,000). Bomb shelters were something they built Outside. The only school drills I recall were fire drills. I really became aware of the arms race when they tested a nuke deep under the Alutian island called Amchitka – some thought it might trigger another earthquake like the big one in 1964 (which I well remember).

            Like you, I never feared nuclear war. Now Alaskans don’t fear terror attacks. Our once sleepy town is now a thriving 300,000 – still too insignificant and way too far from teh beaten path to warrant radical Muslim attention.

      • It really was a scary time! I remember a poster on our city buses, that featured an angry looking Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, fist raised, with the caption: “We Will Bury You!”.

        The ever-present notion of nuclear bombs suddenly destroying everything, was something that bubbled just under the surface of our day to day awareness and activities. So, you can imagine how everyone – already on edge – just freaked the hell out, during those electric, uncertain October days in 1962!

        Strangely enough, I only have a few distinct memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but a year later, when President Kennedy was killed, it registered more deeply, leaving vivid memories of that day and the terrible. sad weekend that followed. So many of us never shook the feeling that we weren’t told the truth about it.

        This link is a blog post I wrote, that suggests why we were so suspicious. Nothing was ever the same after JFK died and the way the rest of the 60s and 70s – and beyond – played out, was colored by his killing and how the case was officially handled.

  3. I was born after the CMC, but I have spoken with many people who lived through it, both as children and as adults. Almost to a person, the event had a profound effect on them. Many spoke of their fear and anxiety during those 10 days, and more than a few said that the experience shaped their political views. A case can be made that the late 60’s anti war movement was a direct result of the CMC and its effect on school age children in Oct 1962.

  4. The crisis occurred just before my second birthday, so obviously I don’t remember it. My folks told me later that they had just started to feel safe about bringing a kid into the world, having been married for five years before having me. They said that they spent a few days crying and apologizing to me because they were pretty sure we were all going to eat it. I can’t even begin to imagine what that was like. I was too little to know what death was anyway, but a year later, upon seeing all the adults crying, a man shot on live tv, and a riderless horse with backward boots in the stirrups, I got it then.

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