StC Writer-in-Residence and Upper School English Teacher Ron Smith remembers a childhood surrounded by the threat of war.
Ron Smith’s recently published “I Always Thought I’d Die” vividly recalls the anxiety and dread he and others felt during the turbulent years of the Cold War. In his piece, the national trauma of the JFK assassination, the Vietnam War and the menace of nuclear annihilation are ever-present.
Smith says that readers should never assume that speakers in poems are identical to the poet; however, this poem is, in a way, a family history, with defining events of the ’50s and ’60s serving as a haunting backdrop. Smith makes comparisons (and points out stark differences) between his father and Lee Harvey Oswald, who were both marines and expert marksmen. After WWII, [Smith’s] uncle was responsible for transporting hundreds of nuclear weapons to Hunter Air Force Base, just miles from where Smith lived as a boy. Smith weaves his childhood memories into events and features of the Cold War that have come to define the period.
At one point, the author wonders if he actually owes his very existence to the atom bomb. “No A-bomb, no Ronnie Smith,” he remembers his father saying. As the weapons were used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Smith’s father was preparing for what likely would have been a very costly invasion of mainland Japan.
Smith vividly recalls the long walk home from school after learning of the JFK assassination, scanning the skies above him, certain that a civilization-ending nuclear war was just hours away. He also remembers two high school friends who volunteered to fight in Vietnam and did not return. As a boy, Smith took it for granted that he would die in a nuclear war. He ends the poem with a sense of relief, and maybe a little surprise, that he’s somehow still alive. After all, he was not killed in Vietnam or in a civilization-ending nuclear war.