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Growing up in the Cold War and the turbulent ’60s

During a five-month stint in Afghanistan in 2004, my third trip covering the war and its fallout for The Canadian Press wire service, I talked to a UNICEF worker about what it was like for Afghan kids growing up in a war zone.

A double amputee in Kabul in 2003. About 100 people a month were disabled or killed by landmines in Afghanistan at the time.
Stephen J. Thorne
During a five-month stint in Afghanistan in 2004, my third trip covering the war and its fallout for The Canadian Press wire service, I talked to a UNICEF worker about what it was like for Afghan kids growing up in a war zone.

Afghanistan was in its fourth decade of almost non-stop fighting. How do they cope, I asked. Surprisingly well, he replied. They adapt, as kids do and, for the most part, survive. It’s all they’d ever known. Children’s greatest fears—and parents’ most acute concerns—he told me, were automobiles and ungrated sewers.

There was no speed limit on Afghan roads, lanes governing the country’s right hand drive vehicles were a murky concept, and right-of-way was usually survival of the fittest (once, riding in a Bison armoured vehicle, we encountered one of Afghanistan’s aging yellow Toyotas on a single-lane dirt path; the standoff lasted 10 minutes, with much back-and-forth exchange, before the 13-tonne personnel carrier backed up several hundred metres and gave way to the 1,300kg Toyota).

Then there were the stoplights. There weren’t any. None, that is, until an intersection in Kabul got the city’s first set around that time. Nobody paid any attention to them whatsoever.

As for the sewers, all the grating had been taken away and melted to help fuel the war efforts of the previous three decades. So the marketplaces and lumpy ribbons of dirt and dust that served as sidewalks were punctuated by these gaping holes that constantly emitted putrid fumes.

(Shortly after, I happened to go on patrol with Canadian Major Andrew Zdunich, and related his story of diving into an open sewage ditch in a desperate attempt to save a little girl who’d fallen in; he found her body in a culvert).

All that to say, you’d hear more about kids getting hit by cars and drowning in sewage drains than you would about them getting killed or wounded by warfare.

Still, the evidence of war’s toll on children was all around you all the time—child amputees, refugees, orphans and war-traumatized faces reflecting variations of the thousand-yard stare. They were all woven into the landscape. You just had to look.

Then there were the indirect results: one of the world’s highest infant mortality rates; malnutrition and ailments like scurvy I thought had been eradicated long ago; and leishmaniasis, a potentially fatal parasitic disease that causes shockingly massive ulcers on faces and bodies—spread, in Afghanistan, by sand fleas.

A war widow and her children survive in an internally displaced persons camp on the edge of Kabul in 2003.
Stephen J. Thorne
Reflecting on those times recently and wondering whatever became of the some of the young Afghans I encountered, got me to thinking about my own childhood and the turbulent times in which I and my friends grew up—a relative paradise, to be sure, but not without its moments.

My earliest memories hearken back to the early-1960s—the assassinations of U.S. President John F. Kennedy in 1963 (I was four), Malcolm X in 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. and JFK’s brother Robert in that stormy American year, 1968.

The civil rights movement was pressing on, and the Southern states’ violent efforts to quell it were constantly in the news—fire hoses and dogs, batons and tear gas. And worse.

I remember thinking the world was coming to end as we watched Detroit burn during the 1967 race riots and witnessed police and National Guard units violently suppress anti-war demonstrators outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

We were not touched by war firsthand, but lived with its fallout, so to speak. War, and the prospect of war, were ever-present.

I was surrounded by veterans. My dad was a Second World War air force medical officer, my mother a civilian navy decoder who’d tracked convoys out of Sydney, N.S.; Uncle Ike crewed corvettes on the North Atlantic run; Uncle Harry and my mom’s cousin-in-law Gordon had been Lancaster pilots.

Except for my Great-Uncle Harvey—who’d served under Allenby in Palestine during the First World War and commanded the room with his storytelling—they rarely, if ever, spoke of their war. But it was there, in their makeup: a certain gravitas, a seen-it-all unflappability I can’t quite explain. My dad was just grumpy.

He loved his work, and one of his great joys was, as Ministry of Transport doctor for the Maritimes, conducting annual medicals for air transport pilots, many of whom were Second World War veterans with tens of thousands of hours on the books, a good chunk of them dodging flak and Luftwaffe fighters over Europe.

An Afghan child watches as Canadians set up a roadblock following reports of a suspected suicide bomber.
Stephen J. Thorne
The Vietnam War was a constant on the nightly news and in the pages of Life Magazine throughout the 1960s and early-’70s.

And, of course, there was always, always the Cold War, the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation looming over our heads, the great unknown menace that lay beyond Europe’s Iron Curtain and across the Pacific, in China.

I remember watching one of those bench-clearing brawls of the day on Hockey Night in Canada. A photographer was hanging over the glass, shooting down into a scrum, and my dad surmised he was sending the pictures back to Moscow to feed the Soviet propaganda machine, depicting us as a violent and corrupt society.

The Red Menace. This was our lives in those days. It was worse in Soviet Russia and Eastern Europe.

I was too young to remember the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 but the air-raid drills at Sir Charles Tupper School in Halifax, home port to Canada’s Atlantic navy, are still vivid in my memory—the sound of the siren and footsteps on tile floors as we marched single-file to the school basement, where we’d press our bodies against the deep-red-painted concrete walls and wait for the all-clear.

An Afghan mother succumbs to fatigue and emotion while tending to her sick child at Attaturk Children’s Hospital in Kabul on July 4, 2004. The hospital was without the medicine and equipment to properly care for its patients.
Stephen J. Thorne
All of this seemed a natural part of life. As kids, it’s all we knew. No big deal. Having seen and studied the pictures from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, only occasionally did I ponder the possibility that our lives could end at any time, before their time, horribly charred and disfigured in a nuclear flash or by radioactive fallout.

We were too busy playing, it seemed, to develop any significant psychological distress from the times in which we grew up. Our imaginations were our pathways and our parents afforded us incredible freedoms, certainly by today’s standards.

In winter, we’d play after school until well after dark and come home bruised and beaten by snowball fights, tobogganing crashes and myriad other battles and mishaps. On these balmy days of summer, we’d leave the house after breakfast, maybe return for lunch (our moms seemed always at home), and have to be summoned by whistle for supper—right after which we’d be out the door again till the whistle blew once more, usually in kid-specific code: one long and two short, etc.

In the intervening hours, we’d wander far beyond our neighbourhoods. Sometimes we’d be gone all day. There were no cell phones to track us; no corners of the city we couldn’t explore; no rules binding us but to be there when that whistle blew.

And you’d better be there.

Saturday mornings meant old black-and-white Hollywood movies—war, westerns and pirates on a 1950s’-era, 21-inch black-and-white Admiral television. Maybe a baseball game later on if it was raining out or nothing was going on—a dose of Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson or Mickey Mantle.

In the fall, it was the CFL on Saturday afternoons, the NFL on Sundays—Russ Jackson and the Ottawa Rough Riders; Bart Starr and the Green Bay Packers, whatever the two channels we got gifted us.

I remember clearly Beatlemania, long hair, and the group’s first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, on Feb. 9, 1964. I was just about five years old, but my parents took the extraordinary step of rousing me from my bed and taking me into their room to watch The Fab Four on the little TV my big brother had given them for Christmas.

Walter Cronkite and The Space Race were welcome distractions from the more ominous tensions that persisted between East and West. We all gathered round the old Admiral for Neil Armstrong’s declaration “one small step for [a] man; one giant leap for mankind” as he stepped onto the lunar surface at 5:17 p.m. Atlantic time on July 20, 1969—the first man to set foot on the moon.

Sports and the 1961-1972 Apollo missions, especially, brought wonder and hope and, by the time I set out on my life’s mission, it was wonder and hope that prevailed, and still prevail to this day.

Wonder and hope. And a little bit of grumpy.

Afghan children chase a Canadian Iltis jeep down a hillside in Kabul in 2004.
Stephen J. Thorne
A schoolteacher and her class of girls study in a roofless schoolhouse in Kabul in 2003. The Taliban have since rolled back reforms, limiting girls’ education.
Stephen J. Thorne
Afghan kids inspect the new kids on the block as Canadian soldiers embark on their first patrol with German troops in Kabul.
Stephen J. Thorne
Teachers and students alike made do with what they had at a bomb-damaged girls’ school in Kabul in 2003.
Stephen J. Thorne
The author in the midst of the Cold War, before he got his first pair of Dash sneakers.
Edward L. Thorne


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