Nerves – A Blast From The Past Post, 9/12
Like many people I hate insecurity. Actually I suspect I hate insecurity more than most of you, and there’s a reason for that. During the worst times in my life, things were… insecure. I’ve said before that even in a revolution, even in turmoil, there is a lot of normality behind the chaos.
Possibly what I didn’t say is that there is a lot of chaos behind the normalcy, too. For three or four years, while governments changed – I could tell that they’d changed because I’d come home and they’d be playing Green Acres. See, the TV station in Porto was a relay station, one that dealt with mostly re-transmitting programs from Lisbon. However, when tanks took to the streets of Lisbon, the program always required they hit first the TV station, then the radio stations, and then the government.
Until their people were in full control of the government, the two TV channels from Lisbon (years later they changed it so the second channel was from Porto, but not then) would be off the air, and the station from Porto would bring out Green Acres which in their minds kept the populace calm until they heard what came next.
Of course, we weren’t stupid and after a while, everyone knew. If Green Acres was on the air, the kids who had morning classes (In Portugal you have morning OR afternoon. I always had morning because my mom was convinced otherwise I’d just sleep the morning away. I probably would have. Until I had kids of my own and the only quiet time to write was early morning, I was a night person, and I can see myself shifting that way again as the kids get older/get out) and the men coming home for lunch (still mostly in Portugal. They have two hours or so for lunch) would mill around the tv waiting to see who the new people in charge were, and whether we’d swerved to the crazy left (the rich-boy Maoist group) or relative sanity had prevailed and we now had whatever passed for a viable party in power. (At one time, the socialists were the furthest right party allowed.)
To this day I hear “Green Acres” and I cringe and every muscle in my body tenses.
Some scars go deeper than the skin. Some scars go all the way down.
I think I was sixteen, though it’s hard to tell because after a while all your memories of a certain time run together and you group things together by “feel.” (Like if it’s a happy memory of a sunny summer I think I was eight, even if I know from other things I was ten or six.)
Anyway, we had one of the crazy-crazy left groups in power. Things were … weird. The press was completely unreliable. A rumor went out that they were about to suppress the socialists (the only non communist or ultra communist party still in existence) and their leader was about to be arrested.
I don’t know how the rumor got out, but someone heard something and called his friends. And the friends called…
We got the call.
My mom and I were the political animals in the house (still are. Like me and younger-boy in my family now.)
The call came.
Our group couldn’t get permission for a demonstration. It wouldn’t be granted. BUT a demonstration was people assembling and making speeches and yelling. So word went out. Absolute silence. And a route to walk, from the center of town to the military installation on the other side of the city.
It was the most impressive thing I’ve ever seen. I’d never have believed it till I saw it. At twenty two I tried to describe it to my husband and I failed.
It was raining. It rains a lot in the North of Portugal. You find it a lot in memoirs of the peninsular war by British officers. It’s a peculiar rain, less than a downpour, more than a drizzle. Umbrellas are ineffective against it and it gets everywhere.
I was wearing a blue windbreaker, with the hood up, tied around my face. (Yes, a holy anorhank, symbol of involuntary sexual abstinence!)
Mom and I got downtown, and most of the people on our train started forward, in silence, towards the main plaza. Where we met – thousands and thousands of people, in their overcoats and raincoats. In utter silence.
Some more organized people had gotten things together and had signs and banners which they were distributing.
Organized is not experienced. Being sixteen, I was recruited with another young person – a young man I didn’t know – to hold each end of a HUGE banner that said “The youth of Portugal demands liberty.” Or something to that effect — it’s hard to remember these many years later.
They hadn’t punched holes in the fabric. The drizzle was wind-driven. As we started marching towards the military quarters, the wind pulled on the banner and about broke our arms. But we held it up. And we walked. Thousands of people. In silence.
And then we got to the quarters. And we found they were on alert. And the young troops were up front, with weapons trained on the crowd.
I won’t say anyone ran… exactly. Perhaps they thought that being young, myself and this guy would – through the power of the cute? – be spared.
There was a … movement. And there I was in the front. The silent crowd behind us. The men with scary machine guns in front of us. Pointed at us.
If we’d run, what would have happened?
I’m no braver than the next person. I wanted to run. But I had a vivid idea we’d be shot in the back. I still think that might have been right.
It’s very hard to ask soldiers to fire on civilians and I think the barrier holds, unless civilians are either running away (and then I’m sure they’ve fire in the air, or try to, but things happen, right?) or charging.
We were neither. We stood. Holding the stupid sign. Water dripping down the banner pole and straight into my sleeve, under the elastic and all the way to my armpit and down the side of my body.
Because we held the adults couldn’t run away. The crowd held.
I don’t remember how it broke from there, but the newspapers had to cover THAT. People had seen us. We were the people who had seen us. Everyone knew someone who had been there.
Someday, if I become famous, someone will unearth the picture from the front page of a defunct newspaper of me at sixteen, in that very stupid windbreaker, my face unnaturally pale, holding the stupid banner. Standing. Breathing. Waiting for death or reprieve.
I know things changed from there. That was the last of the ultra crazy left governments, though frankly all the governments in Portugal are left/left/lefter until recently and recently might be a forlorn hope. But they weren’t CRAZY left, trying to outlaw anyone who disagreed with them. The route to normalcy started.
You can tell I’m all to pieces when I start thinking of that one march, of that one moment, of the stupid banner and the wind hurting my arm, and the rain dripping down.
You see, when everything goes bad; when it all goes wrong; when instability crashes over you like a flooding tide, people tend to assume all the normal conventions of life will be suspended. Everything will be wild and woolly, and we’ll all be Mad Max with less cool rides.
It’s not like that. Most of the time the pattern of normal life holds – even for dangerous subversives and troublemakers. Getting rid of you is more trouble than not.
Most of the time routines just go. A little more difficult. Extended families cluster together because there are fewer jobs, and everyone is trying to survive. You learn to cobble a living from what was once your hobbies. The more hobbies, the better off you are. You make clothes and jewelry to sell to other people who are broke. You sell at a great discount, but make a profit, because you’re buying scrap fabric from someone who scavenges from the textile factory’s scrap heap.
No one can afford anything and, objectively, you’re all poorer than church mice. But the shadow economy keeps people more or less okay.
It’s just sometimes the store shelves are empty. And sometimes, you turn the corner of the street and find yourself in the middle of a full-fledged street battle and might be shot at. And sometimes people disappear. And you can’t trust anything you read in the papers.
And sometimes things go too far and sixteen year olds have to stare down machine guns.
Chaos over normalcy. Normalcy over chaos. You walk the fine line and you don’t realize you’re holding your breath.
And you don’t know there are scars there. You’re walking wounded. You don’t know you’ve been cut. The instability and the fear have become normal.
You don’t realize as you’re decompressing through the years. And you rarely think how bad it was.
Until you find yourself, years later, thinking of yourself at sixteen, holding the banner in the wind and the rain, and you realize you’re holding your breath; you’re pacing the floor.
Metaphorically speaking, you’re in your mom’s living room again. You just came home and Green Acres was playing on the little dinky black and white TV. And now you’re standing in front of it, your fists clenched, your breath held.