I might have been sleeping when her plane crashed. Or maybe I was awake, listening to heavy rain pound the roof of my family’s mobile home. I might have been under the covers, snuggling with my cat or plotting the last few days of summer vacation before the start of sixth grade. My last thought before drifting off to sleep might have been about the outfit I planned to wear on the first day of school, a lemon-yellow top with pink stripes and a flipped-up collar, a pair of round yellow earrings to match.
The next morning, when I heard on the news that Samantha Smith had died, I pictured her on the plane as it was going down. Her body tense as her seat violently shook. Her eyes stretching wide with fear and confusion. Her fists clutching the seat in front of her as the aircraft sliced through the forest, then exploded between the pines.
In my mind, she died wearing the same outfit I’d planned for the first day of school.
Samantha lived in Manchester, Maine, just 20 miles from my town. We were almost the same age, and we wore the same faded denim overalls, the same pastel polo shirts. We both had pierced ears. Her hair was brown and straight, whereas mine was blond and wavy, thanks to a home perm administered at the kitchen table. She seemed like a kid who’d be in my class or my Girl Scout troop, except she knew a lot more about the world than I did.
In 1983, when she was 10 years old, Samantha made national news after sending a letter to Soviet leader Yuri Andropov and asking him for peace between our countries. “I have been worrying about Russia and the United States getting into a nuclear war,” she wrote. “Why do you want to conquer the world or at least our country?” Andropov responded with his own letter, along with an invitation to visit Russia with her parents. For a while, Samantha was the most famous kid in the world. She was on the news in two nations. She was on The Today Show. She met Phil Donahue and Johnny Carson.
In the 1980s, talk of nuclear war was everywhere—on the news, on TV shows, in movies such as WarGames and Red Dawn. Politicians used phrases like nuclear winter, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and global thermonuclear war. I didn’t know exactly what those things meant, but they all sounded catastrophically bad. An attack seemed imminent, but when would it come? I pictured rockets flaming through an otherwise calm afternoon sky and people scrambling to find shelter from a nuclear blast. Our skin would burn. Our bodies would turn to ash. I wondered where my family would run, since we had no basement and no forest in which to hide. My dad must have wondered too. He put a gas mask under each of our beds, just in case. It was always there, behind my roller skates, next to my basketball shoes.
In 1985, the year Samantha died, I’d been helping my Aunt Marilyn teach English to a group of Cambodian refugees in our small town. Every Tuesday, we’d visit their dilapidated apartment by the Catholic church, sometimes with food, sometimes with clothes donated by the congregation. Marilyn sat at the kitchen table with the grownups, most of them women, showing them vocabulary words written on flash cards. Meanwhile, the children and I gathered on the porch with some loose-leaf paper and a box of crayons. We sat cross-legged on the floor drawing pictures and laughing, even though we couldn’t really understand what we were saying to one another. Lucky for us, pictures transcend language. We hung our drawings on the windows and watched as the afternoon sunlight shone through.
Were we safe from Russian bombs there on that front porch, with our crayons and our easy smiles? Of all the places Russia could attack, surely they would not choose this sleepy paper-mill town, where the air smelled of sulfur and the river ran foamy from chemicals. Is that why the Cambodian families had come here—because it was safe?
I didn’t even know where Cambodia was, never mind what was happening there. I didn’t hear about it on the news or on the shows we watched on TV. Marilyn never told me, if she even knew. Decades later, I’d come to understand what these women and their children had been through. I’d learn about the brutality and genocide inflicted by warring regimes. I’d learn that the Cambodian families in my town were led mostly by women because the men in their lives had been tortured and killed by the Khmer Rouge.
But back then, I only knew that the kids were friendly, they liked to color, and the moms were always happy to see us.
In the summer of 1983, Samantha flew to Russia with her parents for a two-week visit. She toured Moscow, Leningrad, and a Soviet youth camp called Artek, where she swam, learned Russian dances, and proudly wore youth camp regalia. At a press conference in Moscow, Samantha said that the people she met were friendly and warm, “almost just like Americans.” She suggested that the leaders of our rival nations exchange granddaughters every summer. How could the president of the United States or the Soviet premier drop the bomb knowing that their grandchildren were on the other side?
I spent that summer swimming, too—at my Aunt Marilyn’s camp on Long Pond, a short drive from the center of town but a world away from the stinky smokestacks and the rancid river. The cabin itself was small and simple, with no plumbing and no television, but the lake offered endless entertainment. Marilyn and I swam, caught tadpoles, and played Boggle on the dock. After lunch, we took long walks down the camp road to pick wild strawberries and teaberry leaves. We saw loons and deer and once even an eagle. At night, we played Battleship on the front porch and watched the sky go deep red as the sun set behind the pines.
There at camp, on the lake, nuclear war never once crossed my mind.
In August 1985, Samantha and her father, Arthur, were on their way home after filming a TV show in London when their Beechcraft 99 commuter plane crashed. Officials said that the pilot had failed to make the proper landing corrections on a rainy, foggy night. The accident occurred as the plane made its final descent, less than a mile from the runway at Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn Regional Airport. So maybe I had imagined things wrong. Maybe Samantha hadn’t been scared after all. Maybe she didn’t even recognize what was happening.
Only 13 when she died, Samantha knew so much about history and humanity. She’d already studied World War II and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. She knew what happened to the people of Japan, and she knew what would happen to us if ever there was a nuclear explosion. She also wasn’t afraid to speak out and ask for peace.
Eighteen years after her death, in March 2003, I interviewed Paul Tibbets, the man who flew the Enola Gay and dropped that bomb on Hiroshima. I was 29 years old at the time, working as a newspaper reporter in Newport, Rhode Island. Tibbets was 88, the invited guest speaker at the Naval War College as the United States inched toward war in Iraq. On that day, a photographer and I made the short drive from the newsroom to the military base and met with Tibbets before his speech. He wore a dark suit and had hearing aids in both ears. His hair was thin and gray. I asked him the same question that everyone asked him, the question he’d been asked a hundred—if not a thousand—times. Did he have any regrets about dropping that bomb? He answered firmly and adamantly. No, none at all.
“When the bomb exploded,” he said, “I knew we hadn’t made any mistakes.” The attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had ended the war. In Tibbets’s mind, he’d done what he needed to do for the sake of peace.
Tibbets described the black cloud of smoke and debris that rose over Hiroshima. He spoke of electrical flashes and shock waves that shook the Enola Gay as he and his crew flew away from the blast site. I pictured everything he described, recalling some of the images that haunted me back in the 1980s. What I couldn’t understand was how killing 200,000 people could be considered anything other than a mistake, but of course I hadn’t lived through World War II. My Aunt Marilyn had, though. Her husband, my uncle Phil, served as a litter bearer in the Army during the war. He was captured at the Battle of the Bulge and held prisoner for five months at a war camp in Germany. The Soviet Red Army, our allies during World War II, liberated the camp in April 1945, just four months before Hiroshima.
As a kid, I was afraid of a war starting. What my uncle’s generation feared was a war that never ended.
What would Samantha have thought about the world we live in today? Surely she would have something to say about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, about North Korea’s nuclear posturing, or about the genocide of Muslim Rohingya by the junta in Myanmar. In 1991, the year she would have turned 19, the United States and Russia agreed to reduce their nuclear arsenals—still the most significant arms control treaty ever signed. I was 17, a senior in high school. My day-to-day thoughts had turned away from nuclear war to getting into college, getting financial aid, finding a job, and saving money for textbooks and tuition. Despite our agreement with Russia, there are roughly 13,000 nuclear warheads in the world today. Perhaps I should still be afraid.
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