Years ago I went out with a woman for a while who had never heard of the Korean War. She was younger than I was but not that much younger. She was very good looking and I would sometimes admire her secretly until my reverie was shattered by the same old question: How can anyone not have heard of the Korean War?
Just the other day, while he was dilating my pupils, my eye doctor, a man well into his sixties, revealed a shocking ignorance of the Berlin crisis of 1961. “What crisis?” he said.
“What crisis? What crisis?” I said, trying to find the doctor’s face through the blur brought on by the eyedrops. “Khrushchev puts up a wall dividing Berlin. A belligerent challenge to the West. World War III seems to be at hand. Kennedy mobilizes 150,000 men of the army reserve and national guard. I am called back to active duty. I spend a year on a sand hill in North Carolina and you say What crisis?”
“I was in medical school,” he said. “I was busy.”
“Well, I’m glad to hear somebody was busy, because I sat on the godforsaken sandhill and did nothing — absolutely nothing, for a whole year — until they decided a wall wasn’t worth fighting about and let us go home. This was the same Berlin Wall, by the way, where Ronald Reagan gave his famous speech challenging Gorbachev to tear it down. ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.’ I suppose you don’t remember that, either.”
“Look straight ahead,” the doctor said, “and try not to move your head.”
“This was the infamous wall that was torn down in 1989. Its demolition symbolized the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe. Just like the wall, the Soviet Union was disintegrating. And George Bush Senior took credit for the whole thing. Hell, I had more to do with the wall coming down than he did.”
“Which is clearer? This? Or this?”
“The Berlin Wall cost me a year of my life — a year I wouldn’t mind having back at this point, by the way. The Berlin Wall and the international crisis that it occasioned was one of the most important — maybe the most important — political development in Europe in the postwar period. Historians will point to it as…”
“Now close the left eye and tell me which lens is sharper. This? Or this?”
“Why do I get the feeling you’re not all that interested in…”
“Now close the other eye and we’ll try again. This? Or this?”
“You know,” I said to the eye doctor, who is a very nice man, by the way, if not much of an historian, “I once went out with a very good-looking woman, a bit younger than I, although not all that much younger, who knew nothing of the Korean War. Never heard of it, she said. And then she said — I’m not kidding — she said, Where was this war? And I said, You want to know where the Korean War happened? Where the Korean War took place? Is that what you’re asking me? You must mean why did it happen, not where did it happen. And she said, I don’t care why it happened. My question was where it happened. Although to tell you the truth, I don’t care much about that, either.”
The eye doctor was finished with his exam and had moved away, but I thought I could tell, even with the drops in my eyes, that he was doing something at his desk. Probably looking up the Korean War on the Internet, I thought. Doesn’t want to seem as dumb as that old girlfriend. Maybe he’s looking up the Berlin Wall, too. Will probably try to redeem himself with a cogent remark as I stumble out into the street. Will probably say something like, Of course I remember the Berlin crisis. I was only kidding. Did you really know a woman who had never heard of the Korean War? Boy, that’s hard to believe.
But he didn’t say any of that. Instead, as he handed me out the door to his waiting room, he said, “You better wait out here until those eyedrops wear off. And take care on the steps when you do leave. You’re not as young as you used to be, you know.”