Monday, July 4, 2011

Do You Remember Samantha Smith?

I’m sure most readers my age or older remember the array of school emergency “drills”. There were the fire drills (get out now), tornado drills(huddle down near in the hallway) and then the dreaded nuclear bomb drill (curling up under your desk, tucking your head between your knees and kissing your ass goodbye). The fact that most consider this particular drill to be pointless was expressed with posters and t-shirts. The threat of nuclear destruction was brought to us on a daily basis from newspaper headlines, the evening news and protests around the world.

By the age of 10, I was entirely too well read on subjects such as the Holocaust of WWII and the horrifying aftermath of the bombing of Japan. I had also read the post-apocalyptic novel Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank (1959). In 1980 I moved to a small town near Ft. Hood Army Base.Samantha.jpg The idea of being bombed in our sleep seemed more likely.

In 1982, Samantha Smith wrote what would become a famous letter. Worried and anxious about the possibility of nuclear war, she wrote Yuri Andropov, newly elected General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, a brief heartfelt note:

“ Dear Mr. Andropov,

My name is Samantha Smith. I am ten years old. Congratulations on your new job. I have been worrying about Russia and the United States getting into a nuclear war. Are you going to vote to have a war or not? If you aren’t please tell me how you are going to help to not have a war. This question you do not have to answer, but I would like to know why you want to conquer the world or at least our country. God made the world for us to live together in peace and not to fight.

Samantha Smith “

SSF poster web.jpgYuri Andropov responded inviting Samantha to visit Russia. Reaching out to a world leader would have been a worthwhile undertaking for any individual. What grabbed the world’s attention was Samantha’s young age. The media of both nations jumped on the band wagon. She was interviewed by the likes of Ted Koppel and Johnny Carson. During her visit, at a news conference in Moscow, she remarked that the Russians were “just like us”.

I was twelve years old at the time. I wanted to be Samantha Smith. Here was a girl who took the idea of World Peace and went into action to make a difference. She was also a working actress. One of my goals since I was old enough to talk was to be the next Shirley Temple.

Not to be just a flash in the pan, Samantha went on to become known as “America’s Youngest Ambassador”. In December of 1983, she was invited to Japan where she met the Prime Minister and Spoke at the Children's International Symposium. She also wrote a book, Journey to the Soviet Union.

samanthasmithsovietstamp.jpgOn August 25, 1985 Samantha, her father and six other people were killed in a plane crash. Her death was headline news spliced with photos of her trips to other countries to make people see they were “just like us”. On a personal level I grieved for the girl who almost seemed like a friend. I cried for a girl who was only 13 and had crammed so much living those 13 years. Imagine what she could have accomplished as an adult!

“Do you remember Samantha Smith?” I asked several people that question. Most say no. Therefore, I was pleasantly surprised when I decided to Google her name to see she is remembered all over the world. There are monuments to her in both Maine and the former Soviet Union. She has had an asteroid named in her memory (1985), as well as diamond discovered in Siberia, and in 1985 a viola concerto “Remembering Child”. As recently as 2008, a play premiered titled Samantha Stars telling her story.

In a condolence letter to Samantha’s mother President Reagan wrote . .

“Perhaps you can take some measure of comfort in the knowledge that that millions of Americans, indeed millions of people, share the burdens of your grief. They also will cherish and remember Samantha, her smile, her idealism and unaffected sweetness of spirit. “

In this age of e-mail, Facebook and Twitter, we seem to take for granted how fast the message of one person can wrap around the world. What made the biggest impact to me was that Samantha Smith wrote a letter the old fashioned way, with a basic idea, spoken from the heart. Coming up on 30 years since she sent that letter asking for peace, she is still remembered and probably known by many who were not even born in 1982.

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