The Bomb for My Pillow
A Child of the Atomic Age
By Gregg Nathan Ainsworth
In 1955, before I could write and when my reading had not yet progressed beyond Golden Books, I discovered the Atomic Bomb. While playing with my toys on the living room floor one weekend, my attention was diverted by the television that had been droning in the background all afternoon. A strange black-and-white cartoon was showing what would happen if an Atomic Bomb were to explode above a city.
I watched a bright ball of fire knock down huge buildings. A dark mushroom cloud formed over the instantly-destroyed city. Incomprehensible diagrams explained why the Bomb caused so much damage and what people should do if their city were attacked. I was not old enough to understand any of the specific information in the animated film, but I knew that the unseen man was talking about a real weapon powerful enough to destroy the city I lived in.
From that day forward, super weapons were no longer confined to the make-believe science fiction war-games that I enjoyed playing so much with my friends. Unlike our imaginary ray guns, which evaporated from our minds after playtime, the A-Bomb was real and if people were being told about it on television, then there were other people, bad people, who might use it against us. My ignorance of adult things had bothered me before, but this early realization that fearsome unknowns could strike me down out of nowhere made me feel very small and helpless. At the age of six, I had learned to worry about the Bomb.
Shortly after this I saw a newsreel film of atomic test explosions on TV. Like most young boys, I was awed by the sheer magnitude of the blasts, which stretched for miles up into the air and put mere fireworks, or even regular bombs, to shame. So thrilling was it to see these atomic explosions that I began to think less about what might happen if such powerful weapons were used on a real city. The spectacle captivated me; it was an untoppable weapon.
The Bomb also began appearing on TV adventure shows, where my favorite childhood heroes tackled the super weapon with both hands and came up smiling every time. If Superman, Captain Midnight, and Rocky Jones the Space Ranger weren't afraid of the Atom Bomb, why should I worry?
Motion pictures, on the other hand, were not so reassuring. Science-fiction films invariably portrayed the Bomb as an evil genie unleashed upon our planet to no good end. Careless use of the Bomb often created horrible monsters or awakened old ones to stalk the earth. The unnerving impact of these cinematic fantasies was amplified by the big screen and the darkness of the movie theater. When the thrills and chills had ended, however, there was always the safety of the real world to return to via a short walk to daylight.
By the age of seven, atomic bombs had successfully merged with my TV, comic book and play-inspired science-fiction fantasy world. In the second grade, I joined several other imaginative friends in a regular science-fiction adventure club that acted out all currently available material. In time, our collective minds began to fashion original treatments from the many sci-fi ideas and concepts we had accumulated.
We rarely utilized nuclear weaponry in our adventures--rayguns of various kinds were our preferred weapons. These exotic devices usually resulted in less total damage than might have been expected. Because complete destruction would have left a very bleak playscape, the Bomb was held in reserve for very special uses.
Now that the Russians had been fingered as Public Enemy Number One, our group sometimes descended back into the earth's atmosphere to engage Russian fighter planes in a futuristic projection of World War II dogfights. Our United States jet forces always fought the Commies in clean engagements; never did we atom-bomb noncombatants in our chivalrous, heroic version of warfare.
The closest we ever came to acting out World War III occurred in school, during the weekly air raid siren test on Tuesday mornings, which conveniently took place during recess. The siren's wail warned the club to scramble for the nearest shelter, yelling "Air Raid" all the way as the imaginary A-Bombs whirled down upon us. Once the attack had ended, our intrepid group always emerged unscathed.
My first exposure to anything approaching formal teaching about the nuclear energy came unexpectedly from Mr. Lightner, our second and third grade music instructor, a highly intellectual fellow who enjoyed stimulating our young minds with a wide range of subjects besides music. Mr. Lightner's explanation of the atomic composition of all things provoked considerable skepticism among my sci-fi playmates, several of whom verbalized the mistaken belief that our bodies would blow up if we were made of atoms. Our unsophisticated minds associated atoms with explosions and radiation; the universality of atoms required an as-yet impossible readjustment in our previous thinking.
My idea of the Bomb had become overwhelmingly associated with play and fantasy. This play-Bomb overshadowed my limited awareness of its real threat to human existence. The mass media's successful association of the Atom Bomb with U.S. might and right in the ongoing struggle against the Soviet Communist enemy encouraged my feeling of security about the Bomb, which allowed me to enjoy it rather than fear it. As long as the greatest weapon of all time was in the good, responsible hands of the U.S., woe to any foe who would even dare to challenge our unmatchable strength.
My peers also shared an unshakable faith in the ability of the U.S. to defend its people from Russian attack. None of us had any idea that nuclear war might preclude the clean victories that were so typical of our juvenile war games. That the U.S. could ever be taken by surprise and devastated in a nuclear war was unthinkable and utterly contrary to what we had been led to believe about our country's seemingly infallible capabilities.
My own formidable war-fighting capability constantly reinforced my confidence in our national might. Thanks to the vigilant efforts of competing toy companies, I easily kept up with the latest developments in high-technology warfare and fought many a living-room battle with metal and plastic versions of the latest U.S. missiles, aircraft, tanks, and soldiers.
Buttressing my positive military outlook was my growing childhood obsession with the race into space, humankind's latest competitive arena. My sense of urgency stemmed from a science-fiction based belief that the first nation to control space would rule the world. Orbital space stations with missile launchers were very much in my mind, as was the dangerous possibility of a military moon-base poised to rain atomic death on earth.
Thus, in October, 1957, the launch of Sputnik One into orbit was a landmark event for me as well as for the rest humanity. It signaled the human race's first concrete step toward the conquest of outer space. I was electrified by the Russian achievement, but terribly disappointed that the U.S. had been beaten out of this unprecedented triumph. The Soviet's follow-up launch of Laika the dog in Sputnik Two flabbergasted me and the other members of our thoroughly space-happy sci-fi club. The first orbiting of life around our planet left no doubt that the Russians were playing to win.
Continuing Russian space spectaculars outstripped U.S. efforts, forcefully demonstrating that my country was not the master of all things and undermining my faith in its defensibility. As the more powerful Soviet delivery vehicles thrust one heavy payload after another into orbit, enabling Premier Khrushchev to humiliate U.S. lightweight satellite launchings as no more than grapefruits sent aloft, my frustration toward America's second-place status became unendurable. Why couldn't our military, which dominated the United State' s embryonic space program, compete more successfully?
In the late 1950s, when I was not yet ten years old, my concern about the space race heightened as discussion of rocket-delivered nuclear weapons came to my attention. The Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, or ICBM, (initials which I memorized long before comprehending their full meaning) entered my consciousness as a deadly new means of destruction which boosted nuclear war into space to target earth. The impending vulnerability of the U.S. to space-borne attack made the space race a quest for national survival. With the advent of the ICBM, hope for a clean victory against the Soviet Union disappeared. Sudden death from long-range ballistic missiles had abruptly obsolesced our national defense against Soviet bombers.
While I knew that the Atom Bomb was a remarkably deadly weapon, I had never imagined in detail what the Bomb was really capable of inflicting upon its victims. The images that had so far lodged in my mind were of flattened buildings and obliterated cities. I had not spent much time thinking about those who had once lived in those cities. That changed drastically one day when I began watching a TV documentary on the nuclear obliteration of Hiroshima. At first, I viewed the preparation and flight of the B-29 bomber to its target with a sense of wartime adventure. The details of the bomb itself and the preparation of the airplane for such a heavy load intrigued me, and I waited with anticipation for the exciting images of the blast and its towering mushroom-shaped cloud. But my fascination turned to horror as the stories of the people under that deadly cloud began to unfold.
After forcing myself to watch sickening scenes of the stricken survivors, their burned flesh hanging loosely from their bones, their horribly disfigured faces radiating agony or blanked-out from shock, I could not bear the thought of enduring such an apocalypse and felt ashamed that our country could ever have unleashed such a cruel weapon upon a city of innocent civilians. My cherished American ideal of a fair fight against enemy soldiers was forever shattered by the deadly cloud that boiled up above thousands of dead and dying women and children in the mass graveyard that had once been Hiroshima. My childish images of the Bomb had been swept away. I began to doubt the wisdom of the adults who controlled it.
My next childhood lesson in the personal consequences of nuclear warfare came when the San Francisco Unified School District adopted evacuation plans while I was enrolled in the fourth grade. One day after recess our teacher asked for the attention of the class for an important announcement. She began to explain that the School District had developed a plan for evacuating elementary school pupils in the event of a threatened enemy air raid upon San Francisco. I had not been paying much attention, but immediately became alert upon hearing the words "enemy air raid upon San Francisco," for this was a topic to which I had already given considerable thought and imagination. Our teacher gave us printed permission forms to take home and have our parents read and sign, and then began explaining these forms so we could answer any questions our parents might have.
Our parents were to choose one of several evacuation options in the event of an enemy attack. In Plan One, the pupil would remain at the school until parent, or designated guardian, arrived on the scene. If the pupil could not be picked up until much later, Plan Two directed that he or she be bused to a central location for safekeeping. If Plan Three were chosen, the pupil would be bused in a caravan across the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge to a children's camp, there to remain until subsequent developments allowed a safe return to the city.
In her usual didactic fashion, my teacher spent a great deal of time explaining the options to the class, with obvious favoritism toward the school-bus caravan plan which, according to her, amounted to little more than a long-anticipated field trip. Her entire presentation made evacuations seem as routine as earthquake and fire drills.
While the rest of the class appeared to accept the teacher's words without question, I began examining each option in my imagination. As I knew only too well from my childhood fascination with the Bomb, a meaningful defense against it did not yet exist. An attack could occur with only a half-hour warning and mass evacuations from big cities could not be done on such short notice without huge traffic jams and unbelievable panic in the face of imminent nuclear incineration. I could imagine being stuck on the Bay Bridge, if a bus caravan somehow managed to get that far, when the actual attack began. My unsettled mind visualized Soviet jet bombers zeroing in on the bridge and blasting it out from beneath our pitiful little school bus.
Further, the thought of being spirited away from my mother, who was now raising me alone after separating from my father, was unbearable. With my father far away in Chicago, a forced separation from mother would leave me completely alone in the end. Being sent to a center away from the school would take me too far away from home and mother's workplace, making it very hard for us to reunite. A nuclear bomb might blow the building down before mother could reach it, forcing her to paw through the rubble for my buried body.
Because school, my home, and my mother's job were all within walking distance, the least objectionable choice was for mother to come from work, pick me up at the school and take me home or wherever else she chose. I knew that the high yield of nuclear weapons practically eliminated any hope of surviving in the small city of San Francisco, but at least my mother and I would face our destiny together. This was the only option that offered any hope to me. I began to worry that my mother would choose one of the other two options.
Throughout the rest of the school day and after my arrival home, I exhaustively rehearsed my upcoming talk with mother. Fearing a horrible fate at incompetent hands if I failed to convince mother of my seriousness, I tried my best to sound like an adult. When mother finally arrived home, I geared up my nine-year-old powers of persuasion and gave a compelling argument for my life. To my immeasurable gratitude, mother heard me out and agreed with my reasoning. My day-long tension dissolved; I had taken control of my life in an adult world.
Freshly triumphant, I secretly worked out my own evacuation plan. The moment I heard the air raid siren on the school rooftop go off, I intended to sprint out of the building and get home in five minutes. When every counted-down minute might be the last, I was not going to wait around for orders.
Reinforcing my contempt for public school civil-defense plans was an equally useless procedure, the air raid drill, which was incongruously practiced in a top floor cloakroom inside our hilltop school. As the class sat on the floor and covered up with light jackets to block direct skin exposure to a nuclear flash, I thought of the awesome blast that would smash this old, earthquake-weakened building to the ground, burying us all. Several girls giggled away underneath their jackets, but the joke was on us.
My earliest awareness of radioactivity came from science fiction adventure stories, wherein concentrated ray weapons were used to zap space villains in a variety of fantastic effects. Nobody knew how these taken-for-granted rays worked and nobody cared; the super weapons of imagination existed only to be used, not explained.
The vulnerability of Superman, the popular TV and comic book character, to the nonexistent radioactive element Kryponite provided my first inkling that certain elements gave off rays that could hurt human beings. But it was personal experience with X-rays that most impressed me with the power of radiation.
From seeing X-ray demonstrations on television, I understood that these unseen, unfelt rays passed through people without harm. How X-rays enabled doctors to see inside a body and find disease was beyond me, but somehow it was done.
My first formal exposure to radiation occurred in the mid-1950s when I was given a chest X-ray as part of a lung checkup. I had anticipated the checkup because of a tremendous publicity campaign intended to convince everyone to prevent tuberculosis with a chest X-ray.
Putting my tiny chest against a clammy metal plate, my arms lifted, taking a deep breath and holding still until the strangely shaped machine had snapped an X-ray picture was for me an unprecedented scientific adventure. But not having felt anything during the actual penetration of my body by X-rays was an anticlimactic letdown. At the very least, I had expected some kind of unknown sensation, a tingling or a mild shock. Instead, I was putting on my shirt and leaving the clinic as though nothing had happened. I couldn't believe that there hadn't been more to it.
During visits to my family doctor, I used to wait in a small room dominated by a gigantic X-ray fluoroscope machine. I did not yet know that this device broadcast a continuous stream of X-rays that passed through a person and cast an irradiated shadow upon a fluorescent screen in front, unlike a chest X-ray machine that shot split second doses of radiation through the body and onto film.
While waiting for the doctor, I would don his heavy lead-lined gloves that hung from a similarly protected apron and imagine myself working with radiation from inside a real version of the radiation-proof suits I wore in imaginary space wars. As my doctor had once explained, the lead clothing shielded him from frequent doses of X-rays, which would eventually damage an unprotected person. A patient, so he had assured me, was X-rayed too rarely to worry about harmful accumulations of radiation.
During one fluoroscopic examination of my innards, the doc asked me to put my hand behind the screen and bend my head over just enough to have a look. In the darkened closet, I gaped at the faint nakedness of my hand, its bones and tendons clearly outlined in varying shades of light and shadow and moving in patterns never seen before. In those few moments, I profoundly appreciated the silent power of invisible energy.
Gradually, I found out that aboveground nuclear weapons tests were releasing radiation into the atmosphere; fallout entered my consciousness. The fallout-count reports that were regularly broadcast on radio began to raise questions in my mind about the safety of peaceful weapons testing. At first, I didn't understand that fallout was radioactive debris boosted high into the air by a nuclear bomb blast and circulated by prevailing winds throughout the world; I thought fallout was Bomb-unleashed radiation that zipped everywhere and could penetrate anything except lead.
After repeated listening, I began comparing the latest fallout report with that of the previous day. A high report caused by recent testing, rainy weather, or reasons unknown made me feel as though an invisible menace from which I could not escape was boring its way into my body to destroy me from within. A low report brought only temporary relief from what was becoming an ever-present danger.
Because of its daily repetition and authoritarian tone, the fallout report became a grim reminder of the worst to come from nuclear bombs. If fallout from tests alone caused so much concern, I reasoned, there was certainly no hope of surviving wartime radiation levels.
My growing worry over living in a radioactive world was intensified by comic book science fiction stories that began to appear about people on earth, or on other worlds, who were forced to live inside enormous glass domes to avoid breathing an atomsphere poisoned by atomic war. I wondered if such a horrible fate lay in store for humans on the real earth.
In fifth grade, my friends and I acted out our awareness of fallout with a series of simulated nuclear test firings which we carried out in our neighborhood playground. On such occasions, the group gathered at Ground Zero, a tall slippery-slide that served as our test tower. One of us would carefully climb this tower and test the wind, signaling to the others below with a special wave of the arms that conditions were right. As best we could, we cleared the immediate area of non-participants. Those who stayed were warned of the impending tests. Then we atomic testers scrambled to the edge of the test arena to arm the nuclear device, usually an old can with a cardboard lid, filled with dry dirt.
The deadly device armed, we took our positions. One of us carried the Bomb to the top of the slippery-slide tower. Two others were airborne observers, stationed on nearby swings. When all were in place, the brave launcher threw the Bomb high into the air. It plummeted down and smashed into the asphalt play area, bursting with cloud of dust which sometimes suggested the mushroom shape of the real thing. We christened our nuclear device the "D-Bomb."
Our main object was to avoid being contaminated by the "radioactive" dust that spread throughout the playground from Ground Zero. For some tests, chosen players hid beneath a large concrete play turtle to record the D-Bomb effects from a forward bunker while braver souls ventured toward the hot test site in make-believe radiation suits (jackets pulled over heads). All of us were thrilled by the execution of a realistic D-Bomb test--one with lots of dust that billowed upward into a much-anticipated mushroom-shaped cloud. Looking back, I realize that this chance to be in control of the nuclear trigger was a fantastic situation that safely removed the Bomb from its frightening reality.
The single occasion when a real A-Bomb test became a dramatic learning experience occurred when my sixth grade Language Arts class read aloud an account of an early Nevada test misfire. The story held us tightly in suspense as the man sent to disarm the defective Bomb described how he drove to the test site alone, sharply aware that he might be vaporized without warning, painstakingly climbed the tall pylon tower, entered the cramped Bomb housing and slowly disconnected the trigger mechanism. The severing of the last critical wires climaxed his effort in breathless fashion. After the group reading, the class simply buzzed with animated discussion about the story. None of us could see past the thrilling event to the more important issue of why nuclear devices were being tested and how the acquired knowledge would be used.
My fallout worries gradually became quiescent, but re-emerged when the Russians carried out an extensive new series of multi-megaton aboveground nuclear tests in 1960 and 1961. The news media announced, with distressing regularity, the detonation of one Hydrogen Bomb after another in the Siberian wastelands, followed by monitoring reports from Japan, Alaska, Canada, and the continental U.S. as fresh nuclear debris was blown westward. By that time, my separated parents had reconciled and re-established the family in Chicago. A week after each new Siberian test blast, local monitoring stations released the latest fallout readings to Chicago's public.
As the tests became part of daily life, the local weathermen, who had already incorporated fallout readings into their meteorological presentations, began explaining how particular weather conditions determined how much fallout would reach the ground. Once it was known that rain and snow carried fresh isotopic debris directly down to the ground, good weather took on a new meaning. Any weather that kept fallout high in the atmosphere until it could "cool" to a lower, safer level became good weather. Casual gossip about the weather had lost its innocence.
Although I was very preoccupied by my first year in high school, the inevitable arrival overhead of radioactive debris from each Soviet test brought forth disturbing thoughts of what continual exposure to fallout would do to me. The radioactive contents of H-Bomb ash pervaded the local ecology; because isotopes invaded the human body through several avenues, contamination was unavoidable.
With each breath of life-sustaining air, a bizarre form of Russian roulette was played out. If a radioactive particle lodged in an air sac, lung cancer could be the prize. The clouds of industrial pollution from nearby steel mills that usually enshrouded Chicago were undoubtedly a worse menace, as the black lungs of autopsied city dwellers graphically bore out, but fallout was invisible and, therefore, more insidious.
For breakfast, I drank milk that was laced with Strontium 90, a deadly isotope that had traveled up the food chain from pasture to cow to me. Strontium 90's unfortunate resemblance to Calcium assured it an unwelcome residence in my bones, where it became a biological time bomb that might someday induce leukemia.
Still less hopeful was the possibility that radioactive fallout might cause harmful genetic mutations, endangering the human race's reproductive future, an atomic curse on unborn generations. This seemed to me an obscene fate for our species.
The inhumane expedient of exposing a defenseless populace to the inadequately understood effects of nuclear fallout reinforced my hostility toward the Russians. I was particularly outraged when I learned about the fallout alerts in Japan, during which the Japanese were advised to remain indoors if rain brought hot fallout upon the only country to bear the horror of nuclear warfare. Hadn't the Japanese suffered enough, I thought?
During the Russian tests, megaton mania swept the media; the 100 megaton H-Bomb became the new ultimate weapon that the Soviets were likely to explode first, winning a thermonuclear version of the space race. I wondered if there were any truth to the alarmist talk of a megaton gap that would expose the United States to superior Soviet might. It did seem odd that the U.S. was not counter-testing H-Bombs to assure our citizenry that all was in hand, but I appreciated the apparent restraint of my country. The fewer bombs exploded by anyone, the better for us all.
Eventually, the Russians exploded a 50-megaton H-Bomb, which inspired much media fanfare. One TV network news special superimposed an H-Bomb fireball on a U.S. map to show the potential extent of damage had the Siberian supercracker been detonated over our heads. Endless media speculation led me to believe that a 100 megaton Soviet test was imminent, but fortunately such a bomb was never exploded.
The generally unpleasant experience of living downrange of the Siberian test site had once again sensitized me to the fallout count. Especially memorable was a day when the fallout level reached an unprecedented high. The radiation level was so high that people who had never talked about fallout were sufficiently concerned to discuss its implications. Throughout the day, many students at school noted the high fallout level and hoped that it would drop quickly. To my surprise, I actually had a hallway discussion with several friends about how uncomfortably close we thought the day's reading was to an established threshold safety level. Our science was probably faulty, but the underlying concern was readily shared.
As I walked home, I envisioned the air filled with highly radioactive debris that I breathed unavoidably into my lungs. My skin seemed to tingle from invisible contact with fallout ash; I was physically and mentally ill at ease. During the many hours left in the day, I repeatedly wished that the radiation level would cool off. I felt ready to panic if the fallout count went even higher.
The next day, to the palpable relief of all who had survived yesterday's radioactive hot spell, the fallout reading plummeted down to a much lower point. Quite humbled by this radioactive event, I fervently hoped that no repetition would take place.
While H-Bombs were irradiating Siberia and all those who lived downwind, the Pentagon did its best to reassure the us that the Soviets could be held in check. The latest strategic nuclear weapons were unveiled with much fanfare and impressive demonstrations. Watching a film of a solid-fueled Minuteman ICBM belch forth from an underground silo in simulated instant retaliation, I was certainly awe-inspired. Even more amazing were the nuclear-powered Polaris submarines, each of which carried 16 ballistic missiles on long underwater cruises. With entire oceans to hide within, the Polaris subs came close to being the invulnerable weapon.
As long as these formidable killing machines deterred war, it was possible to contrive an feeling of security beneath a protective nuclear umbrella. But in an actual nuclear war, I soon learned, no amount of retaliatory offensive weapons could shield the U.S. from incoming enemy missiles. There were ongoing tests of the Nike-Zeus anti-missile missile system, but deployment of this complex defense was said to lie many years in the future and was no guarantee that all warheads would be intercepted. No weapon system ever made worked with l00 percent operational success and only a few H-Bomb nosecones needed to penetrate an anti-missile missile system to inflict catastrophic damage and casualties. None of what I learned in my incessant childhood search for information about nuclear warfare offered me any sign of hope.
Sometimes I wondered what the strategic launch crews would do if they actually had to shoot their missiles and drop their bombs. I didn't question that these carefully screened and highly motivated weaponeers would carry out their assignments, but what of returning to base in bombers and subs, or coming up out of underground silos after the U.S. had been devastated by an all-out thermonuclear attack. With unprotected loved ones obliterated and the country in radioactive ruin, what would be left for these soldiers to live for? It seemed to me that the satisfaction of having equally laid waste to the Russians would be fleeting amidst the sorrow of our own nuclear wasteland.
In 1961, with the long-lived Berlin crisis still aggravating Cold War tension, the new Kennedy administration began promoting a national fallout shelter plan. This plan called for cities and towns to be stocked with survival materials that would be stored in specifically designated buildings where people would gather during an attack to wait out the worst period of fallout activity. For the homeowners, plans for constructing family fallout shelters would be provided. A huge media campaign spread the word that shelters were the best way to insure national survival. Statistical charts illustrated how many more Americans would live if the shelter program were fully implemented. With an action program in hand, every American was encouraged to pitch in and do the job themselves.
When I first heard of this program, at the age of twelve, I was skeptical. My childhood self-education in nuclear affairs had equipped me with many useful, if gruesome, facts, and my imagination quickly detected fatal flaws in the fallout shelter scheme. The entire premise of fallout shelters depended upon the Russians attacking only military targets with enough precision to avoid population centers, an unattainable goal when so many military bases were adjacent to cities. In metropolises like Chicago, the unfortunate people cowering within designated downtown shelters would be instantly vaporized when an H-Bomb warhead exploded overhead. Outward from ground zero, an enormous shock wave would collapse buildings on top of sheltered space. And for miles around, an all consuming firestorm would suck all of the oxygen out of shelters and the phenomenal heat would roast the asphyxiated bodies.
While walking around downtown Chicago, I observed many buildings with the distinctive Civil Defense Shelter sign affixed above main entrances. The yellow and black emblem assured the public of adequate shelter, food and medical supplies for a bureaucratically predetermined number of people. In my imagination I could see a self-appointed leader standing coolly by the door counting heads until the exact number of would-be shelterees had been allowed in. At that point, I believed, the fun would begin as hundreds of panicked individuals continued to scramble forward, oblivious to the official limits.
One day, I noticed that Chicago's main public library (one of my favorite haunts) had Civil Defense Shelter signs bestowed upon its entrances. For this venerable old structure, built shortly after the Civil War, to be so honored was unbelievably ludicrous to me. I could not understand how anyone could hope to feel secure inside such an ancient building. I once stood on the library's steps and gazed skyward at the high-altitude contrail of an Air Force supersonic bomber on a preannounced practice bomb run. The B-58 Hustler streaked above Chicago's Loop, followed by a window-rattling sonic boom. While the SAC bomber flew on, I stared at the library's Civil Defense emblems, shook my head, and snorted contemptuously. The government had to be kidding. Any hope that America's second largest city might somehow be spared a direct hit was more fantastic than any science fiction story I had ever read.
Military confirmation of Chicago's targeted status was visibly at hand. I lived half a mile from Lake Michigan and a mile and a half from the nearest shore-based Nike antiaircraft battery, one of many that guarded Chicago from Soviet bombers. During walks along the lake shore, I often passed the fenced-in green-turfed humps that concealed the Nike missile launchers.
A TV station once took viewers on a guided tour of the rocket-propelled guardians of Chicago. In a simulated alert exercise, the Nike missiles rose from the opening bay doors of the camouflaged humps and were launched at approaching Russian planes. The enemy, a remote-controlled, obsolete propeller-driven U.S. bomber, was blown to bits. Well and good, if Chicago were attacked by bombers--but we lived in an ICBM age. The undeniable obsolescence of antiaircraft defense was quietly confirmed a few years later when the Nikes were dismantled and not replaced. The last illusion of protection for U.S. cities disappeared with them.
As far as I could figure out, modern apartment dwellers like my family had been overlooked by Civil Defense. Along with about a thousand other people, my family lived in a 22-story residential high-rise, one of many insurance-company funded skyscrapers that fronted the Lake Michigan shore. The building's apartment units all faced outward in picture-windowed glory; the highly-saleable lakeshore view demanded nothing less. I felt certain that the shock wave from a nearby H-Bomb blast would completely shatter that glass and thoroughly air out the high-rise from front lobby to penthouse.
As for fallout, no one bothered to designate shelter space anywhere in the apartment complex. After many fruitless efforts to visualize fallout shelter survival in our multistory building, I understood why.
Unless we were prepared to build a pint-sized shelter inside one of the closets, our apartment was too exposed to the outside for safe use. In normal times, no amount of effort had ever prevented wind-blown dust from infiltrating our happy home and accumulating in thick layers. Air-borne fallout would also relentlessly pile up with equal ease.
The interior hallways might have provided better protection, had it been possible to seal them off from the fifteen apartments, two stairways, three elevator shafts, and one garbage chute that came with each floor and through which unfiltered air would bring radioactive contaminants.
There was an extensive basement, but only a fraction of the entire building's population could safely squeeze in among the storage rooms, boilers and washer-dryers. And of course, the basement ventilators were not equipped with fallout-particle filters.
As bad off as we were in our 19th-floor apartment, however, the inhabitants of the sprawling south side slums that surrounded us faced an even bleaker wartime future. Even lacking adequate shelter against Chicago's brutal winter weather, the poor would have nowhere to hide. Perhaps, the fear of atomic death would drive slum dwellers to the concrete, steel and glass towers within which the middle class isolated itself. My imagination easily conjured up a final battle between the have-nots and the have-mores over seemingly precious shelter space, a battle which would divisively climax civilization's last gasp.
After thinking through the dismal lack of options, I concluded that a substantial number of Chicagoans had been written off as unprotectable from any kind of nuclear attack. I could not reconcile my having been expediently abandoned to nuclear death with the government's claim that it served in the people's interest. When it became evident that the United States government had callously forsaken me and millions of others who had grown up believing in the American way, I felt betrayed. My adolescent disillusionment begat a scornful rejection of our government and its claims to be "for the people". If my government didn't care about me, I didn't care about it or Civil Defense's stupid plans. Beneath my young contempt lay the reluctant admission that my future had been denied; my fate rested in the hands of invisible men.
From this point on, I watched the failure of the Fallout Shelter program with grim adolescent satisfaction. Of particular interest to me were the small towns of America. If there were a nuclear war, outlying communities which had not been blasted to pieces by direct hits would have a chance to ride out the ensuing fallout in prepared shelters. Well-publicized fallout drills became common as many smalltownspeople gathered in local high school gyms or auditoriums to subsist on water and fortified Civil-Defense crackers for seven days. Individual families tested their newly-constructed shelters with exercises of their own. Newspaper reporters often sat in to observe the results.
Some of these shelter simulations came off successfully, but others degenerated into free-for-alls when morale and organization broke down under Spartan, overcrowded conditions. Warring family members often drove each other up the walls of their confining shelter instead of pulling together in the face of adversity.
The Fallout Shelter program unexpectedly created a new moral dilemma--where shelter space was limited, who would be allowed to survive? The family shelter exemplified Yankee do-it-yourself-ism but, in a nuclear war, self-preservation literally meant to hell with unprepared neighbors and friends. Fellow shelterees would be mankind's only post-holocaust fraternity.
Unfortunately, I realized, the unsheltered could not be expected to abide by prewar respect for individual rights and property. In order to enter the nuclear millennium intact, it might be necessary for a family to defend their shelter with guns. Indeed, carrying personal shelter defense one step further, some small towns publicly declared their intent to hold off refugees from nearby bombed out cities with armed roadblocks. Survival of the fittest, I thought to myself, World War III style.
A lack of universal shelters meant staying close to home in a crisis. On short notice, it could be difficult for family members to get home in time from work, school, shopping, etc. and the threat of war demanded a guarded shelter to prevent an unwanted occupation by those ex-friends one had been determined never to see alive again. Some families built shelters in secret places and booby-trapped them against intruders.
While the fallout controversy continued, the Twilight Zone, a popular TV show and one of my favorites, broadcast a timely episode about a family that was forced to barricade itself in their fallout shelter against fear-crazed neighbors trying to break in during a war scare. The fictional portrayal of last-minute mob violence got right to the heart of who would survive and at what price if nuclear war came to America.
Suppose millions of Americans successfully sat out the first, worst week of fallout in their shelters? I was sure that the completely new world that awaited their re-emergence would be grim beyond reckoning. I thought it unrealistic to hope that any nation could rise from the ashes of instant nuclear obliteration; the United States' uneven relief efforts after natural disasters hardly encouraged belief in post-nuked reconstruction. Disparate, isolated survivors would be on their own, I thought, scrounging among the dead's canned food supplies. In the end, most survivors might starve while waiting for aid from hopelessly overpressed and thoroughly decimated relief agencies.
Though I had just become a teenager, I began to question the desirability of even trying to go on living in such a ruined world. While not doubting the almost limitless will of some human beings to overcome the worst imaginable obstacles, I wondered what most people would do amid the wreckage of all that had once made life worthwhile. In such circumstances, I could not see any point in having civilization's supreme failure rubbed in my face for the rest of my miserable life.
Reinforcing my growing what's-the-use outlook was a recurrent memory of "Alas Babylon," the only television drama I had ever seen about a nuclear attack upon America. Set in a small Florida town that had been abruptly cut off from the outside world by a Russian nuclear strike, this TV version of Pat Frank's novel followed the grim struggle for survival of a family and their neighbors.
"Alas Babylon" expressed the contagious fear of an impending nuclear attack when panicked shoppers cleaned out a supermarket in pitiful preparation for the unthinkable. Watching the main character shovel food into a second shopping cart, I thought of the free-for-all that would undoubtedly occur at our local Hillman's supermarket during an actual war scare. The fear-driven chaos in a shopping center like ours, that was hopelessly overcrowded anyway, would be unbelievable. From that scene on, "Alas Babylon" would not let me go.
After the incineration of Miami and other Floridian targets, the handful of surviving friends descended into the despair of an ever more difficult daily life. Dwindling food, fuel and medical supplies, radiation sickness from fallout and roving bands from H-Bombed cities exacted Armageddon's toll. "Alas Babylon" left no inclination for me to envy the outlying survivors of a nuclear assault that would end urban life as America knew it. This TV drama's worst horrors would pale against the nuking of a big city like Chicago, I thought. The unprecedented scale of casualties and destruction that would be inflicted in a flash would surpass any imagination. Reality would put doomsday fiction to shame.
Eventually, as I lost interest in endlessly reiterating my objections to the Civil Defense Shelter program, my shelter sensitivity diminished to a sullen indifference. And in the end, the basic inadequacies of the fallout shelter program assured its demise as a viable means of national survival. Most Americans never built individual shelters and the national preparatory program, such as it had been, petered out for lack of sustained effort.
While different national issues entered and occupied the national attention span, family shelters were converted to storage areas and recreation rooms, publicly displayed Civil Defense signs faded in the sun and unreplenished ration crackers rotted away in public basements, there to age well before being exhumed and fed to unsuspecting livestock. The Bomb had outlasted yet another half-assed solution.
My parents never seemed to worry about the Bomb; they already had too many personal worries to bother over something as hopeless as nuclear war. Mother and father were generally at odds on just about every subject, but their responses to a nuclear finish were similarly fatalistic and had become almost automatic.
Mother, who had absolutely no time for concerns that did not directly affect her daily struggle to get by, would invariably say that, "If it happens, it happens, and there just isn't any point in getting worked up over something you can't do a damn thing about." Life went on until it ended.
Father' s last word on the Bomb was more imaginative and cynical, "When they drop the Bomb, there won't be a thing we can do about it and there won't be anywhere to hide, so I'll just sit out on the balcony and watch it."
To my surprise, I found a certain appeal in the absurd notion that my father would choose a balcony seat to the world's last fireworks display. There he would be, beer in one hand, binoculars in another, calmly sighting in on ground zero as the take-cover siren wailed urgently and others scurried frantically to nonexistent shelter. If you had to go, I thought, why not show some class? Better to thumb your nose at doomsday than to cower in some hole. I did not know it at first, but father had given me a first taste of Bomb-inspired black humor.
During the early 1960s, radio stations broadcast plenty of comedians who took the Bomb for a ride. My favorite zany disk jockey, Dan Sorkin, gave his morning audience heavy doses of so-called sick humorists, among whom the Bomb cast an almighty influence.
"The Bomb had fallen, the lights had gone out, everyone in the office ran into the corridor, broke out booze and paper cups and had a party."
"He was about to drink his milk when he noticed a black speck floating on top like a piece of Strontium 90."
At first, I was bewildered by this bizarre mix of comedy and nuclear annihilation; after all, the Bomb was serious business. Then I began to laugh and the release of atomic tension, temporary as it was, felt good. I would eventually learn that reacting to black humor meant laughing at a hopeless dilemma instead of crying.
Unfortunately, I could not permanently assume the fatalistic stance of parents and stand-up comedians; my fear was too strong to dismiss with humor. Since the fourth grade, I had known that my mother and father could not protect me from the Bomb. However greatly they might wish to, mere parents could not stand up against radioactive fallout and incoming warheads. Even though the Bomb lay in the hands of man, it dwarfed all mankind. Because the nuclear menace could not be conveniently deposited on parental shoulders along with so many other childhood fears, I unwillingly bore my thermonuclear burden alone and without comfort. To my regret, I felt prevented from sharing my private fear with mother and father by our common vulnerability.
Occasionally, an incident would reveal the seriousness that underlay my parents' stock responses to the Bomb. One morning, my dad told me of a nightmare he had recently awakened from. Three A-Bombs had been detonated in Lake Michigan, radioactively contaminating it. As my father expressed his feelings at such a senseless act, I felt the rare comfort of a shared concern. I knew how much the enormous body of fresh water meant to father, who had watched many a spectacular sunrise from its watery horizon. No amount of black humor could have relieved his unhappy dream.
One morning I noticed that a leaflet had been slipped under the door. Curious as to why anyone would do such a thing, I read an announcement of a neighborhood SANE meeting. The meeting's stated purpose, to promote a sane nuclear policy, was sponsored by several famous personalities, one of whom was comedian Bob Newhart.
I could not figure out what SANE was or how ordinary people meeting together could possibly hope to stop the nuclear standoff of adversary nations. Nevertheless, I was very surprised that a disarmament organization existed. My ignorance of mass movements for social change prevented me from taking SANE seriously and learning more about it, so years passed before I found out about the disarmament struggle that had been waged by many conscientious people.
Paralleling the growth of my fear of humans unleashing the atom in war was my growing interest in the peaceful uses of nuclear reaction. I strongly believed that beneficial uses of nuclear reaction might ultimately prevail and obsolesce war by supplying the energy needs of a future technocratic society. There was a redeeming quality to harnessing one of the universe's most powerful forces to build a new and better civilization that greatly appealed to me.
Recognizing my interest in this particular branch of science, my parents encouraged me with books and other material. The first book, an llth-year Christmas gift of Walt Disney's "Our Friend the Atom," was a well-written, lavishly-illustrated history of nuclear science and its application that sharply contrasted the constructive and destructive potential of atomic energy. After being enthralled by the atomic pioneering of the Curies, Roentgen, Sir Ernest Rutherford, Neils Bohr and other distinguished scientists, I borrowed other books from the library to broaden and deepen my grasp of this exciting new interest. Eventually, I noticed that being seen with books on atomic energy greatly impressed adults, who no doubt thought me to be some young genius. I did not discourage this image.
When my sixth-grade class began studying atomic energy, I soon realized that my familiarity with the material made me the classroom authority. When the annual science fair neared, I aggressively exploited my scholastic advantage by organizing several close friends into an exhibit we called Nuclear Corner.
Inspired by the early experiments that Sir Ernest Rutherford had conducted during his investigation of irradiated subatomic particles, I fashioned a simple representative model of his famous element-bombardment device for my contribution to the exhibit.
Sir Ernest had encased a minute amount of radium within a lead container, with a small aperture through which a narrow beam of radium-emitted alpha particles could escape. Directed at a piece of gold foil, the alpha particles had passed through and hit a phosphorescent screen where their impacts had been successfully observed through a microscope. Through extensive observation, Sir Ernest had learned that most alpha particles had passed through the gold foil barrier without apparent interference, but that a few particles had been deflected at different angles. Much early knowledge of atomic characteristics had been derived from this pioneering experiment.
To simulate Sir Ernest's apparatus, I installed a toy cannon, representing the radium, within a black cardboard box. Through a small aperture, this "radium" cannon shot alpha-particles (spitballs) out of the simulated-lead box, through a gold-papered cardboard target with a hole in the middle to represent the empty space between atomic nuclei, and onto a box-top screen which the audience was required to imagine as being phosphorescent.
To back up my demonstration, I carefully drew detailed charts in color to explain the atomic phenomena that had been revealed by the actual experiment and memorized a comprehensive lecture which I had culled from my reading.
Completing Nuclear Corner, one friend constructed an atom-smasher with a straw that shot subatomic kernels at popcorn atoms inside a milk bottle; another of our group simulated a nuclear chain reaction with wooden matches (a champion attention-getter), and the fourth team member provided a microscopic look at the glow-in-the-dark radium dial of a wrist watch (yes, one could buy a radioactive timepiece in those days).
Nuclear Corner was a big hit and won an honorable mention from the judges, who asked me many questions. This successful application of my new interest was one of the proudest moments of my life. I had no idea how important my Nuclear Corner experience was soon to become.
In the spring of 1961, my parents decided to enroll me in the prestigious Laboratory High School on the University of Chicago campus. After passing a demanding battery of entrance examinations, I had to be interviewed by a Lab School counselor who would determine my suitability for enrollment.
My interviewer, Mr. Cernius, was warm and quite at ease with me, which facilitated a rewarding interchange. Stimulated by his questions about my scientific interests, I described my recent science fair exhibit and drew pictures of it at his request. By the conclusion of the interview, I knew for sure that my enthusiasm and articulation had won Mr. Cernius over.
During a Laboratory School summer session that was intended to prepare me for the regular fall semester, I teamed up with the son of a nuclear physicist in the outlining and writing of a report on nuclear power. One of the resource people we interviewed was Dr. Ebisher, a physicist who worked on the campus and with the Argonne National Laboratory just outside the city. I soon learned that the University of Chicago and Argonne were among the foremost nuclear physics research institutions in the country.
Dr. Ebisher gave both of us piles of literature as well as his expertise. We worked with great enthusiasm on our report and were quite gratified by the results. With this powerful reinforcement, I began to entertain illusions of becoming a nuclear physicist when I grew up, working to realize my dream of the peaceful use of the atom.
The University of Chicago's nuclear resources constantly stimulated my interest. On the campus was a 460 billion electron-volt cyclotron that was one of the early particle accelerators, popularly known as atom-smashers. This enormous device, capable of generating astronomical amounts of electron-volts to drive subatomic particle beams into various elements, was small compared to later accelerators, but no less fascinating. From these manmade collisions would come new knowledge of the microcosmic structure of atoms and, eventually, a greater understanding of the universe.
At Stagg Field, a plaque commemorated the extraordinary achievement of mankind's first sustained nuclear chain reaction, on December 2nd, 1942, in the uranium pile that had been built under the football stadium stands. One of the pamphlets Dr. Ebisher had given me during my summer atomic project had described this decisive beginning of the atomic age. Standing near the site of the Chicago Pile, barely 20 years removed from an amazing wartime leap into the future, I felt like a nuclear pilgrim on a sacred visit. I could barely believe that just on the other side of the wall had occurred atomic experiments that had profoundly transformed our world.
There were off-campus inspirations as well. A short distance from the University of Chicago was the Museum of Science and Industry. Highlighting the Museum' s extensive physics section was an impressive large-scale model of a water-cooled nuclear reactor that even glowed an eerie blue in simulation of shielded radioactivity. Staring down at the bundles of simulated Uranium fuel rods in the reactor core, I felt the nuclear-powered future close at hand.
After many visits to the Museum's reactor, I was ecstatic when my father gave me a model kit of a Westinghouse commercial nuclear reactor to assemble. Many absorbing hours spent constructing the finely-detailed model gave me an invaluable hands-on awareness of a fission power plant's intricacies. Playing nuclear engineer, I imagined running the Commonwealth Edison reactor that supplied some of Chicago's electricity in appropriately futuristic fashion. The atom was sending juice into the lights and appliances of our apartment; our on-off switches had become nuclear control devices.
Excited by the promise of cheap, virtually unlimited nuclear power, I looked forward to the development of plutonium fission breeder reactors that would create more nuclear fuel than they burned. And still further ahead was the fusion reactor that would combine hydrogen atoms into manmade, magnetic force field contained suns, releasing far more energy than nuclear fission.
But a year and a half later, despite the apparently bright future of atoms for peace, my junior nuclear physicist ambitions dissolved in the unforgiving rigor of high school study. I was too inconsistent a student to maintain the excellent academic standards required to achieve such a towering career. My interest in atomically improving life continued, but fluctuating grades had killed my dream of doing it myself.
On an October Monday night in 1962, the image of President Kennedy unexpectedly appeared on our television set. He grimly announced to the nation that Russia had sneaked missiles into Cuba. While the president explained how the U.S. was responding to this provocation, I thought alarmingly that the Soviet Union had tried to set up a nuclear sneak attack from 90 miles offshore. It was true, I said to myself, the Communists really were out to get us. If the U.S.S.R. did not withdraw the missiles as demanded, I reasoned, an inevitable U.S. pre-emptive strike against the threatening launch sites might provoke a nuclear war.
I had been dreading confirmation of my Bomb nightmares for years and now it had come without warning. For the rest of the evening, a gut-clutching chill grew within me. There was no doubt in my mind that the next holocaust was imminent. As though a death sentence had been pronounced, my life suddenly became very finite. Every daily activity, no matter how mundane, might be done for the last time. Relaxation was impossible; I could not put Armageddon on hold for even a minute There was too much time to think about the unthinkable.
My long bus rides and walks to school were haunted by the mental images of mushroom clouds and flying missiles. I pondered the dwindling number of classes remaining before the semester's abrupt and final end. The tension at school was oppressive. Everyone tried hard to keep busy, to maintain a pretense of business as usual, but learning had been reduced to a futile, time-killing exercise. Along with many others, I could not submerge myself in classroom study. My eyes constantly darted to the clock and followed the second hand through one minute after another. I hated being at school; without a future, education had lost all meaning. I attended only because it was expected of me and there wasn't anything I could do about it.
Time between classes was weird and unsettling. I could see a sense of helplessness and confusion on many other faces. Eye contact was avoided by students busily holding in their fear as they hurried through the halls to sit through another interminable class. The nervous babble at lunch put me too much on edge to endure the cafeteria scene for the entire period; I retreated to quieter breathing space outdoors.
Talking about Cuba with my close friends (all Freshmen) was not reassuring. Everyone hoped that nuclear war could be avoided, but no one knew how that could happen this far along in the crisis. Without saying so, we all shared the frustration of being unable to grow up in control of our lives. Nobody was giving us a chance to live.
When the school administration's silence confirmed my suspicion that no plans had been made in anticipation of a nuclear attack (as though any could have), I decided to act on my own as I had in the fourth grade. I would do something, no matter how hopeless.
With a claustrophobic dread of being trapped in a collapsing building during a warhead detonation, I decided to heed an attack warning by running a block to the Midway, a drained, grassy canal that had originally been dug for the 1893 World Exposition. By hugging the nearest sloping canal wall, I dreamed of riding out a downtown blast. If, by some miracle, I was still alive, I planned to run down the length of the Midway to Billings Hospital in the slim hope that my mother, who worked there as an administrative assistant, might still be alive beneath the wreckage. Beyond that feeble contingency lay the oblivion of prolonging life in an H-Bombed Chicago. If a warhead nailed the downtown Loop, my father would be instantly vaporized in a clean death that I thought quite preferable to whatever lingering fate awaited my mother and me farther away.
My plan of action established, I walked to and from school in the Midway. In order to be ready at a moment's notice, I practiced throwing myself against the canal wall, squeezing my eyes shut against the blinding nuclear flash and clutching the thick grass in my hands while all hell was unleashed around me. I knew that my survival drill was a waste of time, but I was determined not to accept death passively.
At home, I anxiously followed the formation of Kennedy's Cuban quarantine. I didn't really expect the Soviets to remove their missiles and bombers after having risked so much getting them there. Sooner or later, the Caribbean thorn would have to be pulled, consequences be damned, and the Russians were certain to retaliate. The compelling evidence of Soviet war preparations that had been revealed by publicly released U-2 spy plane reconnaissance photographs reinforced my conviction.
My father, falling back on his World War II experience in the Marine Corps, saw the Cuban missile crisis through by carefully following the U.S. military buildup in the Caribbean theatre of operations. Rather than worry about a thermonuclear outcome, father expressed confidence in the ability of the armed forces to go into Cuba and do the job if necessary. Father was particularly pleased by the beefing up of the Marine garrison based at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. If push came to shove, the jarheads would come through in the clutch as they always had in past wars.
On the other hand, my mother, with her philosophy that worrying yourself to death was a waste of life, ignored the crisis and went about her business. During that frightening week, I wished more than once that I could have dismissed the danger as effectively as my mother seemed to, but the nuclear triggers were being gripped too tightly for me to rationalize away.
Unable to deal with my fear the way adults could, I felt frustratingly distant from my parents. On many occasions when the fear welled up within me, I wanted to tell mother and father how afraid of dying I really was, but I froze every time I tried to get the words out. What was the use, I thought? They couldn't do any thing about it, anyway.
Evenings after dinner dragged awfully. I couldn't lose myself in watching TV, reading, hobbying, or even homework; the nuclear distraction prevailed. Enjoyment and relaxation had ceased to exist. I was miserable. Retreating to bed, I stared at the sprawling city lights outside my window. My mind in unrelieved turmoil, I wondered if I were destined to sleep into oblivion. Perhaps, that would be the easiest way to go. After an hour or so of hopeless speculation, I fell into a heavy sleep night after night. Each morning, I awoke to a continuing nightmare.
By Saturday, the dreaded nuclear showdown had somehow been avoided; the blockade had not yet been run by Russian warships. I didn't know what was going on, but I hoped that the U.S.S.R. had gotten the point. I kept mentally holding my breath. On Sunday morning, the news announced that the Russians had agreed to pull their offensive weapons out of Cuba. I could hardly believe that the crisis had ended peacefully. We had beaten the Russians without going to war. What an unexpected reprieve. After an initial charge of climactic excitement, I went completely at ease. Relaxing for the first time since Monday night, I felt the special joy of being spared an anticipated death. Never before had I known how sweet it was to be alive. My euphoria carried me through all of the next week.
Weeks later, after the last missiles and bombers had been shipped out of Cuba aboard Soviet bloc freighters and the national sigh of relief had finally spent itself, I soberly thought, in peaceful hindsight, of how close to the end the human race had been pushed by nuclear madness. I wondered how national leaders could be so blind to the manmade hell they were capable of unleashing upon a defenseless world. Further, I realized unhappily that the Cuban missile crisis had solved nothing; the nuclear weapons were still in place, manned and ready for the next showdown. Cuba had only confirmed my fears. I knew now that I wasn't some isolated nut case running from self-imagined phantoms. Nuclear war could happen. It almost had happened.
Several months after the Cuban missile crisis, while browsing through a series of condensed books my mother had brought home, I unexpectedly came across a novel by Philip Wylie entitled "Tomorrow". Because the title obviously suggested science fiction, I began reading the novel on the spot and discovered, to my surprise, that "Tomorrow" was really about an imagined Russian nuclear attack upon the U.S.
Wylie's shattering description of two fictional Midwestern cities being atom-bombed reminded me uncomfortably of what might be in store for Chicago, the Midwest's number one city. More important, the hours I spent immersed in the book's apocalyptic atmosphere gave me a feel for the behavior of 1950s Americans under the nuclear footprint that I had never adequately envisioned. My composite vision of nuclear doom had been given three-dimensional depth.
Until reading "Tomorrow", I had not known that novelists were expressing the nation's fear and uncertainty in the nuclear age. In years to come, I would learn that the Bomb had moved many writers in science fiction and mainstream literature to write doomsday material that varied in perspective from the hope that man would rise like a phoenix from the ashes of his folly to the grimmer realization that civilization was doomed to repeat the errors of the past in an ultimately fatal cycle. Reading nuclear war novels and short stories heightened my extreme sensitivity to manmade extinction but also provided a cathartic outlet for my pent-up worries. Having pretty much kept my nuclear feelings to myself, it was comforting to know that people whom I would never meet were sharing my concerns so effectively. I was not alone.
Not even a book as devastating as "Tomorrow" could prepare me for my first television viewing of the movie "On the Beach". Six months after surviving a real nuclear war scare, I was overcome by this film's heartbreaking tale of the last survivors of World War III as they waited on the continent of Australia for the inescapable encroachment of fatal radioactive fallout that had saturated the northern hemisphere. As bad as my own wait for nuclear bombs to fall had always been, the cruel voyeurism of watching people live out their last precious moments on earth was far worse, even if only in fiction.
Bringing the cinematic nightmare home to me was the sequence in which a U.S. nuclear submarine, which had earlier sought refuge in Australia after the war had rendered the north uninhabitable, explored the west coast of America in search of lower radioactivity and possible survivors. Seeing my hometown of San Francisco devoid of life, yet intact, chilled me as no bombed-out image ever had.
Back in Australia, the final scenes of the populace queuing up to receive euthanasia pills were horrible to watch. Suicide had become mankind's final solution for failing to prevent nuclear war. As the major characters prepared to die in ways that reflected how they had once lived, the senselessness of being reduced to a pharmaceutical alternative to the lingering agony of gradually increasing radioactivity became an obscene epitaph.
In a tragic, futile gesture to a homeland that had disappeared forever, the ill American submarine crew sailed for their home port and into oblivion, leaving empty, littered streets behind. Never had a film's end been so absolutely final.
The film's lifeless conclusion completely deflated me. The hollow vulnerability that had last stricken me during the Cuban missile crisis returned and haunted me for several days. Scenes from the movie replayed in my mind with all the emotional force of the original viewing. Every idle moment was a vacuum to be filled with reflection upon the end of the world.
The lasting effect of "On the Beach" upon me has been sustained by many subsequent viewings. For me, this movie is symbolic of the worst that could happen to us all and that is its strength; graphic images of mass destruction and gory death are not required to impress the fatality of nuclear war upon an audience. The impending extinction of isolated survivors with time to consider their fate and respond in human ways is what makes the film so successful in its portrayal of nuclear doomsday.
In the summer of 1963, a treaty banning all aboveground nuclear weapons tests was signed by the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. To an internationally-confused 14-year-old like me, the limited test ban treaty announcement came as a complete surprise after last October's face-off over Cuba. Perhaps the recent missile crisis had forced a sober appraisal of the benefits of peaceful negotiation upon both antagonists. I could only hope that this was true.
I was very pleased that no additional radioactive poison would be released into the atmosphere, but I was also disappointed that underground testing, although limited to the relatively low yield of 150 kilotons, would continue unabated. As far as I was concerned, any treaty that fell short of curtailing and ultimately eliminating the nuclear arms race would eventually be rendered meaningless. Remembering their sneaky maneuvers in Cuba, I also questioned if the Russians could really be trusted to abide by the treaty's terms. Scientific explanation that nuclear weapons testing could be adequately monitored by seismographic stations assured me that mutual compliance was feasible.
For the first time since I had become aware of Bomb fallout, I would no longer have to worry about being radioactively contaminated by fresh nuclear testing. The residual fallout from past nuclear detonations would take time to decay to completely safe levels; but then perhaps present and future generations could be safe from further damage. The danger of war was still with us, but the harmful effects of war preparation had been diminished. With luck, there would not be any more fallout counts on the radio.
The test ban treaty initiated a new period of Bomb consciousness for me. Each additional year of high school, each birthday, each notable phase of personal growth gradually strengthened my appreciation that life went on in spite of being targeted for destruction in case of war. Yes, civilization might get blown up in half an hour, but what was I to do until then? It was pointless to suspend my existence while awaiting a catastrophe that might never occur. There were plenty of challenges to face without being undermined by the cancerous fatalism of doomsday thinking. Because the Bomb was in my way, I finally moved it aside and maintained a comfortable distance from it for the rest of my youth.
Many years later one of my best friends and I spent several evenings exchanging similar experiences of growing up with the Bomb. We both realized that this was the first time either of us had ever shared this part of our childhood with anyone. I had never read any personal accounts of growing up in the shadow of nuclear obliteration, and I decided to record my own memories of that time.
After a great deal of reminiscing, I wrote a first draft and distributed copies to a few friends. Their feedback surprised me. For those of all ages, my writing brought forth memories that had lain undisturbed for many years. For those my own age, I had coalesced many of their unspoken childhood worries and fears into words. While I am aware that many young people worked out their nuclear consciousness through strong family support, belief in divine protection, or uniquely individual solutions, many of us have never laid our early atomic years to rest or come to terms with the nuclear menace which still remains. It is with these particular children of the atom bomb in mind that I have written these reminiscences.
My consuming childhood concern about the Bomb, while not typical of my generation, was one of many juvenile responses to an extraordinary danger. I have often wondered if the widespread alienation of youth in the 1960s might have been caused in some part by growing up amid the impermanence of a world in constant danger of nuclear destruction.
I believe that a nuclear holocaust is still possible as long as large numbers of nuclear weapons are maintained on our planet. Our efforts to prevent such a disaster may be aided by the perspective of the generation that first lived beneath the shadow of the Bomb. In order that this unique consciousness of nuclear danger not be lost to succeeding generations, I urge everyone who has ever felt that humbling fear of nuclear death from above to record that experience and pass it on. You will not have suffered silently or in vain.
This document may be copied and distributed freely for educational and non-profit uses.
- Last revised December 9, 2003 -