Child of the Cold War

The following post has minor spoilers for the TV show Jericho. You have been warned.

Last night, Misty, Lana Bob! and I watched the pilot episode of Jericho, a new CBS show. Jericho is a small town somewhere in Kansas. Various characters are introduced, enough interpersonal conflicts are laid out to generate a season or two worth of episodes — and then there’s a nuclear explosion rising from Denver to the west.

Going into the series, I knew Jericho was about a community dealing with the aftermath of a nuclear explosion. I was certain that meant there would be mushroom clouds rising in the distance. I was ready for the roiling clouds of destruction, and I wasn’t disappointed.

What I wasn’t ready for was my reaction to the sight of that cloud rising in the distance, reflected in the windows of a school bus, glimpsed over the trees. Panic gripped me and I could not look away.

Growing up, I didn’t think much about nuclear war. I knew it was a possibility, but I didn’t dwell on it. I remember finding a book in the Ouachita library that documented the US nuclear tests of the 1950s at the Nevada Proving Grounds. It had page after page of pictures showing houses and other structures before and after a nuclear blast. The book was a product of the era that brought us The House in the Middle, in which the National Paint, Varnish and Lacquer Association and the Civil Defense Administration admonish us to keep our yards clean lest a nuclear blast set fire to wayward newspapers and other detritus. I was fascinated by the book, but I didn’t connect the images to the reality of the devastation a nuclear war would cause. Unlike my friend Adam Cadre, I didn’t believe I would die in a nuclear war. I didn’t see The Day After. There were no “Duck and Cover” drills in my schools.

In 1989 I attended the Arkansas Governor’s School, a summer educational program that Bill Clinton set up. It was modeled after those in other states, most notably North Carolina, and the idea was simple: gather 400 gifted rising high school seniors and throw them in a six-week hothouse of academic instruction and self-actualization, sprinkled liberally throughout with experiences the students weren’t likely to get elsewhere. Governor’s School is where I saw Koyaanisqatsi and took part in a Holocaust rememberance that involved us packing ourselves into spaces that were equivalent to WW2-era boxcars. It’s also where I first internalized what nuclear war could mean. We watched When the Wind Blows, an animated film in which an elderly British couple in the countryside lives through a nuclear war, though not for long. I walked back to my dorm room and sat on my bed for a long time, staring off into space, sadder than I had been in some time.

My timing couldn’t have been better. While I was at Governor’s School, the Berlin Wall fell. The Soviet Union was on its way out, and with it died the Cold War and the nuclear sword of Damocles hanging over our heads*.

Yet somehow I absorbed all of the old Cold War fears. When I saw that mushroom cloud on TV, I had a moment of unreasoning terror. Knowledge I didn’t realize I had flooded back into me: If they’re 30 miles or more away, they won’t be blinded, and they’re probably a couple of hundred miles away. One-over-r-squared means the gamma radiation won’t be a major concern, nor will neutron activation of the soil be a problem. Fallout will the true danger. Are the prevailing winds in that area easterly? They should have anywhere from a day to a week before the fallout reaches them.

How did that become so deeply burned into my brain that I could pull it out at a moment’s notice? A single warhead from a Trident’s MIRV is around 100 kilotons — not great but not too bad — but we’ve got bombs with a megaton yield still in active service. When did the fear of nuclear holocaust become part of my childhood, intertwined around happier memories like kudzu enveloping a tree? Little Boy and Fat Man, the bombs we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were 15 to 20 kilotons, and the tactical “briefcase” nuke was around 1 kiloton; a terrorist bomb would likely be somewhere between those.

I have no idea if others my age and older have the same reaction. I’m certain younger people don’t. They don’t look at how close they are to a major city or military base to decide if they’ll die in the first strike or linger on and face starvation and radiation sickness. When they visit sites showing the damage a bomb would do due to overpressure**, they don’t have the same visceral reaction I do. They don’t imagine themselves becoming nothing but shadows burned into concrete sidewalks, shadows that mark where they stood when the bombs fell. Thank goodness Eli and his friends won’t grow up having drunk deep from the juice of that rotten apple from the tree of knowledge.

Oh, yeah, the show itself. Decent, with some uneven writing and a couple of gut-punching twists. Some “why don’t they…?” moments — for instance, when the phones and TV transmissions go dead, why doesn’t anyone check the Internet, given that it was designed for just this contingency? Perhaps everyone used dialup and Denver ISP. I was anxious from the moment the mushroom cloud rose into the air until nearly the end of the episode. I expect any teenagers watching it said, “Whoa, cool.”

On my way to a lunch appointment today I saw a jet contrail rising vertically into the air. I thought of missiles streaking through the sky, carrying deadly payloads and announcing to all who saw them launch that the end was sure to come in thirty minutes or less. I thought of those who sat in silos and submarines and on whose backs rested the entire world’s fate.

Then I went and had pizza and listened to a technical talk, knowing that nuclear annihilation is now a negligible threat compared to that of the drivers sharing the road with me.

* Though not really, given that, in 1995, a NASA rocket launched from Norway was mistaken for a Trident-launched nuclear missile. Russia came close to launching a retaliatory strike by mistake. And it’s not like that was the first time we came close to a nuclear exchange. Hope you sleep well!

** The link is to a Google Maps mashup that shows where the damage zones due to the pressure caused by an atomic explosion would be. For fun, enter “-86.64951, 34.69392” in the longitude and latitude box and press “Go”. That’s a ground-level detonation centered on Redstone Arsenal in the town where I live. At 1,000 kilotons my house is still outside the zones of major overpressure damage, though I make no guarantees about how much of the blast Monte Sano mountain would reflect back our way. Of course, where I work is within the 2 psi zone from a 100 kT blast, so I’d best hope the war happens at night. Hope I sleep well!