Wednesday, February 22, 2017


Given the current political climate, you'd be forgiven for finding yourself thrown back in your imagination to the days of the Cold War -- providing you'd lived through any significant component of it.

I did, and I remember the persistent, inherited dread of nuclear annihilation which infiltrated the fabric of everyday conversation. If you think today's doomsday preppers are a strange and nihilistic bunch, then you have got to hop back a few decades and check in on moms talking about how scared they'd be of radioactive fallout raising red-and-blue rings under their children's skin, and having their hair fall out in clumps as they vainly tried to take in water through loose teeth and cracked lips. "Billy is such a vibrant boy, and I definitely don't want to bury his limp and sore-festooned corpse in the dry, unforgiving earth, my strength failing me from hunger and radiation poisoning" they'd say, or something not dissimilar.

I exaggerate for something resembling comic effect, but the fact was that my church held occasional atomic war preparedness seminars, and we still had to have a day at school where the teachers showed us where the fallout shelters were.

What we didn't have was "duck and cover" drills, a form of desperate survivalism taught alongside Social Studies and Home Ec a generation or two before my own. The specter of nuclear annihilation had begun, by my younger years, to carry with it such a spontaneous and immediate implication of total destruction that, I think, the idea of jumping under a desk was patently absurd to my peers, and even our parents, across the board. We'd come to accept that humankind had, as a whole, agreed to adopt into our world a means of self-destruction so thorough and absolute that the only defense against it was hoping that you'd be one of the ones who died immediately and without suffering or, worse yet, awareness of the bomb.

Death is inevitably sudden, even when it's drawn out. A loved one dying in pieces in a hospital bed will still leave you gobsmacked by the suddenness and even the unpredictability that death brings. What the threat of nuclear annihilation did was make death not only sudden, but immediate. It was a fait accompli. We were living like it had already happened. A real fucking mindbender for a whole raft of generations, the pathology of which we're still suffering under.

With all of that in mind, I'd occasionally catch a Duck and Cover film or pamphlet. That its directions were worse than useless in the face of an increasing destructive capabilities of an expanding worldwide arsenal was plain to see. What I used to wonder about, though, was ... Sure, you've hidden behind a desk, or a bookshelf, or a low wall. But what if the bomb exploded on the other side?

Another gift of the constant nuclear-era paranoia infused on us by the mutually assured destruction and bouncing rubble of the anticipated apocalypse was gallows humor like a motherfucker. I've never been able to view any media of anyone protecting themselves against an atomic explosion without thinking "Bad news, the second nuke's landing to the South of that wall. Sorry Sally, you're a poignant shadow now!"

That dread of nuclear devastation has popped up again, as it will do in a culture that is persistently technologized towards conflict and destruction. Strangely, the fear of nuclear war and the international aggression which presages it was a motivating factor among the voting public, and they voted for it. (If you consider that a partisan jab, I will violate a personal rule and admit that, at least in this instance, "both sides are equally bad." It's not as though there hasn't been a foreign nuclear boogeyman for every administration since Kennedy).  That we continue to reinforce the structural environment of nuclear dread seems to speak contrarily to our disinterest in having our entire civilization atomized into a future paleontologist's particularly interesting sediment layer.

But it does mean that, culturally, we're having a guilty awakening. Nuclear dread and zombie-based entertainment -- also a big player in the present-day mindset -- tend to come from the same emotional reservoir; the feeling that someone took us out of the driver's seat when we weren't paying attention, and now we have to face the music for the path we took. Someone else is in control, and it's not someone with our best interests at heart. It's the feeling that all of our good times came at a cost, and the cost is catastrophic and has to be paid in a big burst of terror and panic. Its the conviction that all we can do is duck, cover, and hope the worst of it gets blocked by the couch.

Play us out, Bert.


neofishboy said...

I'm still not entirely sure what lessons we were supposed to take from being shown "Testament" and "The Day After" in school. Particularly since, living in a town not far from a major air force base, conventional wisdom held that we'd have about seven seconds.

Bram said...

Great post all around. But also, the draftsmanship in those drawings is pretty terrific, doing a lot with just a few lines. And kind of … evocative of manga style. Hm.

Calamity Jon said...

NFB: I know what you mean. Spent my teenage years growing up in the shadow of Davis-Monthan AFB, which meant I'd get to live long enough to hear the news about all the coastal targets getting blown all tae fuck before being promptly thereafter smoked like a flash paper cigar. Survival media was doubly depressing, not just for the grim picture it painted but for knowing I'd never even make it that far.

B: I really neglected the art in that flyer, which is genuinely fantastic (if gruesome, in implication). I have to assume it came from one of the short's animators, because it has the feel of an animator's finished comic. Couldn't find the artist referenced on, which is usually my go to place, but I'm sure the information exists elsewhere

fotomm55 said...

Glad you included this - takes me back to 1st grade when we did this weekly until October 1962 when it was daily.

Later on we learned that if you're that close to see the flash, you might as well do as the 70's poster said - put your head between you legs and kiss your ass goodbye!

Still have that poster hanging on the bathroom door.

Well done. In a lot of ways.

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