It happens to me every fall. The leaves change colour and fall, the trees take on an ominous look, and once again I am filled with an existential dread that has followed me from the nuclear fall of 1983 to adulthood.
That was the year that I learned there could be worse things than death. Things like flash burns, post apocalyptic societal breakdown, flash blindness, and radiation sickness. I stood at night with my friends and wondered if the chemtrails and lights in the night sky were Soviet bombers or missiles, and whether the school basement could double as a fallout shelter. It caused me to take note of the food my parents kept in the pantry, and to encourage them to purchase more canned goods. It prompted me to create various nuclear war survival plans, much like the fire safety plans our schools sent home every year.
Did I live in a target area? If it happened in the afternoon, do we run toward home, or away from the blast? If it happens at night, do we huddle with our family in the basement, or run for the hills, or do we stand on the rooftop praying the first blast disintegrates my family? I had no context for what I knew was coming, no effective way to discuss it with my parents or teachers. Deep down I was worried that they were as terrified as I was. I kept my collection of nuclear war books and survival pamphlets hidden like a stash of pornography under my bed. I packed emergency bags with canned goods, first aid materials, junk food, and Archie comics stashed nearby, in case we had to run for it. Yes, I had a nuclear war go-bag at the age of 7. I woke up each morning momentarily surprised that the world was still there.
Watching the news only deepened my sense of dread as the reports of tension between the Americans and the USSR lead the news reports each night. Nothing my family said to reassure me helped. It felt hollow to me. In hindsight, my parents seemed to exhibit a degree of fear and numbness while discussing nuclear war, most likely living the Cuban missile crisis over and over again in their minds.
To be an adult during this time was scary enough. To be a child was something entirely worse. In 1983, popular culture was inundated with images of nuclear war. Every second song on the radio seemed to be about nuclear war. Nuclear-themed television programming became commonplace. Even more terrifying were the Emergency Broadcast System tests, once rare and only in the evenings, became frequent during daytime. Not knowing if it was a test or the real thing, I immediately went into flight mode. It was a noise that would stop me dead in my tracks or would send me running out the door in terror. It is a noise that still fills me with deep anxiety.
It was in the fall of 1983 that “The Day After” aired. The film was the peak of nuclear war pop culture. It depicted in gruesome detail the effects of a nuclear attack on the city of Lawrence, Kansas. Watching the movie now, it is hard to escape the soap opera nature of the acting, and the B movie elements of the special effects. But for a 10-year old child watching the movie alone?
I watched the film hidden away alone in my parent’s basement. I sat terrified through depictions of instant disintegration, third-degree burns, radiation illness, mass starvation, and societal collapse. But truthfully, the carnage is not what terrified me. It was the slow and mundane build-up to the war. How people lived their lives while the world around them was starting to come undone. How no one seemed to be bothered by the building tension, how everyone was so unprepared. How most people waited after the missiles had been fired to begin panicking. Even for a movie of the week, nuclear war was every bit as horrifying as I imagined it would be.
I did not sleep soundly, or without nightmares, for the next nine months.
One month later, it was Christmas. It was the first Christmas that I felt no joy for. The chocolate, advent calendar, and the shortbread were tasteless, and the toys that sat unopened under the Christmas Tree were merely items destined to turn to ash or disintegrate, just like me. If there was one benefit from watching the movie, it finally settled my internal debate as to how I would react to the Emergency Broadcast System when it wasn’t a test – I would stand defiantly and accept my fate.
Luckily, there were no more years like 1983. Superpower relations slowly started to normalize. By 1985, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev and peace summits had overtaken news stories of NATO and Soviet war games. Glasnost and Perestroika became the catchphrases of the day. The panic and dread I felt in the fall of 1983 started to slowly fade, until one day it was all just gone – until November of each year where I briefly flashback to fear and helplessness that I felt waiting for the world to end in a blast and a flash of light that never came.