Living Under a Nuclear Cloud

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I’ve lived my whole life under a nuclear cloud, as likely most of you had. Recent events in Ukraine, and the nuclear sabre-rattling of Russia’s president have brought this to the fore. Most of us with any understanding of European history have a sense of how this conflict could escalate in some truly horrendous ways. In a statement widely attributed to Albert Einstein, it has been observed: ‘I do not know what weapons the third world war will be fought with, but I know that the fourth one will be fought with sticks and stones.”

“I do not know what weapons the third world war will be fought with, but I know that the fourth one will be fought with sticks and stones.”

-Attributed to Albert Einstein

My 36 year old son asked my wife and me how we dealt with the nuclear tensions of the 1960’s. It’s plain all this has been bothering him. It’s been bothering us as well, triggering all those memories of civil defense drills of crawling under desks or going down to the subterranean designated shelter area in our elementary school. I watched President Kennedy on our black and white TV show overflight pictures of Cuban missile bases 90 miles from our southern borders, bases from which much of the eastern US could be reached in minutes. I remember the tense days when we wondered if these would be our last. I remember that my parents did not have much to say to assure us, but that my dad continued to sit with me as I prayed my nightly prayers, talking until I dropped off to sleep. I didn’t know what the night or tomorrow would bring, but for the moment I felt a measure of safety. Perhaps that’s all we ever have.

My wife and I looked at each other as we took in our son’s question. We both said, “This is worse.” Is it that we know more, and have seen so many more instances of the unthinkable happening? Is it our apprehension of the volatility of a war in east central Europe, amid a cluster of nations, knowing past histories of how more and more became embroiled in what became “World Wars?” Is it apprehensions of a Russian president who has assassinated political enemies, violated sovereign borders, and crossed moral bright-lines of protecting non-combatants and medical facilities?

How do I deal with it? I think I try to limit the amount of time I give it without ignoring it. But I woke up the other night thinking of how serious this all is, and all I could do was pray myself to sleep–praying that God would restrain evil, confuse the efforts of evildoers, and to pray for Ukraine and the Ukrainian people and the safety of those seeking to flee to refuge. I also pray for our leaders and others in the world. How does one communicate firm and believable resolve and yet work to contain and quench a fire that could destroy much of the world, without fanning the flames? I’ve known God to give wisdom in the moment, and so I pray that God will give in spades that kind of wisdom to those who act on our behalf.

Having said my prayers, all I know to do is get on with my life, to keep showing up in my work, to sit down with gratitude to meals with my wife, to tend to our home, cleaning up fallen branches and reveling in the coming of spring. There are the evening walks, rejoicing in sunsets, watching children play and praying over the homes in my neighborhood the blessings of God. I remember that we never truly have the promise of tomorrow, only this moment, and the opportunities of the moment. For all I know, the garden I plant and tend may be left to another. One day, for sure, it will be. But there is goodness in this day. And I will keep tending that garden in hope of flowers and vegetables.

The day of my birth marks both the anniversary of Hiroshima and the Transfiguration. I live between the powers of destruction and the one who makes all thing new. Some wonder how one can press forward under the cloud. I do as well. How do you live when the push of a button can wipe out our efforts? The Transfiguration reminds me that all our efforts aren’t about results but are at best foretastes of what’s to come, and more often, I think, simply rehearsals for our work in the new creation.

Review: The Road

The Road, Cormac McCarthy. New York: Vintage Books, 2007.

Summary: A dystopian story of a father and son helping each other survive in a post-nuclear America, scavenging for food and avoiding murderous mobs.

The man. The boy. The road. One’s life in backpacks and a grocery cart.

Using an old map to walk back roads to the South and warmth when there is no heat.

Evading murderous gangs who kill and eat their victims.

Searching every dwelling for any scrap of food. A fallout shelter unused stocked richly. Can’t stay long for the risk of being discovered.

A lone boy. He has someone, he can’t go with us. He’ll be OK. Really? Really.

Ash everywhere. Rains smell of ash. Snow is gray. A gray, sullen landscape under gray skies. Nothing alive.

Nights under tarps, shivering in each other’s grasp, trying to stay warm, yet hidden.

A cough. Worsening. Spitting up blood. Must protect the boy.

We carry the fire.

This is The Road. Not a happy story. One to give anyone who thinks a nuclear holocaust survivable. This strikes me a good rendition of what “survival” would be like.

It reveals the heart of darkness that emerges when the structures of civilization fail. Yet it also reveals the bond of a father and son, the eternal flame of hope, or will against all despair to live captured in the words, “we carry the fire.” It recognizes a goodness that will not die (“we are the good guys”) even if this means that you will only kill and not eat the enemy who threatens you. Yet it is a world where you are wary of any human beings, the few who remain. Are there any other “good guys?”

It makes one think of what we have seen during the pandemic, when a virus and a polarizing president have threatened the social fabric–violent mobs in the streets, and roving the Capitol. Plots to seize and kill health officials and governors and even vice presidents. Elevated gun violence. Car jackings. Neighbor fighting neighbor over the refusal to don a mask. What do we need to see that the fabric of society is more fragile than we imagined? The Road may not be so far off as we think.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Fallout Shelters

256px-United_States_Fallout_Shelter_Sign.svgRemember this sign? If you do, you probably grew up in the 50’s or 60’s or saw one that had never been removed from a designated fallout shelter. We saw these signs on Washington Elementary School, down the block from where we grew up. I remembered one we could see from the playground — an ever present reminder that our game of dodgeball could be interrupted by nuclear attack. We would have Civil Defense drills, where we would file from our classrooms to the basement of the school building. Others remember “duck and cover” drills hiding under school desks, which was better than going to the windows to see what was happening–marginally.

Duck and CoverWhere I lived on the West Side of Youngstown, we were within a mile or so of the steel mills, as were many living in the city. Given that we were the third largest steel manufacturer at the time, many considered the mills would be a prime target in case of a nuclear attack. Given our proximity to the mills, I’m not sure whether any of these measures would have resulted in our long-term survival, even if we survived the initial blast. What I do know is that these scared the heck out of us as kids. If nothing else, it got me to say my prayers at night!

October 1962 was an especially scary time. I was in third grade and I remember the night none of us did any homework, when President Kennedy came on all the national networks with photographs detailing the construction of missile silos 90 miles from the United States in Cuba. This brought us into a direct confrontation with the Soviet Union and Nikita Krushchev–only later did historians reveal how close to the brink we got to a nuclear exchange. Even with what they told us, it was enough to make us wonder if we would live to see another Halloween, let alone Christmas.

Atomic attackThe literature of the time talked about surviving nuclear attacks. No one discussed what kind of world there would be afterwards. I don’t know anyone who did this but people built their own fallout shelters and stocked them with supplies. Various agencies published pamphlets on what to do to survive a nuclear attack. My wife still has a couple of these, the covers of which I’ve scanned.

Most of the time, we pushed these fears into the background, although we often heard politicians talk then of “the Red Menace” as they do of “terrorists” today. Fostering fear often has been a good way to get elected. Remember the ads Lyndon Johnson ran against Barry Goldwater showing a little girl picking the petals off a daisy against the backdrop of a mushroom cloud?

EmergencyBeginning in 1968, a series of treaties reduced our nuclear stockpile from nearly 30,000 to 7100 (with roughly 1600 actual warheads deployed and Russia having roughly the same). But it seems we’ve traded one set of fears for another in the years following 9/11, with Offices of Civil Defense being replaced by Homeland Security and “duck and cover” being replaced by airport screenings, “shelter in place” drills, and electronic and video surveillance of our lives.

Actually, I wonder if the attitude I saw in most of the adults I knew in Youngstown is the most healthy one. Being religious, they commended their souls to God and then went and did their work, cared for their families, enjoyed good food and drink and the other good things life brought, and didn’t pay too much attention to the scare-mongers. The real dangers in life were closer — a work injury, an auto accident, a cancer diagnosis. They didn’t spend too much time on the unthinkable and tried to make the most out of their lives when work was good and their families were healthy.

Maybe it is a more dangerous world today. No students ever died from nuclear war in the US, which we cannot say with regard to gun violence and mass shootings.  Yet I wonder if the commonsense approach to most fears by our parents under the cloud of nuclear war [which did include anti-war and anti-nuclear advocacy that made a difference] might be something we could learn from. They understood that the good life is not one controlled by fear. Might our working class parents have wisdom for our own day?