Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Nuclear Nightmares

When I was growing up in a blue collar neighborhood in California I was aware that my experience of the world was very different than that of the children around me. I was preoccupied with issues and concerns to which most of my neighborhood playmates seemed oblivious.  A few decades ago I read Annie Dillard's An American Childhood, and was taken aback to discover that Dillard too had little awareness as a child of the international and national economic and political issues of the 1950's and early 1960's.  

One topic obsessed me more than any other between 1956 and 1963: nuclear war. My father possessed a huge volume of photographs collected by Life Magazine that included thousands of pictures of the death and destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (it also contained many photos of the horrors of the Holocaust in Europe but that's a story for another day).  The images of cities utterly flattened by atomic bombs, and picture after picture with piles of bodies haunted me day and night.  

Along side my father I watched dozens of television documentaries on the use of atomic weapons in World War II, the current testing of atomic weapons, and the future possibilities of nuclear weapons. Supper conversation often involved discussions about the cold war and the likelihood of nuclear weapon use.  Sometimes family Sunday drives in the late 1950's and early 1960's included visits to local bomb shelter retailers.

Every week when my parents took me to the public library, in addition to the children's fiction I checked out each week, I would sneak copies of all the pamphlets on the librarians desk about how to recognize the signs of nuclear attack, what to do in case of attack, and how to fashion a bomb shelter in your garage. I read each of these pamphlets repeatedly and memorized every smidgen of information they contained.  (I am grateful that I did not know as a child how absurd and futile such advice was). 

Each night, I would lie in bed awake, wondering if each plane that flew over head was an enemy bomber carrying nuclear weapons. Since my house was positioned near the landing approach for San Francisco International Airport, there were dozens of planes passing overhead every night.  I would freeze motionless, listen to the sound of the engines, trying to guess which one might be delivering death from above.  Any flashes of light, or distant rumbles made me imagine that a bomb had been dropped nearby. 

As I lay awake I thought my way through constructing shelters from lumber and plywood (which we had) and sandbags (which we did not).  Sometimes I would hunch in bed under the covers in the "duck and cover" position that we were taught in school during earthquake/bomb drills.  

At some point, after the nuclear scare of October 1962, the intensity of my fears faded.  The sleepless nights and nightmares slipped away. But I never lost my anti-nuclear, anti-war convictions, which translated in adulthood into political action and advocacy. 

1 comment:

Maggie May said...

I was also terrified of nuclear bombs. I think there was a lot of talk about it in my early teen days and my parents let me watch programmes that were not suitable for a worrying child to see
Maggie x