Recollections of a Child from the First Nuclear Age

In a 2014 article, “Honey, You’re Scaring the Kids,” Rebecca Onion wrote about the impact on children of a 1983 TV movie depicting nuclear warfare, and also about the adults who debated that impact.

In the fall of 1983, a TV movie ruined Alexander Zaitchik’s ninth birthday party. He wasn’t supposed to see The Day After, a two-hour film set in Lawrence, Kansas that follows a cast of everyday American characters into and through a nuclear strike, but he lingered at the top of the stairs as his family watched, catching snatches of the images and sounds.

Recalling the event years later, Zaitchik remembered his eight-year-old self anxiously playing through the circumstances of a nuclear attack. “If it happens in the afternoon, do we run toward home, or away from the city and the blast? If it happens at night, do we let our parents huddle over us in the basement, or do we stand on the rooftop, chests forward, praying the first shock wave dematerializes our family without pain?”

Preoccupied, Zaitchik wrote, he barely noticed his birthday celebration. “It was the first birthday party I felt no excitement over. The ice cream cake was tasteless. The Return of the Jedi action figures I unwrapped were pieces of plastic, destined to burn up with everything else.”

Disagreement over effects the movie might have had on children polarized on right-left lines, similar to controversy today about the affective consequences of climate-change messaging. Then, as now, a narrative juxtaposition of blind complacency with stark questions about human survival generated discomfort and politicized discord over the uses of anxiety. These conflicts were rooted in different evaluations both of children themselves, and of the role of emotion in public discourse:

Discussions of the movie’s impact revealed sharp lines between conservative voices who preferred to steer clear of what they termed emotional reactions (or, as William F. Buckley, Jr. would put it, “junk thought”) in policy discussions, and activists who found a bloodless conversation about the issues to be dangerous and inhuman.

Rebecca Onion notes that both conservatives and liberals, in quite different ways, used and still use children as things to think with, judge with, and feel with. Children furnished voices that were not their own. They were transformed into condensed imagery: on one hand, the Romanticist innocent and truth-teller; on the other, the irrational dependent:

For both sides, children’s fears stand in as a proxy for all of our emotional responses around issues of apocalyptic risk: our “hysterias,” nightmares, and forebodings. The idea that conservative ideology is free from such responses is part of a self-presentation deeply rooted in ideals of rational masculinity. Kids are afraid; moms are afraid; therapists make soothing noises; men know the truth of the risks, see the real possible futures, and act accordingly.

While the characterization of children’s fears today may still resemble what was said about them in the 1980’s, Onion claims that there was something new in the 1980’s debates compared to those twenty or thirty years earlier. There was fear of nuclear war in the 1950’s, and also worry about children being colonized by that fear. But the anxieties of the Fifties “didn’t translate into political action,” and “political discourse early in the Cold War invoked childhood … to strengthen national consensus,” rather than to question the very premise of nuclear warfare. Children’s fears were met with “what now looks like condescending, palliative civil-defense culture. Cartoons that are now the object of our historical scorn (Duck and Cover primary among them) … recommended putting your head under a picnic blanket if the bomb were to come while you were in the park, and compared radiation burns to sunburn.” By contrast, the debates about The Day After appeared to reflect a growing activist challenge to the very existence of nuclear weaponry.

The question still begged, though, is about the status of children’s own voices, and of their own imagery and interpretation.

I never watched The Day After. I was a child of that earlier age, although I don’t recall duck-and-cover drills in my rural school. But my childhood imagination and experience were, nonetheless, affected by the threat of the Bomb, and that effect was also fixed in place by a film – one which preceded The Day After by eighteen years. I experienced these in a particular place, at once real and imagined, and the experience worked through me to re-spatialize and colonize that place.

On the eastern edge of the farm where I spent my early childhood stood a grove of white pines, some over a hundred feet tall; almost all two centuries old or more. The biggest, my grandfather said, was the same size it had been since he was very young.

My mother, invalided as a child with an immobilizing hip cast, watched these trees in heavy summer heat from her bedroom window, as their tops nodded gently in lighter currents of air above. When she was able to walk, she spent long hours in the grove, seated on a boulder that served for a fairy throne. There, free of sisters and bustle, she raised her sceptre.

Later, I explored its edges for butterflies found abundantly there and not elsewhere – nymphs with luminescent wing-borne eyes and spots of colour, admirals, tiger and black swallowtails, mourning cloaks. They flitted among plants and flowers likewise unique to the westward-facing hummock of sand on which the trees stood; a relict of the post-glacial shore of Lake Erie’s vanished ancestor.

As a young child, I would also watch droning aircraft claw for height from the west, out of Detroit or Cleveland, or sometimes, coming the other direction, from Buffalo, or from U.S. Air Force bases in central and western New York State.

At night, I would sometimes hear a new and increasingly frequent sound. Like the rumbling of propeller-driven transports, it came from the sky, but it filled the night with something more hostile, sounding like a cross between heavy wind and thunder. It would go on and on, especially on damp nights, and it came from the east.

I must have made the informational connections to identify the sound very early; perhaps when my dad and another man put down their tools for a moment, pointed upward and said, “There’s a jet!” I followed the white crayon mark across the sky to its source; a tiny, grey shape with impossibly-raked wings. I’d hear the sound slowly build, and – far more slowly – fade.

At night, when I heard it, I covered my ears with a pillow.

At some point, I must also have connected the word “bombers” to that sound, though, of course, by then, the gas turbine engine was taking the civilian airline industry as well as the military by storm. And already, the task of carrying of nuclear weapons to their appointed destinations was being apportioned more to ballistic missiles than to aircraft. But “bombers” was the term that remained in the popular lexicon, along with the term “atomic age”, “atomic bomb”, or just “the Bomb”.

My awareness of the specific threat posed by nuclear weapons dawned slowly, at least in retrospect. I remember the day of the Kennedy assassination (it was the first time I’d heard that word), but not the Cuban missile crisis. But through the decade of the sixties, I began to feel a growing weight of foreboding. I recall plotting out the blast, fire and lethal radiation zones around the nearest urban areas. As a very young child, I had delighted in trips to the city: the myriad of lights, the abundance of traffic, the railways, the tall buildings then lit up all night long. By the end of the sixties I had come to think of them as danger zones to be avoided, or worse, as ruins-in-the-making. It was as if everywhere I looked, a charred overlay settled on the streets. I worried that the prevailing winds over our house came straight from Detroit, less than a couple of hundred miles away.

There was, however, one moment in which these changes in my world, and in me, were crystallized. That was the day in 1968 when The War Game, a stark black-and-white documentary-style movie, made in Britain but withdrawn from public viewing there, was shown in my school gym. It laid out the stages and consequences of a near-future nuclear war (sparked by conflict in a then-divided Berlin) in unsparing detail. The mass moaning of the blinded, injured and dying in the soundtrack never left me. Like the noise in the air, it went on and on. I have not since been able to think of the future since without a sense of something ominous, however tamped down and suppressed, underlying my most sanguine moments of anticipation.

Rebecca Onion writes that, for activist liberals in the 1980’s, psychological damage to children, and the sheer poignancy of children’s fears, became emotive rallying-points. Concerns about children fostered two kinds of protectionist discourse; one about the need to shield young children from disturbing parental and media messages; another about the need to eliminate the ultimate cause of alarm: nuclear weapons themselves. On the right, children’s sensibilities, and disquiet about them, were discounted as useless for realist policymaking.

It’s easy to disparage those who worried about the messages children were receiving, given the danger of world-ending war, accidental or intentional. But perhaps a little too easy: childhood anxiety, especially if caused by stressors which neither children nor parents can control, may set up some significant proportion of children for later-life psychological difficulty. Clearly, though, the foremost question would be how to motivate and organize people to confront directly the threat of nuclear weaponry and their accompanying human and technological systems. Childhood trauma, then, provided a rallying-point for antinuclear activism by adults.

But what about the children who watched The Day After? Did they become more engaged than their Fifties counterparts? According to Onion, the evidence is at best unclear. The movie itself became a media phenomenon, and sparked wide discussion. But studies of children who watched it did not show unambiguous evidence of more activist attitudes or deeper knowledge of nuclear issues.

Looking back on my own childhood, I would not wish now to have been brought up in a cocoon of happy ignorance. But I would joyfully have traded away the waste of time and energy, and the murder of joy and spontaneity consequent on a slowly-growing pall of anxiety. I suspect I was more receptive to it than many of my cohort, but I know now that I had many unacknowledged companions. Did the experience make me more “activist”; inspire me to become more informed than I would have been otherwise? Perhaps. It certainly gave a focus to the question of what to question.

So did the murder of the grove that towered over my childhood some decades later: murder by chainsaw and excavator, abetted by dreams of realizable value.

And speaking of murder, surely it is worth noting that fear has the power to lay waste to mental and emotional landscapes as bombs and bulldozers do to actual ones. The result, dependent on circumstances, may be action, or obsession, or paralysis. Activism arising out of dread and loss can derive a power and focus from them. But is it sufficient to its task?

Long before that farm grove went to the chainsaw, it was already dead in my mind.

The slow realization of vulnerability and danger preceding my exposure to The War Game worked according to its own visual imagery, which manifested in dreams. About the time that I began to notice the hollow, spreading sonic reverberation that periodically filled the night; about the time also that I began to associate it with falling bombs, I began to dream of the sky above the ancient trees in the grove. In these dreams, the tall pines barred from sight the cause of the hostile noise from the east. Until, over the treetops, they appeared. The bombers.

And I would wake up.

– William Ramp

August 17, 2014


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