This is Not a Test

I was born a month after the Soviets launched Sputnik. Our house in Rooks County had a sub-basement below the normal basement, complete with four bunks and canned peaches.

Because the aerospace industry was a logical first strike target, the Kansas of my youth was chock full o’ subterranean intercontinental ballistic missiles. Titan 2’s ringed Wichita, Atlas E’s surrounded Topeka. Atlas F’s hemmed in Salina.

As a young broadcaster in Wichita, I got the duty to record the government-approved messages for the Emergency Broadcast System. Not the “If this had been an actual emergency” test, but the real, actual ‘kiss your ass goodbye’ message.

The script started ominously. “This is not a test.” The rest was official language that basically amounted to:

“If you’re still alive and listening to this station, hang in there. Despite the unfortunate circumstances related to the end of the world, you remain an essential cog in your country’s doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction.”

So whether I want ‘em or not, I have the ‘child of the Cold War’ bona fides.

I don’t recall anyone in my Cold War-era orbit being particularly fatalistic about the potential for atomic annihilation. Probably has more to do with the conservative, ‘government-knows-best’ tendencies of those in my orbit.

My orbit was in Kansas, after all.

Chalk it up to timing or serendipity, but I’ve always harbored a strange fascination for a very specific entertainment genre of my times. The post-apocalypse. In no particular order, some of my faves:

The Stand. Stephen King’s classic. Survivors of global death virus have the same dreams and form two camps: Good takes a stand against evil. Vegas nuked. Good wins and sets about rebuilding civilization in Boulder, Colorado.

On the Beach by Nevil Shute. After the northern hemisphere’s wiped out, Gregory Peck buys some time by surfacing his American submarine in Australia.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy (novel/movie). Viggo makes his way to the coast with his young son, born after the ICBM’s flew: “The child is my warrant.”

The Book of Eli. God tells Denzel to carry the Bible across a post-apocalyptic American landscape to Alcatraz.

The World, the Flesh and the Devil. Harry Belafonte and Inger Stevens get along famously as the last two people on the planet until Mel Ferrer comes along.

Common themes throughout. If the unimaginable occurs, no one wants to suffer alone. We’ll struggle along, but we won’t thrive again until we hook up with fellow sufferers.

We made it. Whew. Our very survival is our common bond.

A soggy Kate Winslet and fellow Titanic water-treaders on the deck of the Carpathia; Cruise lets his son go – to fight the War of the Worlds, only to find him again; Alice Braga at the gates of the Vermont survivors’ camp in I Am Legend.

In real life, when I’m smart enough to look for it, I see a sense of God in what happens when people seek and find other people. In post-apocalyptic fiction, I don’t have to look so hard. It’s right in front of me.

Not to get all Kierkegaard on you, but post-apocalyptic existence forces human beings to find the meaning of life. Faster.

I mean, when you’re knee deep in the rubble, who cares if you’re wearing designer shoes?

John Lithgow in The Day After:

“This is Lawrence, Kansas.”

"Is anybody there?"