This column was published Sunday, June 30, 2019, in The Manhattan Mercury.
I was born in Manhattan, two months after the Soviets launched Sputnik, accelerating fears that Khrushchev might, in fact, bury us. Two years later, the ranch house my father built in rural Rooks County after graduating from K-State, had a sub-basement below the normal basement, complete with four bunks and canned peaches.
The Commies launched Sputnik during the International Geophysical Year to one-up everyone else on Earth, but especially us capitalistic, monopolizing aggressors in the decaying west. I.G.Y. was a vehicle for scientific types spanning the globe to participate in a series of coordinated observations of various geophysical phenomena. (Donald Fagen waxed rhapsodic about I.G.Y. in 1982).
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 deejay in Wichita in 1979, 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 language, but the genuine, actual ‘It’s been real, dude’ 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 radio 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. Oh, and don’t eat the peaches if the cans are rusty.”
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 within my orbit. My orbit was in Kansas, after all.
Our sub-basement was only a couple years old during the Cuban missile crisis. I’m too young to remember it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if my parents laid in a few more cans of peaches and like everyone else in the western hemisphere, breathed a sigh of relief when Jack, Bobby and Nikita pulled the world back from the abyss.
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 gets nuked. Good wins and sets about rebuilding civilization in the People’s Republic of Boulder, Colorado.
On the Beach by Nevil Shute. After the northern hemisphere’s wiped out, an American Naval officer (played by Gregory Peck in the movie) buys some time by surfacing his sub in Australia.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy. In the movie, Viggo Mortensen makes his way to the coast with his young son, born after the ICBM’s flew: “The child is my warrant.”
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.
I was a young upwardly mobile professional when Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative saber-rattling hit close to home in The Day After:
“This is Lawrence, Kansas. Is anybody there?”
In real life, when I’m smart enough to look for it, I see a sense of the spiritual when people seek and find other people in times of crisis or strife. In post-apocalyptic fiction, I don’t have to look so hard. It’s not in an elliptical low Earth orbit. 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?