Saturday, January 24, 2009

Why Everyone Over Thirty or So is F---ing Crazy
Start with our parents, who grew up with this:

It's a 15-minute short, titled "Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow," which aired right after "Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" on the Turner Classic Movie channel Friday night. It would be as difficult to overstate its banal absurdity as it is to give TCM sufficient credit for pairing it with Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece of nuclear paranoia. You get the sense that Kubrick, making his movie about, among other things, the persistence of human myopia even when faced with the real and immediate prospect of humanity's extinction, was responding to cultural detritus like this and suggesting that at least we should acknowledge how profoundly fucked is its unspoken premise.

The hell of it is that I'm pretty sure Reading, PA--the center of action in "Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow," demonstrating Civil Defense activities leavened with a big dollop of small-town goodness--was literally in no danger at all when this was made in the mid-to-late 1950s. It's been a long time since I studied this stuff, but my recollection is that the USSR had very few weapons capable of hitting the continental U.S. at least until the very end of that decade: they would have needed to use bombers, most of which probably would have been easily enough intercepted. Western Europe, sure; maybe a few coastal cities like Washington, New York, LA and San Francisco, centers of government and finance and culture. But Reading? Really? Granted that Reading still had a six-digit population back then, in its heyday, it's still hard to imagine it cracking the top 100 targets of a nuclear strike.

That said, a cloudburst detonation over the center of town would have killed pretty much everyone there: the film notes, in the same avuncular/matter-of-fact narrator voice that describes neighbors as "good eggs," that the hydrogen bomb blast radius was three miles, inside of which everyone is vaporized. Reading is only about ten square miles. Game over, man.

Now, by the time we thirtysomethings were growing up, both nuclear-armed superpowers had redundancy of redundancy with arsenals of MIRVs loaded onto ICBMs and SLBMs. I remember reading, I think in Common Cause magazine around 1983 (I was a weird kid; I probably took it from my grandfather's den--or, perhaps worse, he gave it to me), that the USSR had the capacity to annihilate the entire human race something like 95 times over; not to be outdone, the United States could so more than 100 times. There was a sense--at least, I remember feeling the sense--that nuclear war was inevitable. Ronald Reagan famously joked about it in a radio soundcheck in 1984, and the culture was filled with reminders of apocalypse soon.

With the advent of Gorbachev in the mid-'80s, Cold War tensions began to ease, and by the time I started college in 1991 the USSR was no more and the prospect of total nuclear war probably more remote than at any time since the world first learned of the Soviet bomb. I don't remember feeling one moment of relief that, yes, I could stop worrying about obliteration from above. But it does have to figure in somewhere. Whatever the problems of the Millenials, at least they didn't grow up with that literally over their heads.

1 comment:

Chris said...

Ha, I know one of those streets, I think. Looks like Temple,PA, about three miles outside the city limits.