“They realized that their god was dead so they reclaimed power through the bomb instead.” -Crass
What I remember most about the early 1980s was that Ronald Reagan was president, everything sucked, and we were all going to die. Death for most of us was to come suddenly in the form of thermonuclear war. The Cold War was still very much a thing and both the USA and the Soviet Union had more than enough nukes to decimate the population of each other in addition to those in any other country unlucky enough to be on the same planet.
Hoo boy, I thought. I can hardly wait.
I, of course, was exhibiting a grasp of reality one sometimes finds in middle-class college kids who have never faced a serious crisis of any kind. It’s an old story. I was a bored frat boy who didn’t feel like he entirely fit in where he was, but didn’t feel like he belonged anywhere else either. Furthermore, I was in denial about a social awkwardness that has stayed with me all these years so rather than face the discomfort of being a wallflower, I took refuge in binge drinking and stupidity.
Through all this, I remained convinced that a glorious future awaited me in some form or another because of all the people who told me about how gifted I was and how much potential I had. Unfortunately, I had a sneaking suspicion the world didn’t see it that way. Therefore it had to go.
Perhaps a post-apocalyptic wasteland would really give me a chance to shine. In The Road Warrior, I identified most with the Gyro Captain, both for his tactical cowardice and his his discolored teeth, and he did all right. I figured I’d do just as well if I managed to live that long.
Unfortunately, I lived in San Diego, which is about as military as an American city can be. If the USSR started lobbing missiles at us, a lot of them would be coming right at me. I had little chance of surviving even the first hour of the war. Most of my friends had little affinity for life in the wasteland and they would say things like “Dude, I’m glad we’re living at ground zero. If the Russkies ever bomb us, I’m just gonna crack a beer and watch the fireworks.”
There was no arguing with people like that.
I realized the only way I could survive World War III was if I was out of town when it started. A fraternity road trip to the desert would be perfect, but an evening’s run south of the border might possibly work as well. Tijuana was a little close to downtown San Diego, outside the core blast radius but within range of shock waves and radiation. Ensenada would be a wiser choice. Since it was on the coast and prevailing winds eastward not southward, it would be spared much of the fallout. Ensenada also had a nightclub where you could watch a stripper have simulated sex with then stab a stuffed ape, which showed the town had a head start on the post-apocalyptic mindset. I pondered these points and decided that while I was still overall in favor of thermonuclear war, whoever was in charge of it would have to make it work with my schedule.
World War III finally arrived on its own timeline and terms. It came on November 20, 1983 in the form of a made-for-TV movie called The Day After. Its death toll was high but limited to the confines of our television sets. Granted, this was before the days of flat screens so TVs took up a lot more space back then.
The producers at ABC predictably treated the subject matter very seriously so the end result was both depressing and lame. There were no leather-clad S&M bikers with mohawks like in The Road Warrior. Instead, they gave us Jason Robards stumbling around with even more scabs on his head than a non-celebrity his age while the rest of the cast kept boo hoo hooing about their world gone to hell.
The movie did do an impressive job depicting the nuke explosion. There was the obligatory stock footage of actual bomb tests. Those are fun to watch, but I had seen them countless times before. What I really liked were the people caught in the blast who got turned into skeletons an instant before being vaporized. Two of the victims were a mother and her baby, which I thought was a nice touch.
This reminded me of something I had heard about Hiroshima. When the atomic bomb exploded there, the shapes of people were left on walls they were standing in front of when they were incinerated. It was like flash photography, but with a photographer named Enola Gay.
I had never seen any pictures of that phenomenon so I imagined buildings left standing in downtown Hiroshima were decorated with silhouettes of people in interesting poses. Think of Keith Haring murals done in ash. When I visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum many years later, I saw an actual section of wall imprinted with what used to be a human being. I expected better resolution. The shape was vaguely humanlike, but I couldn’t make out any individual limbs. If people were caught in an A-bomb blast while using their bodies to spell out Y-M-C-A like the Village People, they would leave four disappointing amorphous blobs.
People turn stupid when confronted with the extreme. The unbelievable is never unbelievable enough so we need to embellish the facts. For example, people have died in horrific accidents at Disneyland yet I’m pretty sure my childhood friend was lying when he told me about the guy who got decapitated when stood up on the Matterhorn and that his headless body sprayed blood as it did cartwheels in the air before landing in the submarine ride. I believed him at the time because I wanted to. Movies about the Vietnam War seemed bent on outdoing their predecessors in portraying how messed up it was over there. If those films kept getting made unabated, today they’d consisted of two solid hours of US soldiers fucking severed baby heads in the eye socket. I’d probably pay good money to see every one of those movies so it’s really no surprise I expected A-bomb flash photography to show as much detail as my senior yearbook picture.
There was more on my mind than just photographic quality however. After watching The Day After, I started thinking a lot about all the different things people might be doing when death came at them in a blinding flash of light. Most of my thoughts were about guys sticking their dicks into food, pets, or siblings because I knew my sense of humor and I enjoyed amusing myself. I realized that the number of people engaged in these compromising behaviors at any given moment is not great, but it is also not zero.
So here’s my question for you: Would you really like your final moment of existence on this planet to be balls deep in your cat? Or more to the point, how would like an image of you doing this to be blasted onto your bedroom wall so the living can point and laugh? You might shrug and then remind me that I’ve already stated that the image is going to be too low-res to be able to make out anything. No, I said the image I saw in Hiroshima was low-res. Nukes have gotten a lot more powerful since then, tests have all been conducted underground since the early 1960s, and the government is staying mum on this topic.
Still not convinced? Fine. I’m willing to concede that there is probably no big conspiracy here. There doesn’t have to be. What I’ve spent about 1300 words getting around to is the idea that not only can we die at any moment, we have the notion pounded into our heads that we should be ready for it. And by ready, I mean not doing anything that might make us look bad. Always wear clean underwear. Don’t have anything in your browser history that will make your mother cry. North Korea might nuke you at any moment so keep your nose clean.
Judgment Day has become God-optional. I didn’t fully realize that in 1983 because I was only 21 and still half convinced that death was something that came knocking for everyone else but me. Now that I’m older, I see it as an unwelcome eventuality. What I don’t accept, and I hope I never do, is that I need maintain dignity for the sake of posterity.
We humans are an insane species because we know that we are going to die and we are driven even crazier because we do not know when. The simple solution is of course to not worry about the when and to just savor the not yet. Not many people can manage that. I know I can’t. I have to do the next best thing and hope my exit leaves as disgusting an imprint as possible. Whether I go by heart attack, plane crash, or atom bomb, I’ll leave some kind of stain and I want it to be one of my choosing, not some testament to social norms. I know that’s a tall order. Death can come literally in a flash, but if at all possible I’d like a moment’s warning. I don’t need much time, just enough to strike a pose, or to put it in 80s terms, to Vogue.