The good-looking one, the one in need, the one that almost was
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I remember when I was nine or ten being afraid to touch the door handle of our car on a rainy night. I had heard that fallout from the nuclear tests rose into the atmosphere and came back down with the rain. In those days, people talked about fallout shelters. I didn’t want to live in a locked and sealed cellar, eating canned biscuits and drinking bottled water, with loaded rifles on hand in case anyone tried to break in. I didn’t want to watch my parents or neighbors, or myself, sicken and die from radiation. I envied the people in cities who would take a direct hit and die instantly. For it was inevitable, anyone must know that: hadn’t the twentieth century been one long lesson in the bottomless depth of human wickedness and folly? Ideas for the betterment of life might lie suppressed and neglected for centuries, but had humankind ever failed to use any new weapon in its arsenal?
As the years passed, I thought less about the bomb; it came to seem not quite so certain, if still likely. I began instead to see doom woven into the tapestry of everyday activity in an ecologically unsustainable civilization. Sweating in the August sun, I would think, what will it be like when Aprils are like this? When deserts are creeping across Missouri and all these bees in the yard are fierce, honeyless killers? On cold January evenings, my pleasure at stepping into the warmth of our home began to be shadowed by worry: what will we do when a month’s heat costs two weeks’ salary, if it can be had at all? How can we keep ourselves alive when the delicate economic machinery collapses, food disappears from store shelves, and millions are driven mad by hunger, disease, and despair?
And in the meantime, I had children. Having children, if you open your heart to the experience, changes everything. Life gets harder in many ways, more fun sometimes, more deeply satisfying, and — these are not contradictions — more serious than ever before. You have to stop mesmerizing yourself with illusions, if you care about your children.
I have come to see that this is what I’ve been doing all these years: mesmerizing myself, entrancing myself with horrible yet strangely addictive fantasies of Armageddon. I think of the bizarre image of Manduck the Magician, in an old Mad parody, on one of his self-hypnotic jags, lying disheveled and drooling in a corner of his desolate ruined house, gesturing hypnotically at himself in a mirror.
It’s not that the threats aren’t real. Even though barbed-wire fences and concrete walls are coming down all across Europe, the missiles are still there, and there is enough stray plutonium around that a clever terrorist could someday do on a local scale what governments have decided not to do to the world. And our way of life really isn’t sustainable. Some serious and irreversible damage, ecological and social, is probably underway right now; at best we and our children are likely to endure some inconvenience and hardship, maybe some danger, before the balance of life is restored. In some parts of the world, it will be far worse than here, as it is already. I am worried and afraid when I think about these things.
But to give in to that fear, to fall into fascination with it, is to poison my children as surely as any fallout or toxic waste could. They need courage, love of life, and open eyes. For their sake, if not mine, I must break the addiction, throw down the mirror, get up and look around at what is really there.
Richard A. Stewart
I was a Boy Scout in the early 1950s. I knew about Hiroshima and the bomb. If there was a war, we would all be killed. In school we had air-raid drills. A siren would go off, and we’d all climb under our desks and hide. I never believed the desk would help.
They told me horrible things about the bomb. If you were looking at it when it went off, your eyes would melt and run down your cheeks like wax. People would be vaporized, so that there was nothing left of them. The bomb could drop on the town where you lived and kill everyone you knew, everyone you had met in your whole life, so that no one would remember that you’d even existed.
I believed there would be a war. I never talked to any of the grownups about it, but I believed a war would come and kill us all. We would never live to be old like our grandparents. We would never be grownups.
The other kids and I used to talk about it at school. Would you want to be vaporized or would you rather live longer but die of radiation and have all your hair drop out, as happened to the little girl next door who had ringworm? I wanted to be under the bomb, so I’d go right away without even knowing it was happening.
In the summer of 1955, I was at Boy Scout camp. The night was hot, so we rolled up the sides of the tent and tied them. While lying on my cot I could look out over the campsite — a big circular clearing with a flagpole in the center. All around were trees. It was not completely dark, and I could see the trees and the other tents by moonlight.
I dreamed that I controlled the atom bomb. I could use it if I wanted to, and if I did everyone outside the magic circle of our campsite would be killed. I decided to do it. I never thought of reasons pro or con. I just killed everyone.
After I had done it, I half-woke with a terrible pain. It grabbed my chest and squeezed me until I could hardly breathe. I felt more guilt than I imagined possible. I promised myself that if it wasn’t true, if I hadn’t really killed everyone, then I would never hurt anyone in my life again. It was like a prayer, but I didn’t really believe in God. I think I was praying to the bomb.
Robert W. Shurtleff
San Francisco, California
On “The Ed Sullivan Show” they showed a film, made up of pen-and-ink drawings, that illustrated what would happen when the bomb fell. I think they preceded it by saying that it was a powerful piece and that some people might not want to see it. I was only a kid. I’d never seen anything I didn’t want to see and couldn’t imagine such a thing. I watched. And I was transfixed with horror as images of living things melted before my eyes.
We had air-raid drills at school during which we all had to march single file down to the basement and crouch down. After seeing the film, I knew what we were hiding from; but how could we hide from such devastation? Surely a force that could melt the building above us would not leave mere children unscathed, however far down we might crouch.
The drills were always preceded by a shrill siren. Now, having witnessed a graphic artist’s portrayal of nuclear devastation, I imagined all sirens to be the air-raid siren: those of fire engines, ambulances, police cars. I was haunted by the specter of imminent and ghastly death. I knew, too, that it no longer mattered what I did in response to these sirens. Death would get me. And it would get everyone and everything around me. Death was always imminent, and unavoidable.
Life became precious to me. Everything mattered because it might end at any time. I tried to stay honest with the people in my life because we might all be gone tomorrow. I noticed everything I could, the smallest details. I hesitated to condemn worms or bugs or bees, as the other kids did, because I felt so deeply the common life we shared and might, at any moment, lose.
The fact is that life as anyone knows it could just stop, any time, for any reason. It doesn’t take a bomb.
Victoria + Dodd
Once I dreamt the world was about to blow up. The big bomb was going to kill everyone. I stood in a bus shelter with my mother and I put my hands over my eyes so I wouldn’t see the explosion, but I woke up before the bomb fell.
I tell stories to the Hmong and Cambodian children with whom I work. Recently, I told them the story, “How The Mekong River Came To Be.” Afterward they talked about their memories of Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos.
One boy remembered the soldiers who killed his father. Another boy remembered a soldier with a knife who came into their hut and hurt his mother and sister. Others talked about how their parents escaped their countries by crossing the Mekong river, and how they carried babies and small children on their backs.
“You must be careful in Cambodia,” warned one girl. “There are many bombs. You never know where they are.” They all had stories about people who died from stepping on a mine. They especially remembered being afraid to sleep at night because of the explosions, and because of the soldiers who might attack in the middle of the night.
Somehow, these children have survived. When they talk, I am drawn deep into their stories. I try to see through their eyes, but I have nothing to compare with their experiences, or their anger; when they grow up, they say, they want to return to their countries so they can kill their enemies.
I struggle to see the other side of war, and the fear that creates it, and the need we all have to forgive. Sometimes I feel close to this way of thinking. Other times I have my hands over my eyes because I am afraid of what I might see.
St. Paul, Minnesota
I think of the Bomb as what leveled Hiroshima. That seems the real Bomb; the rest are waiting to be Bombs.
Somehow, the deaths at Hiroshima are very personal to me, as if my uncle killed those people. (And he did — Uncle Sam.) Every year I feel I must act on August 6 — or August 9, for Nagasaki.
I’ve been arrested a couple of times on Hiroshima Day, sitting in front of General Electric headquarters with my eyes closed, stopping men and women from going to work.
Somehow that the dead are Japanese — and some of them practiced Zen — affects my views. I see it as the Bomb that kills Zen, the Bomb against Buddhists.
Strange that the cloud it makes so resembles a Japanese woodcut. It is a very Japanese Bomb.
And in Zen there’s the moment of extinction — a flash of insight.
Yesterday on the news there were new radioactivity warnings, and a woman said, “The only real studies on radiation are from people exposed at Hiroshima,” quite blandly, as if the Bomb had been dropped so we would know how many dental X-rays to get.
Am I ashamed of my country for dropping the Bomb? Not exactly. So why do I feel on August 6 and August 9 I shouldn’t speak or eat or move?
On Christmas vacation
The bell rang three times, then there was a pause, then three more rings. This was the signal to begin a nuclear bomb attack drill. We would troop out of our second-grade classroom in an orderly single file (“No talking, children. . . . Johnny, keep your hands to yourself. . . . Quiet, now!”) and march down to our special section of the hallway. There, we would sit in rows, backs against the cool tile wall, our heads between our knees and our hands over our heads. Our teachers would monitor us, walking up and down along the line of huddled, obedient children, making sure all of us were in the “safe” position.
A nuclear bomb attack drill was the opposite of a fire drill. In a fire drill we gaily scrambled outside, free from our desks, giggling at the unexpected recess. But a nuclear bomb attack drill was a silent, serious ritual performed in unusually still, dimly lit hallways, deep inside the safe inner arteries of the thick-walled school building.
When my father was a child he never had such a drill. The biggest danger facing his world was “The Hun”; the Kaiser was whipped in the war to end all wars. His whole world was in the “safe” position.
My twelve-year-old daughter never had a nuclear bomb attack drill. She knows that, “in the event of a nuclear attack,” a firestorm would sweep across Berkeley, in an instant leveling her school and incinerating her teachers, her classmates, and herself. She knows that the only “safe” position is a world free of nuclear weapons.
David W. Skibbins
In the quiet, prairied earth of the Midwest, where earthquakes were never talked about, never expected, we learned how to crawl under our desks or stand within a door frame to protect ourselves from collapsing buildings. We listened to the President on television talking of aggression, the Iron Curtain, the Communist threat, and we vaguely knew of a war in Korea with thousands of Chinese swarming down on our good soldiers. We looked at civil defense pamphlets describing how to build special shelters, from stacks of cinder blocks in the corner of the basement to more ambitious enclosures buried in the back yard with water tanks, air vents, and bunk beds.
It’s hard to know how trusting and naive our parents and teachers were as they patiently listened to the platitudes and assurances of the government; what concerns and fears they might have felt as they put us through those air-raid drills. Now, forty years later, we are just beginning to realize how naive and reckless our government was in its experiments with the Bomb.
Now I hear that the equivalent of 50,000 tons of dynamite is allocated to my simple person alone. I don’t remember any senator, representative, governor, or mayor ever telling me this was the plan. And I’m sure I’ve been paying for it since my first paychecks with their miniscule deductions so neatly itemized for me. This is one of my investments as a taxpayer, a macabre annuity I’ve anted up to all my life: a massive, expanding, exploding fireball that vaporizes all life in its path, turns buildings to smithereens as if they were made of matchsticks, bringing radiation death, shadows burned in concrete, and the possibility of winter and darkness that would envelop the planet for years. Can you imagine the very sky suddenly, entirely exploding? It took me decades.
Gregory J. Gapsis
In 1980, I was teaching in London. There was a great deal of concern there about what Ronald Reagan’s election might mean in terms of a new global militarism. One day I attended a film entitled “The War Game.” I was expecting something about NATO’s practice drills, but what I saw instead was a glimpse of life — if one can use that word — after a nuclear blast.
I witnessed a twilight world of gray, ghostlike creatures, from whose lexicon the word hope was permanently eradicated. Firestorms, rubble, thievery, starvation, extreme psychological trauma, disease, and death were the only legacies of these lost, wandering souls. Those who died in the initial blast truly appeared to be the lucky ones, for I could not imagine a more wicked, sinister living hell than what the film depicted for those who survived.
When the film was over, I sat in stunned silence. I was not ignorant by any means. I realized that there were bombs galore, and I knew intellectually what that meant. But until that day I had failed to feel, to truly internalize what the bomb held in store for me and for the entire world.
My mind and heart felt a great burden that afternoon, but still I did nothing. I watched “The Day After” on television and did nothing. I bought some books about the bomb and related nuclear issues but didn’t read them. It wasn’t until Christmas Eve of 1983 that the gravity and enormity and supreme urgency of living with the bomb finally sank in.
I was sitting on the sofa in my library, reading and looking out the window. My second child was due that very day, and I was heavy with weight and anticipation. It started to rain, and I sat gazing out at the garden, its lovely greenness, my newly planted hedge, and the life-giving water as it descended to the earth. There was a special sense of peace, of eager expectation.
Then from out of nowhere I was overwhelmed by the feeling that all this could end instantly — all this beauty, the rain, the plants and flowers, all of life everywhere and for all time — because of the reality of nuclear weapons. I realized that inherent in their very existence is somewhere, at some point in time, a categorical imperative for their use.
My entire body responded viscerally: goose flesh appeared on my arms. It was not my own death that I was concerned about. My feelings stemmed from a sense of infinite sadness that our entire world and all that it held of love and beauty and endeavor and grace could, and would, end — if we did not stop and reorient ourselves to a different path; if I did not stop and reorient myself. I made a personal commitment that I would learn, that I could and would do something.
My second child, a beautiful son, has just celebrated his sixth birthday. From that Christmas Eve to this, I have read all the books I bought about the bomb and more. I have written letters to people in government, both in the United States and around the world. I have attended symposiums and workshops on peace building. I support groups working for nonviolence and justice. I have conducted discussion groups in my own home.
This is what the bomb has meant to me: it has brought me infinitely closer to life as I participate, along with others, in an extraordinary opportunity to build a world without nuclear bombs, to build a world of humanity and hope.
I used to wake up mornings and think, we’re still alive, here below Los Alamos. Alive, but it won’t last. Those were the days when baby legs curled up against my belly. And in the garden, tender lettuces were ready to pick, their leaves so delicate and thin that I would wince when I bit them. And zucchinis no bigger than thumbs, all prickly until I washed them. And the bomb huddled in steel. The bomb had been given birth up there, right in my line of vision, while I gave birth to my children at home and fed them organic short-grain rice.
When I was fifteen I read Neville Shute’s On the Beach. My niece, Lisa, was two, and I cried for her life, her fine skin, her small legs. I took to my bed in my pink room in Pittsburgh, haunted by what I’d read. Neville Shute became responsible, somehow; I hated him for my new, bitter knowledge.
Any radiation is too much, so when I had my own child, that dim gloom returned. My fear devoured my mornings, my marriage. I slept with a prayer, woke doomed. I heard that Jung’s last vision — which he wouldn’t reveal, but which somehow leaked out — was atomic annihilation.
Yet somehow, I go on more happily today. It’s miraculous to be alive at forty-two. I radiate my own faith, although the garden I eat from, which sits twenty miles below Los Alamos, may yet prove me a fool and eat me from the inside out. Those tender lettuces, fingerling zucchinis, and crisp snow peas are my gods today. I imagine the prayer that binds up bombs as a sort of mother’s swaddling — as fragile as prayer beads, as strong as spider’s webs, as important as the birthday of the planet.
Prayers and mind are the only things that swaddle bombs, hold them back from their hard-edged ravaging. I see them always poised in a manger, like a new, frightening Jesus, an anti-savior of steel and plutonium. The beauty of atoms, split into demons.
I want to praise all that has worked to restrain bombs. I want to praise rainmakers and farmers. I want to hold mothers and gentle fathers in my arms and thank them. Praise those quiet minds that fill monasteries and temples and churches. On August days, when it rains in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the arms of babies in the rain are as sweet as ever.
I read about a market in Thailand, where a traveler observed a woman purchasing sparrows for five cents each. In the park she set them free, five sparrows flying out of a brown paper bag; thus, she earned another day of life. Bombs know only to go down. Sparrows fly.
Joan S. Logghe
Espanola, New Mexico
In the Buddhist tradition, “the mindfulness of death” is regarded as something that transforms consciousness (at least to some degree) all by itself. Remembering that we’re going to die is an automatic help in knowing God. Of course this has always been the case, but it seems to me that the Bomb intensifies this truth and brings it home in some new way. It’s like a planetary initiation: not only will “I” die one day, as everyone will die, but the whole world could go “poof” at any moment.
Now I am sitting by the windows of my third-story apartment, from which I can see magnificent prairie skies. Sometimes, a beautiful sunrise or sunset will remind me of the Bomb, as will the rumbling of a jet plane. I wonder about how my relationship with God has been shifting, over the years, from outside to inside me. If the Bomb, like God, becomes an inner reality, does it no longer exist “outside” in quite the same way?
As I’ve been aware of developing a relationship with the Bomb within my own imagination (what was the subtitle of “Dr. Strangelove” — “How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb”?), I’ve also had the chance to meet people who actually witnessed the Bomb. Nanao was an officer in the Japanese Imperial Navy during World War II. The first person to notice the big explosion from the bow of his ship said, “Big wave!” but it was Nagasaki. I met Nanao in northern New Mexico, where he was living a life like that of a Zen hermit. He told me that he hated Buddhism, because it was the Zen priests who told them to go to war. “Zen bad. Christianity good. Jesus! Love!” I wasn’t sure if Nanao really hated Zen, or if he was deliberately teasing me.
I met Yoshi just last summer, in Vancouver. Yoshi was in Nagasaki when it was bombed. Not everyone was killed — it was a matter of luck, of where you were. He was lucky enough to be in a building shielded by a hill, but afterward he got very sick. He didn’t want to talk about Christianity or Buddhism, but when I asked him about the Bomb he recounted his experience. He seemed to be struggling with a great, grim wall of pain. When I said, “Maybe we won’t have another nuclear war,” he replied without humor, “Maybe not.” I was startled by the uncertainty and the hope I heard in his voice. I was searching for a way to say, “I too live with the Bomb,” but I couldn’t find it. I don’t — not in the way he does.
As far as I know, the Bomb exists, God exists, I exist. I am left with the question, in what way are God and the Bomb and the consciousness of people related? When I was growing up, I didn’t really expect the world to survive this long. Maybe they won’t drop the Bomb after all! Maybe it’s something we just needed to know about to move us along. Maybe we’ll have enough to do in handling the destruction of the ecology, without the final disaster of the Bomb. I would say that for myself, and especially for anyone born since World War II, the Bomb is more than an external hazard. It is an unspoken fact of our inner life. More than a reminder of death, the Bomb is an aspect of God which we’ve been left to assimilate, without the help of religion, very much on our own.
Ya’qub ibn Yusuf