Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Nuclear War and the Iced Tea Conundrum

"The mushroom cloud was the crucifix of the 20th Century."

Once again, my sleep cycle is in utter disarray.  The heat of summer dictates that one remain hydrated.  To give myself incentive to do so, I've kept a pitcher of tasty iced tea in the refrigerator and I have indulged in it frequently.  This augments the usual coffee-induced caffeine level in my system and thus sleep has become spotty at best.  I tend to fall into an ethereal, loathsome, abstract state where I am not in deep, restful sleep but not really awake either.
While in this state, the strangest thoughts come to me from...I don't know where.  Last night I wondered whatever happened to that violent, mentally ill kid they tried to mainstream into our class in 5th grade.  The R.E.M. song "Radio Free Europe" bounced around in my head, perhaps taunting me through the band's name.  Sheesh, even my own brain hates me.  Best of all, I thought of an old childhood fear: nuclear war.  Don't ask me why for I have no answer.  Oh and I assure you these were not Long Island Iced Teas that I was guzzling.
The mushroom cloud has gone through quite the transition over the years.  It started out as a symbol of American might.  That gradually led to an association of uncertainty.  If massive amounts of atomic radiation were released, what would be the result?  Mutants?  Giant ants?  Godzilla?  Then the fear came.  The cloud became a specter of death, the End of All That Is given physical shape.
My first exposure to the notion and the ramifications of nuclear war was at age 8 with an NBC News special.  Scared the hell out of me.  I asked my Dad if the SAC base in Omaha got hit, would we see the mushroom cloud in Indiana? Why I didn't ask about Chicago with it being less than 100 miles to the north is beyond me.  I was a weird kid.  Anyway, Dad told me we probably wouldn't see the mushroom cloud, but the blast would change the color of the sky.   I kept fearing that sudden change in the sky and knowing what it would mean.  By age 13 the movie The Day After came along, directed by Nicholas Meyer (Star Trek II) and depicting a full-scale nuclear war and its impact on the Kansas City area.  Today it just looks like a schlocky made-for-TV disaster flick, but at the time the film scared every kid from playing in the snow, fearing that it was actually nuclear ash.  As I always do with a subject that simultaneously fascinates and terrifies me, I read everything I could on the subject.  What the scenarios were for how such a war could start.  Where all the probable targets were for Soviet missiles and bombers.  Here's a sample chart I found online.  It looks like the kind of thing I found in the mid 1980s and describes a scenario pretty close to a full-tilt exchange.  Hey!  See if your home area is on it!

Today, the mushroom cloud seems rather quaint, almost hokey to a few people.  The old Soviet Union is no more and we no longer live under the daily threat of such an end to all of mankind.  Sure, we're getting worried about what would happen if terrorists got their hands on one, but that would be an isolated strike and not the wholesale slaughter scenario that us Cold War survivors were inundated with.  The US, Russia, and China still have nuclear strategies against one another, but even these involve limited strikes and only on critical military areas.  After all, leaving the leadership alive and intact gives you someone to negotiate cease fire terms with.  It's a whole different ballgame today.
But those mushroom clouds still look the same.  Maybe that's what still scares that 8 year-old inside me.
Or maybe I should just stop drinking so much iced tea.

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