Monday, June 28, 2010

Five Minutes to Live

I think it’s likely that the baby boomer generation had the happiest childhood in the history of the United States. The era immediately post-World War II was an age of optimism, economic boom, and technological excitement and innovation. The term “family values” had not been coined because it was just what we did. A kid growing up in the 1950s was on the spot when television entered American life. The Atomic Era was new and the Space Race had just begun, in which both the United States and the Soviet Union were dedicated to landing a man on the moon before the other country did so. Disneyland opened in 1955 and launched an interesting, exciting, forward-looking television show that probably shaped my generation more than we boomers think.

That era that is long gone still lives in the memories of baby boomers today. I have so many honey-rich memories of that time that it would be difficult to know where to begin to share them, but there are many nostalgia websites that do a better job than I could anyway. (I did post this item on my blog in late 2006.) Over time, our better memories take on an increasingly golden aura—and the bad memories fade.

It is because of that phenomenon that only recently did I recall that the 1950s were also the age of the Cold War and the fear of nuclear holocaust. A little over a year ago I was helping my wife’s parents pack up for a move, and in their discard pile found a sealed can of water. I crinkled my forehead, wondering what it was, and looked at it first with curiosity and then, once I read the label, felt a sudden chill as certain memories of my childhood came back. As children of the 1950s, we drew mushroom clouds and talked about the atomic bomb and the even bigger one, the hydrogen bomb. We talked about “the A-bomb” and “the H-bomb”.

Since the can was being thrown out, I took it as an historical item. Believing it to be significant, it didn’t take long before I shared it with the congregation during a children’s sermon. The point was that not so long ago all the people on earth were afraid that the whole world might be destroyed, but no matter what we might be afraid of, in all circumstances we can trust in God.

I produced the can of water and asked the children what it was. They quickly identified it as a can of water, and I expected that they and the adults in the congregation would expect me to point out the contrast with the ubiquitous plastic bottles of water today. And when, in what I expected to be a dramatic flourish, I pointed out the small black print on the can, IMPERVIOUS TO NUCLEAR FALLOUT, I expected that people would gasp. But instead I got a reaction I didn’t expect in a million years: the congregation, mostly young people, laughed out loud. I was stunned speechless for a moment. A kid’s fear of the end of the world was something to laugh about! Almost at once, I realized that what I was trying to share was so foreign to the young people that they had no concept of the reality.


Very often the burdens and traumas of a generation are passed down to the next even when times change. I remember as a child being told that I had to “clean my plate” (meaning, eat everything that was on it) whenever something was set before me, and I thought it was unreasonable, capricious, and often cruel. I came to dread many mealtimes. Most children of that era were given the same standard. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized that those who had compelled children to “clean their plates” had lived through the Great Depression when very often there wasn’t enough food of any kind at all. They were offended if a child didn’t realize what a boon it was to have enough to eat, and show it by eating everything without question.

I remember drawing swastikas in my sixth grade class and being quietly but seriously advised not to do so by my sixth grade teacher. He had lived through the era of a recent world war with its unspeakable atrocities, but for me the swastika was only a symbol that I knew carried some sort of power.

Today, a can of water declared “impervious to nuclear fallout” is one of these symbols.

Recent “end of the world” movies include “Twelve Monkeys”, “Deep Impact”, “Asteroid”,
“The Day the Earth Stood Still” (a remake of a 1952 original), and “2012”. These were all fiction. But the nuclear apocalyptic movies and books of the 1950s were based on something that was very real: I think of the book A Canticle for Leibowitz and movies such as “Fail Safe”, “On the Beach”, and even the black comedy “Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”.

It was very real. In the fall of 1962, when I was 14, the world came as close as it ever had to genuine nuclear holocaust. This wikipedia article reports that the Cuban Missile Crisis is “generally regarded as the moment in which the Cold War came closest to turning into a nuclear conflict.” Here is a part of a speech delivered by President John F. Kennedy during the most tense hours of the confrontation with the Soviet Union. In particular, listen to his words that begin at 2:02.

The fear of nuclear war was not all-consuming by any means, but it was pervasive as the plethora of books, movies, etc. of the era shows. And the fear was very real. Air raid sirens were tested on the first Fridays of each month at 10:00 a.m. I doubt whether those who have never heard them can imagine a sound so loud and so alarming. The noise was intended to cause people to stop everything that they were doing and run for a bomb shelter to save their lives, though everyone knew that it would likely be pointless. Even a kid knew that there was nowhere to hide. I remember telling my mother when I was about ten, “If I were the enemy I’d attack us on a first Friday at 10:00 a.m., because then everyone would think it was a test and no one would pay any attention.”

It was a sound that covered the entire city, loud enough to override any other sound that there could be. We knew that if the sirens went off, we had maybe five minutes to live, for the entire city would be turned into rubble in an instant under radiant heat that was hotter than the surface of the sun.

Do you want to hear what air raid sirens sounded like? You can. Read on.

H. G. Wells' novel, The Time Machine, was published in 1895, and was intended as a social commentary on the division of the human race into “classes” which, if taken to extreme, would result in horrifying evil: the division of humanity into two divergent groups, one preying upon the other. The book was made into a movie in 2002. The 2002 version was a remake, however; the original movie was made in 1960. In both movies, in place of Wells’ hypothesis that “classism” could divide the human race into two divergent streams, some disaster hits the earth and causes some enormous change whose implications last through the ensuing centuries. In the 2002 movie, it was an environmental disaster that blew the moon to pieces—environmental issues being at the forefront of our current culture.

But in 1960 it was nuclear war. In the movie the time traveler goes from New Year's Eve 1899 into the future—with a stop in the viewers’ present at the time the movie was made, arriving in time for the onset of a nuclear war. In the movie the war takes place on August 18, 1966. You can find that scene here; begin at 8:28 and go to the end, 10:02. Then continue here from 0:00 to 3:52. Imagine being a child and seeing this movie at that time. The scenes include air raid sirens that signal the imminence of the attack. But there is a better place where the arresting, chilling sound comes through.

Farther into the movie you see the recounting of that disaster in the far future here. Watch the scene from 1:43 to 2:15. And if you want to hear what the air raid sirens sounded like more clearly and compellingly than the earlier bit, watch the scene from 3:55 to 6:20. The sirens mean something else in the movie, but the sound was identical to the air raid sirens of the time that were intended to warn the populace that the world was about to end. That the sounds were identical was, of course, no coincidence. In case there was any doubt, the scene from 6:20 through 7:45 makes that explicit. I remember the sound well and it still raises hackles on my skin.

Gradually things changed. The era of glasnost overrode the Cold War, and the Soviet Union eventually collapsed. I still remember opening the newspaper nearly twenty years ago and seeing the incredible headline. I immediately remembered Nikita Khrushchev’s promises from over forty years earlier, “We will bury you” and “Your children will be Communists”.

Here’s a recent newspaper article that looks back on this era. “Duck and cover” drills are mentioned in it, which I remember very well from my elementary school days.

Considering all that, I guess it was good that when I held up a can with a label that read, IMPERVIOUS TO NUCLEAR FALLOUT, the response was laughter, for those who laughed had never heard air raid sirens in their own city. My children’s sermon was correct: no matter what we might be afraid of, in all circumstances we can trust in God.

3 comments:

Allison Oh said...

I've been sick so I'm afraid I missed that sermon and children's sermon illustration. But I'm glad you wrote about it here.

I remember when I was 13, back in 1999, and being terrified about Y2K--watching my father store drinking water in a huge plastic drum in our garage as my mother dehydrated vegetables.
That too turned out for naught (thankfully) but I got a pretty clear moment of having to believe God was bigger than our world's electronic woes.

Rachel M. said...

If it's impervious to nuclear fallout, doesn't that mean the can has lead in it? Meaning, the water is essentially poison?

I think that's why people were laughing. You can't take those cans into schools (I've heard) because they are considered hazardous.

Of course, that doesn't cancel out your reasoning, just explains (perhaps) that specific phenomenon.

Anonymous said...

It's so nice to be able to get some of your sermons on this blog while we live so far away. It's a little bit of home.
-Anthony, Miriam and River