The apocalypse is one phone call, one siren, one descending vapor trail or mushroom cloud away. I am terrified by that simple fact. I am also fascinated by it. I could no more look away from the end of life and civilization than I could disprove the fact of my own birth.
I grew up in the '70s and '80s, the tail end of the Cold War, a time when thermonuclear war loomed, more an inevitability than a possibility. To my neurotic young self, it was not a question of "if" but "when" the ICBMs would rain down. I am certain I wasn't alone in my fears.
When I was ten, my family moved into a two story house located directly behind the maintenance compound on the boarding school campus where we lived. The house was flanked on one side by a shallow, overgrown pond (that was later filled in) and on the other by fruit trees—grapefruit, oranges, key limes, and kumquats. From May through September, more mangos than we could eat fell from the trees, thudding to the earth, thickening the humid, already tangy air with sweet rot. Behind us, a high and wild hedge separated us from a sandy field of patchy scrub.
In many ways, being a house in the sun-soaked, paradise of South Florida, it was as far from the end of the world as could be imagined.
If I looked out my parents' bedroom windows, I could look down the street we lived on, or at the coconut-curved trunk of the coconut palm, or at the silver dome of a grain silo that had been donated to the school to be used as a ceramics kiln but became a storage shed instead, or at the school's civil defense (or air raid) siren, the simple metal-beamed tower partially obscured by a cluster of scruffy pine trees.
The siren went off anytime the school ran a fire drill or whenever someone pulled a fire alarm anywhere on the 90-acre campus. The glass panes vibrated in their frames and our cats scurried under the furniture as the hollow, almost lazy siren rose and floated down only to rise again. There was breathiness to the sound as the rotors spun and the siren pealed.
No urgency, just finality.
As for me, each time the siren went off, I rushed to the nearest window to scan the sky for the exhaust trails of falling missiles or the tell-tale mushroom clouds on the horizon.
East was always clear. Who would bomb the Atlantic Ocean? To the west, there was nothing much worth bombing, either. Palm Beach to the north. . . . Did the Soviets despise the wealthy enough to strike there so early in the war?
And then there was Miami to the south.
That's where they'd hit first, I figured. Unfortunately, my bedroom was on the NW corner of the house. I'd have to scramble to get a view south toward Miami—"scramble" because when the nuclear holocaust comes, you want to be very careful where you stand.
If I was outside when the siren went off . . . well, I'd also scan the skies for evidence of the end. It was much easier to see the panorama, of course. Strangely, the sky was always clear and blue, the sun stark and the air still.
Physiologically, I'd experience what I now know to be a panic attack. My groin burned, my hands and lips tingled, my breathing accelerated, and tremors rose in waves from my hands to my chest. A slick sweat coated the back of my neck and I felt a profound sense of doom. I'd want nothing more than to either move quickly or curl up in a ball.
A part of me would shift out of my body, slide just off to the side of or rise just above my "self" (in a classic instance of dissociation), the white sunlight would strobe, and the sky would turn an electric purple.
Around this time I read John Hersey's Hiroshima for the first time. My fear of thermonuclear war quickly replaced my fear of contracting the bubonic plague. I went from checking my armpits for lumps to scanning the horizon for mushroom clouds.
No lines in Hiroshima terrified me more than these:
There was no sound of planes. The morning was still; the place was cool and pleasant.
Then a tremendous flash of light cut across the sky . . .
In those few sentences the siren became a luxury. I'd be lucky if I heard a siren. Before reading Hersey's horrifying masterpiece, I feared the warning as much as the actual missiles. After Hiroshima, I feared the lack of warning, the suddenness, the unpredictability.
A person could be going about his or her everyday life, eating breakfast, reading a newspaper, heading to work, playing in the yard, and, in a single flash of light, the world could end.
As a follow-up to reading Hiroshima, my English teacher asked us to write a short story from the point of view of a character living through and/or surviving the bombing of Hiroshima. The only thing I remember from my story was the main character stepping through the body of a girl who had melted into the molten concrete of the sidewalk.
Later that school year, I researched the Cuban Missile Crisis—a topic I selected out of respect for my father's admiration for JFK and out of my own morbid curiosity. Sitting on the carpeted floor of the Florida Atlantic University library and scribbling away on index cards, I read excerpts from RFK's Thirteen Days and I knew with a cold certainty that not only were those Soviet missiles 90 miles from US shores and about 135 miles from where I sat, they were aimed directly at me, my family, and everyone in the world I loved.
The Soviet Union was across the globe. Hiroshima was in Japan, also across the globe. On a clear day, you could see the coast of Cuba from Florida.
Ignoring completely the fact that the Crisis had been resolved 20 years before, I then engaged in what would prove to be a lifelong coping mechanism: Fear Math. These days I reserve Fear Math for things like financial crises and calculating the number of words per hour until deadline, but back then I gathered up all the numbers I had (which were woefully incomplete and decidedly fuzzy) and started figuring.
Havana and Miami are about 230 miles apart; the shorelines of the two countries are even closer. A missile travels thousands of miles per hour. Like 6,000. Ignoring all the prep time and the fact that missiles don't fly in flat trajectories like crows . . . Divide 6,000 by 230 and you get 26 . . . Wait, 26 what? Okay, okay, I can do this. Drop a zero from each, jiggle that decimal point, and get 2.6. Okay, 2.6 . . . Point six of a minute is three-fifths of a minute. Sixty divided by five is 12 and 12 times three is 36 so that's 36 seconds. So . . .
We'd all be dead in two minutes and 36 seconds.
There's great security in numbers. Math is always consistent, always certain, even when you're figuring how much time you have left. Strangely, while the Cuban Missile Crisis stole from me the sense that enemy missiles were far away geographically, they did give me back some small scrap of warning time, even if that time was a matter of seconds.
The Red Telephone has no rotary dial, knobs, or buttons. There is only the body, a handset, a coiled cord connecting them, and a single red light that's two shades darker than the candy-apple red body of the phone. The light flashes when there is an incoming call.
When I first became aware of The Red Telephone I was struck with one chilling fact: there are no numbers.
You lift the handset and, by the time you put it to your ear, it's dialing the oval office. Or, if you are already in the oval office, it's dialing a control center, a missile control center.
The Red Telephone has one purpose, and that's to initiate the end of the world. With one phone call the President of the United States (or whoever has access to it at the time) can order the launch of thermonuclear missiles without even having to pause to dial the numbers.
Is it real, The Red Telephone? It is to me. I've lived with it for more than 30 years. Right now it sits on an abandoned old desk in an empty room. Saber blades of sunlight illuminate dust motes in the air which is, strangely, scented with fresh citrus and rotting mangos.
I'm not sure where I learned about The Red Telephone. Perhaps I saw it in a movie or read about it in a book. Either way, the idea that the end of the world was one phone call away elevated my anxieties to a point where any unexplained, sudden, unusual low noise startled me into a panic attack.
And, of course, there was that air raid siren near our house. I started hearing air raid sirens in everything—a car starting, a song on the radio, car horns, and the general racket of far-off construction sites. These sounds, the siren (imagined or real) and the simple, mundane ringing of a phone could nudge me over the edge into panic.
It often took at least two members of my family to help me fall asleep at night. I needed reassurance that the world would not end in the night and that it would still be there in the morning.
One of the ways I coped with my fears was to imagine surviving a nuclear war, instead of just being killed by it. In fairly short order, I got to the point where I ran scenarios through my head, constantly. Most were set in submerged bunkers with plywood walls, rusty canned goods, and a scattered few of us sitting in the dark on the floor or on piles of blankets.
The world became two places: inside our windowless, makeshift shelter and outside, where a radioactive mist swirled above a devastated landscape and mutant hordes tore at the charred flesh of barely recognizable animals.
Inside the shelter, we dreaded the moment when our food and water ran out. We spoke in monosyllabic words, short sentences, and meaningful looks. We resembled characters from a spaghetti western starring Clint Eastwood. We rationed wisely, despite our weaknesses, and listened for cannibalistic mutants who would eventually discover our hiding place. Every shift of light, every fragment of sound took on profound meaning.
Certain questions seemed to arise in each of these fantasies. The first and most obvious was: Who would survive? I didn't use these fantasies to "kill off" people plaguing me in my day-to-day life, at least not consciously. People died or survived because of circumstance, not revenge fantasies. I dispassionately—perhaps "clinically" would be a better word—removed various friends and family from the equation. Perhaps Dad had been at work when the bombs hit or Mom at the art supply store in Fort Lauderdale or Matt had been travelling with the lacrosse team. Often, my best friend, Beau, had just happened to be staying the night and we'd rescued his little sister just moments before our neighbor, the swim coach, sealed the shelter doors against the blast.
Questions spun more and more into elaborate tales. For instance, what would happen if a survivor knocked on the bunker door? Would we let him in? Would we trust him? Would we remain compassionate in the wasteland of the world? Would my—our—true selves, long hidden beneath layers of civilization, privilege, and luxury soon be revealed as savage, animalistic, barbaric? (Clearly, I'd read Lord of the Flies and many Conan pastiches.)
I acted out certain scenarios, often hiding behind furniture, curling up in closets, beneath blankets, and crawling on my belly across rooms that were ablaze and smoking, poisonous with radiation. The horror, the desolation, the enormity of each imagined situation contrasted greatly with the delicate ash that fluttered in the air and the piercing memories of loved ones lost.
Even as I remember these bouts of make believe, I am filled with a tingly euphoria and covered in a cool sheen of sweat.
I was fourteen years old in 1984. My fear and dread of the apocalypse was alive and well. Vibrant, as I like to think of it.
Around that time, the movie Red Dawn came out, and the landscape of my fears (and, of course, my imagination) changed significantly.
For, in Red Dawn, paratroopers rain from the sky, not missiles. Yes, the Soviets and Cubans invade the United States, but they don't nuke it. And once they invade, we fight back.
We fight back.
No longer did I cower in the bunker of my imagination, awaiting the mutants or starvation or radiation sickness or madness. Now, I got out there, gun in hand, and fought back against whatever horrors fate sent my way. I couldn't stop the invasion, but I sure as hell could fight the invaders.
And this brings me to the central question: why? Why does imagining nuclear holocaust, constructing apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fantasies help me cope with my fear of the end of the world?
Does my obsession with imagining the end, reading stories about the end, and watching television shows and movies about the end serve as a sort of rehearsal for death, a chance to see the un-seeable, to know the unknowable, to lessen the fear by shining a pen light into the vast darkness beyond life?
Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories thrill me. Yet, I do not wish for the world to end. I do not want millions of people or even one person to die. Just the opposite.
Last summer a friend gave a talk about her visit to one of the soon-to-be-shut-down NASA launch sites. One of her slides of the control room showed a red telephone. Not the Red Telephone, just a red telephone. To my delight, the sight of the red telephone didn't send me into a panic attack.
Later, while walking across a lush campus, my friend and I had a brief exchange that went something like this:
"I love apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction," I said.
"So you're one of those happy people," she said with a smile.
Well, I'm not unhappy, I thought, just anxious.
"Yep," I said. "Happy, happy."
And we continued on to other topics. Part of me, though, lingered on the idea that there are two types of people: those who enjoy stories about the apocalypse and those who don't.
Not everyone dispels the anxieties of life by playing around with thoughts of the end.
Some people stockpile water, canned goods, and ammunition. I imagine holding the weigh station on the Interstate from the hungry hordes. Instead of digging an actual bomb shelter, I imagine the conversations we'll have when we've barricaded ourselves within one.
I know that death can come at any moment. I know that we live in a world that can be taken from us at any moment—a world that we can take from each other with a simple phone call, a push of the button. Every second could be our last. These are truths and we must all deal with them in our own way.
Day to day we make seemingly small decisions that may have incredibly large repercussions. A careless word here, an extra drink before getting behind the wheel there, a rash phone call, or impulsive e-mail . . . these decisions have consequences.
There are also the simple words of kindness, thoughtful acts, and compassionate gestures. These decisions also have consequences.
It took me many years to get to where I could put my head on a pillow without thinking about The Red Telephone and the end of the world. On some level, though, the fear is always there.
Ten years ago, my wife and I watched a movie on television about World War Three. I can't remember the movie's title. There was a Red Telephone—the only color in an otherwise completely black and white film—and the panic attack came on so quickly that I actually heard a loud cracking sound.
As Mark Twain once said, "Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear—not absence of fear."
So, I wonder. . . . Is imagining the end, mastering the fear? Is it an attempt to control, to spin the truth, or is it a facing of the truth through speculation?
Should we look at the end or look away from it? Do we both tremble before the end and leap toward it, stare in fascination and avert our eyes? Do we exchange apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories the way passing motorists rubber-neck a gory wreck or the way mere mortals look upon the face of God in a state of what Rudolf Otto calls mysterium tremendum et fascinans?
Perhaps we should do both.