Back in 2000 in a world very different from the one we know today, my mother was a colonel in the United States Air Force. A single mother, she was dedicated to her job, but also committed to giving my sister and I the best possible upbringing she could. Often called away to attend conventions and hearings, she would use those as opportunities to take my sister and I on vacation, showing us the sights when she wasn’t attending official business. On this particular occasion, she took us to New York City.
I of course was binge watching the media. We had just discovered the SyFy (then the SciFi) channel, and I was watching such shows as The Invisible Man, Farscape, and the 80s incarnation of the Outer Limits.
Then I saw an advertisement for a major event that was going to play. A movie billed as one of the darkest moments in television history. The announcer opened the advertisement with this chilling phrase. “This is the day the world ended, and this is the day after.”
The film was a 1983 television epic, still the most watched TV movie in history, and still as chilling as it ever was. The Day After.
My mother of course argued against me watching it. She explained everything to me, the Cold War which had ended during my younger years, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and the concept of a nuclear war.
To me, it was something beyond imagining. I asked in the naivety of my 11 year old vision of the world “There is no way we could destroy the world, is there?”
I of course talked her in to letting me watch the movie. It was late, and I fell asleep immediately after the missiles hit. But the visions of the cities being destroyed, and people getting reduced to clouds of vapor in an instant was something that stuck with me. I thought “Why would we do that to ourselves?”
I didn’t get to see the movie in its entirety until it was released on VHS tape a few years later. Now I went beyond the missiles into the real horror, the aftermath. A wasteland filled with poisonous fallout, not enough food and water to pass among the scattered survivors, and an ever growing despair that would be enough to last the next thousand years.
The Day After is a vision of a world gone mad that, as it turns out, I have an odd relationship with.
The Day After was shot in a town called Lawrence Kansas, at the time the perfect example of small town America. The bulk of the picture takes place at Kansas City University in the boarded up classrooms and dorm buildings as the people inside attempt to tend off the fallout. Both my mother and father were in the military at the time, and though my mother had yet to make the climb to colonel, my father was a major. At the time the movie was being filmed, Mom and Dad were going to school, at Kansas City University.
Mom and Dad both traded me stories of how it affected the campus. It was a major production made at the height of the Cold War and dealing with a disaster that, at the time, many felt was imminent. The school community was obviously very supportive, chipping in any way they could. While teaching there, my mother had one of her students miss class to appear in the film as one of the numerous fallout victims.
Dad’s story was even more interesting. Towards the end of the film, Steve Guttenberg, sick with radiation poisoning, seeks out a friend in Allan Field House, transformed from a once beautiful gym to a dumping ground for the dead and dying. One day whilst walking to class, Dad passed Allan Field House and observed the scene being filmed, though he was sadly unable to meet Steve Guttenberg.
After the Day After, I sought out and watched many more movies dealing with the subject. War Games, Testament, Threads, When the Wind Blows, Panic in Year Zero, By Dawn’s Early Light, Dr. Strangelove, Fail Safe, all of them engrossing, all of them chilling, and all of them making me wonder why anyone would build such a sinister machine as this.
But my relationship with nuclear armageddon is much more intimate than just a television movie. It is also much more frightening.
My father, as I mentioned before, was a Major in the army. He was also a missile officer. He was one of the men in the silos. He is one of the men who would have, if it came down to it, turned the keys to send a minuteman missile to Russia, to kill God knows how many people.
Shortly after seeing the film, Dad took me down into a training silo and showed me how it worked. We turned the keys together, because to me it was all a game. There is no way this could have ever happened. No one would have been that crazy. Honestly, it is one of the more fun memories I had with my father. He explained to me the concept of deterrence, and how weapons such as this are not intended for use. The threat of use holds back any hostilities.
But as I grew older and learned more about certain events, events like the Cuban Missile Crisis, and hearing stories about close call after close call, I truly understood the real horror of the concept of nuclear war.
Considering how close we came a few times in our history, I wonder if Dad would have been able to turn the keys. If knowing what it would mean for my mother, my sister, my grandparents and me, I wonder if he would have been able to go through with it.
I like to think not.