A Kingdom of Dirt
As the West scrambles to find a way to mitigate the ruthless conquest of Ukraine, the suppressed fears of a nuclear war return. The nightmare seems more vivid than before.
“Every inhabitant of this planet must contemplate the day when this planet may no longer be habitable. Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness. The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us.”
- President John F. Kennedy
I was a boy, and I thought the world was coming to an end.
On the day of my eleventh birthday, the President of the United States was on TV in our small living room explaining how we were in a kind of nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union. Our set was a large, brown Zenith box and the horizontal hold kept rolling upward as JFK explained that communists had secretly placed missiles inside of Cuba. Unless the Soviet Premier, Nikita Kruschev, removed the weapons, the world risked a nuclear conflagration.
“America cannot let this stand,” the president said.
My mother was at work carrying hamburgers and fries to truck drivers and assembly line workers at Louie’s Roadside Inn restaurant up on the Dixie Highway and my dad was on the line at the Buick Motor Division Plant in Flint, Michigan. They had no time to even know or understand or be afraid of a nuclear holocaust. A $62 per month mortgage payment was more frightening, and feeding six children. My younger siblings, a brother, two little sisters, and I were home alone, and when the image rolled, I went up to hit the box on the side to stabilize the vacuum tubes of the old television. I wanted to understand.
The president showed on-screen what looked like aerial pictures of missile silos in Cuba and said that Moscow had placed them there to intimidate the U.S. with deadly weapons just 90 miles from our shore. An American spy plane had taken photos of the nuclear-tipped warheads being assembled. I knew enough to greatly fear atomic bombs as a boy because we had been practicing “duck and cover” drills in elementary school. The principal of McGrath Elementary sounded a hallway alarm and without being instructed all the students were to fall out of their seats and curl up in a fetal position beneath the Formica desktops, which we were supposed to believe would protect us from the unholy fire of a nuclear bomb.
Would a nuclear fight really be a war? World War II felt like yesterday to men like my father, who had been in the European Theater of combat and had taken part in a brand of killing they were never able to describe, but which haunted their daily lives in unnamed ways. The idea of a “cold war,” two great powers pointing missiles of total destruction at each other, was an abstract that veterans hardly knew how to contemplate. The president had served in the same war and our country’s military and foreign policies had led him to this difficult confrontation. The U.S. had propped up a friendly Cuban dictator, Fulgencio Bautista, whose oppression of his people led to Castro’s revolution, and JFK had subsequently authorized a failed attack on the island, executed by the CIA and located at the Bay of Pigs. Castro was worried about further American assaults and accepted the U.S.S.R.’s protection.
Soviet Premier Kruschev had his own fretful concerns. In the parsing out of power and reconfiguration of Post War Europe, the U.S. had missile emplacements close to the borders of bloc nations controlled by the U.S.S.R. If he were able to get missiles only minutes from Miami and Atlanta, the Soviets might have a stronger deterrent against what they viewed as American aggression in terms of military capability and deployment. The war was only “cold” because nuclear triggers were harder to pull than those on a soldier’s rifle.
An eleven-year-old knows nothing of such things, of course. I was focused on the practical matters of whether my day would pass without cake and ice cream. In school, though, we had been shown films of mushroom clouds and black and white photos of what had happened to the Japanese living near ground zero. The documentary’s narrator and teachers made it brutally plain to us that we might end up with burned hair and melting flesh if the Russians launched a nuclear bomb in our direction.
“Whatever you do,” Miss Haigemeister said, “Don’t look directly at the light,” as if our retinas were the only part of our anatomies at risk.
My parent’s marriage, troubled by money and violence for more than a decade, was falling to pieces, too, which made the world feel more undone to a boy. Daddy, though, was still around and the nuclear talk had gotten his attention prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis. The manufacturing centers near where we lived were considered prime targets for the Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles and the capitalist entrepreneurs were cashing in on the fear. Daddy took my brother and I up to a new shopping plaza to look at backyard bomb shelters being sold in the parking lot. There was a row of maybe 30 people lined up to climb inside a model. We got out of my father’s rattly Studebaker and walked across the pavement toward the shelters.
“I don’t wanna go inside, Daddy,” I said.
“Ain’t nothin’ to be afraid of, buddy boy.”
“I’m scared we might have to live in one.”
“At least we’d be livin’,” he said.
“But you can’t go outside. A man on the TV said it would be a million years. We’d have to be in that underground the rest of our lives.”
“I don’t reckon it’ll be all that bad.”
“I’m afraid, Daddy. I don’t want to see it.”
The psychological trauma of intimately experiencing the effects of nuclear war still adhere to my memory of childhood. I suppose there is even a subconscious darkness we Baby Boomers carry around with us when confronted with such potential horrors. I see it now as a consequence of being daily presented the vision of a world that children cannot begin to comprehend.
When we reached the front of the line, my father insisted I be first down the ladder. I do not remember crying but I recall feeling as though I might be trapped and forever imprisoned in a small space with no sky or real light or wind.
The model we were touring appeared to have been built from an underground gas storage tank. A steel plate had been welded across the bottom to provide a flat floor and there were cots on either side that folded down from the curved walls. Water seemed to come from a tank with a push handle, which reminded me of the hand pump on my uncle’s farm in Mississippi. There were two bare bulbs hanging in cages from the ceiling at either end and a small space for sitting and eating. A few shelves made of steel were used for any storage of food. There was no refrigerator, but there was a crank that apparently was used to cycle in fresh air, which probably would not exist above ground.
I picked up a device that looked a bit like an electric eggbeater.
“That’s the Geiger counter.” The salesman was standing halfway down the ladder. Daddy turned around and acted surprised.
“What’s a Geiger counter for,” he asked.
“Oh, I thought you’d know. It measures radiation.”
“Why do I need to know that?”
“Well, so you can know when it’s safe to go back above ground.”
“You said two weeks of food and water was all this place could hold,” Daddy said.
“I reckon that’s when we go back up.”
“The TV said a million years, mister,” I told him. “That’s how long before the nuclear stuff goes away.”
“Well, we are throwing in the Geiger counter, no charge, to our buyers.”
I was pleased to be back outside when my father lowered me to the ground from the top of the shelter door. The sky was bright blue and the air cool as autumn came early to Michigan. Nothing has ever looked quite so beautiful to me.
Watching the stern expression on the president’s face that October day I began to be fearful we might have to survive underground for a long time, but our family did not have money to buy such a shelter. What would happen to us? Was there anything in the house that might protect all eight of us? Our little wood stick tract home of just over 800 square feet, purchased with a $500 down payment on a Veterans’ Administration mortgage, was covered in cedar shake shingles and would have lit up like a match dropped into a can of gasoline.
There are no backyard bomb shelters for sale in 2022. The megatons of destructive power that exist in hydrogen and nuclear explosives delivered in minutes by hypersonic missiles will make underground survival an even more absurd endeavor than it was in the fifties and sixties. The world’s three great economic and political powers have enough weaponry to turn every square foot of the planet into a parking lot that glows in the dark. Our mutually assured destruction, and fail-safe launch systems, have prevented a human disaster that would make Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings appear like sticks of dynamite dropped from the sky. The notion of a power-drunk and demented warrior king with such armaments, though, has always seemed an improbability as cultures evolved.
JFK and Kruschev found a way to avert Armageddon. Kennedy invoked the Monroe Doctrine as a legal and geopolitical coda to keep foreign powers out of the Western hemisphere. Kruschev removed the missiles and Kennedy secretly promised to pull U.S. warheads out of Turkey. The agreement might have saved the world, but it began the long, slow buildup of nuclear arms inventories. Every nation that possesses nuclear weapons is convinced they are protected from imperialism and external force or that their people can assert their will over the lesser armed countries.
Vladimir Putin’s threat to use nuclear weapons is not the idle bombast of an authoritarian, and even if it were, we have no way to know unless we confront his armies invading Ukraine. We are almost forced to stand and watch a democratic country be destroyed or face the risk of a nuclear holocaust. There’s no morality to be calculated for either choice. Both are wrong. The NATO that was being built in the Post War world has grown to reach Ukraine. Membership would mean treaty signers are compelled to protect the country, which could also place NATO defensive or offensive weapons on the border with Russia. Putin has made it starkly clear he will not abide such a development.
Every shot fired in anger at Ukrainians, meanwhile, does not just kill the innocent and destroy infrastructure. Putin is also diminished. He is a global outlaw who will never be allowed in another country in the world; he will be responsible for the collapse of the Russian economy because of profoundly harmful sanctions, and the ruination of millions of lives on a scale Europe has not experienced since Hitler first moved his Blitzkrieg into the Sudetenland and Poland. Putin’s risk of being overthrown also increases hourly. The Kremlin’s leaders and Russia’s oligarchs will not suffer without response. He has already lost. The only lingering question is what form his defeat will take. Nothing that happens to Putin, however, will be of any consequence when compared to the pain he has set upon the Ukrainians and Eastern Europe. Putin will reign over nothing more than a kingdom of dirt, populated by political prisoners.
There are no emotional or logical tools for managing these fears in a Baby Boomer’s life almost exactly sixty years after the Cuban Missile Crisis. We were the force multiplier that was supposed to improve the planet but we keep moving it closer to the eve of destruction. The world seems always at war; the only variable is the size of the conflict. In 1962, the culture was already taking notice of the nuclear standoff between great powers. Just five months before JFK confronted the U.S.S.R., Hollywood released a film to give us our first glimpse of a post-apocalyptic life. “Panic in the Year Zero” was about a nuclear bomb destroying Los Angeles and a family trying to survive the unfolding dystopian nightmare. Not even “The Exorcist” was more frightening.
I do not remember if there was cake on that eleventh birthday because my Ma always had to work late at the restaurant, but I do remember lying in bed trying to fall asleep while listening for missiles or airplanes carrying nuclear bombs. Our house was right in the flight path for final approach to the regional airport and every aircraft that passed over our rooftop filled me with great fear. I turned my back to the window to avoid the bright flash like my teacher had instructed and I listened closely for an explosion that might end the world.
I listen still.