I had my first real, honest-to-god freak-out when I was twelve. The date was August 6, 1974. It had to be a weekend day, because Dad drove the lot of us to the Mid-Island Nathan’s for dinner. (I guess Long Island had at least one thing going for it. One of those ginormous Nathan’s that offered everything you could imagine. You know, pre pre-fab franchises: corn on the cob, lobster rolls, shrimp rolls, pizza, “Ipswich” clams and god knows what else. I always got the same thing. Hamburger pickles and grilled onions. With ketchup of course. And those fantastic crinkle cut French fries.
I wasn’t feeling well at all that day and as we are now well aware, queasy doesn’t sit well with me. I was the Queen of Car Sickness. It was especially acute driving home from Grandma’s on the Belt Parkway. My brothers haul-assed to opposite end of the back seat- squished together as tightly as possible. (Actually, they made me sit in the middle seat for the most part, so they must have suction on their fingertips so they could glue themselves to the backseat windows to leave as much space between me and them when I said the magic word “…mommy….” Battle stations men, immediately! I was the equivalent of a canister of mustard gas or at the very least a land mine. One false move and you’re toast.
Now being my little precocious self, I knew that the United States dropped atomic weapons on Japan completely destroying two cities to end World War II. August 6 is the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing when “Little Boy” was dropped on the unsuspecting city. (I suppose that was the point. I think the possibility of dropping the bomb on Mount Fuji was discussed to give the Japanese an opportunity to capitulate before the destruction of cities and the death of thousand upon thousand civilians. But what if the bomb dropped on Mount Fuji didn’t work? What then? Wouldn’t the Japanese be more determined than ever to continue the war daring us to invade? We didn’t want that. Get those boys home.)
That queasy afternoon, I flip on the TV in the middle of a program commemorating the Hiroshima bombing. I tuned in just in time to watch color footage of a man kicking at rubble that moments before had been a living, breathing city. The voiceover was testimony from survivors of what they saw. Arms and legs. Heads. And a whole lot of nothingness that once before was a living, breathing city. Just like the New York City where I wanted to be so badly I could taste it.
So you twit of a precocious kid, this is what you were talking about when so blithely referred to the atomic bomb in class. (How we got there in sixth grade is a mystery to me, but somehow we did. For a nanosecond. And I was Miss Smartypants.) On August 6, 1974, I flipped out. This was my first face-to-face with my mortality and the possibility that I could be vaporized at any moment. The ground was no longer steady. There was no longer any damned thing I could think of to hold on to. Not when we’re “on the eve of destruction.”* In a nanosecond. There was no longer anything I could call a sure thing.
I remained queasy through dinner at me beloved Nathan’s. Later at home, someone turned on a movie I have since learned was a British film called The Angry Silence from 1960 starring Richard Attenborough as a factory worker who refuses to participate in a wildcat strike. All I remember from it from that day was that Attenborough, for being his own man, and his were threatened with violence if he didn’t comply and join his fellow workers (some of whom were already bullied into taking part).
But the only actual scene I recall in appalling detail is Attenborough looking frantically all over crummy post-war London for his little boy who has gone missing. He finally finds him in what seems to be a disgusting public toilet, perhaps only a privy. The child is sitting on the seat. His legs, from his feet to the top of his short pants, were covered in tar. I was petrified. Could things like this actually happen? (My, my did I live a privileged existence.) That a mob of angry men can resort to tarring a little boy’s legs? For what?
Still nauseated (or by now, well beyond queasy), I headed off to bed. The next day I experienced my first panic attack. Three whole days it lasted. I could not stop shaking, How could I when every plane I heard overhead was carrying the bomb that was coming to incinerate us?
Sure I remember friends’ families having fallout shelters in their basements. And those ridiculous air raid drills in school where sticking your head under a desk or lining up on our knees in the hallway, hands over our heads was going to protect us from Armageddon. I think we all recognized their stupidity at the time. (I seem to remember lots of giggling during air raid drills. How could we not? And if we tykes knew that diving under the desks wasn’t going to save us from nuclear incineration or from just plain old run-of-the-mill bombs, can you imagine what any adult in his or her right mind thought? Were these people crazy? Okay, fire drills made sense. Air raid drills were so insane it’s a wonder how the teachers’ could keep a straight face while trying to force us to behave.
My mother was very gentle with me during those three awful days. Without using the term M.A.D., she explained the concept to me. I got it. I lived through my panic attack and now could continue living knowing that the United States and the Soviet Union could destroy the world any times over. And what the hell would I do about it anyway?
(Irony of ironies. Three days after August 6 was the bombing of Nagasaki. Thank goodness it hadn’t occurred to me it was now the ninth of August. And thank goodness I didn’t stumble on a television program commemorating Nagasaki dead. If I had, I think my poor mother would have had to send me to a rubber room at some hospital. And I bet the food there was beyond bad. Not worth flipping out if it only leads you to really bad eats.
Postscript to all of the above. One night senior year of high school, I hung out at my buddy Martha’s house till about five in the morning. All we did was chat and watch old movies. The first one we saw was really creepy. Black Narcissus. Trust me, it’s creepy as hell. Maybe not in the middle of the day, but in the middle of the night, it scared the crap out of me. We then start watching a Richard Attenborough movie about a factory worker…holy shit…Martha…There it was, it was as depressing and as frightening as I remembered it. But no, we watched them back–to-back, tough chicks that we were. As I slowly moved my ass to go, a moth the width of my head has flattened itself smack in the middle on the outside of the screen door I was to walk through moments later to get to the car. We both screamed. I guess we disturbed Mothra and while it was pondering its next move, I got my ass out of there as fast as I could, into the car, out to Port Washington Blvd., and headed home. I’m here to tell you, if any of you had any question, I escaped without injury and I lived.
*I had never heard “Eve of Destruction” during elementary school when we were good doobies and did our air raid drills albeit while giggling.