I’m officially a member of Generation X – born in the 70’s, high school in the 80’s (with the pastel to prove it). And as such, the growing unrest in Ukraine – prompting a recent round of sanctions against Russia – are starting to feel uncomfortably familiar.
Essayist Tim Kreider recently wrote about this same sort of bizarre deja-vu those of us who came of age during the last years of the Cold War are feeling now – first the music started coming back, then some of the fashion, then they started making big-budget movie versions of 80’s cartoons like Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Teen Wolf is on television, Molly Ringwald is back on the screen too, and now here’s a tense standoff with Moscow to really bring it all home. Just in time for our high school reunions!
Except this was the shadow side of the 80’s, one which up to now, no one has reminisced about. I learned about the Arms Race in the 70’s, actually – at age nine, when I secretly stayed up late during a family vacation to watch Johnny Carson, and was thus still awake to see a news magazine show discussing the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks then underway. I didn’t understand the nuances of what they were saying, but I understood the charts they were showing – comparisons of the destructive power of each kind of missile, comparisons of our arsenal versus the Soviets’ arsenal, projections of the rates of growth of each arsenal, projections of the total destructive power each nation had…
I was too childishly afraid to wake my parents up and talk to them because I thought I’d get in trouble for being awake, but I was too afraid of what I was seeing to ignore it. I watched in terrified silence for about fifteen minutes and then switched off the TV and scrambled into the bed, the fear of nukes mixing up in my head with my already-existing fear of the dark. I lay there a long time before falling asleep. “The Bomb” was my own personal Boogeyman for the next couple years; whereas every other kid was afraid of opening the closet door because Dracula or a werewolf might be inside, I was afraid I’d open a darkened closet and see a mushroom cloud sitting there next to my shoes.
I had a better understanding of things in my teens; but the fear never went away. Outwardly I was frustrated that so few other kids in school seemed to care about the Cold War; what the hell difference did a Members Only jacket make if they dropped the bomb? I did find some like-minded friends, all of us prone to scoffing at Reagan and doodling peace signs on our notebooks and discussing nuclear protests in between discussions about schoolwork.
We even made an anti-nuke movie my senior year in high school – my friend Krishna and I wrote the script, and she directed and shot the thing in a corner of our cafeteria after school each day for a month. As hyper-aware of the arms race as we already were, this really pushed us into some obsessive territory. Krishna and I both had moments of blind panic and outright despair while working on it – one afternoon while she was editing the film, the school had its main power and its backup generator fail, and Krishna emerged from the dark editing room to overhear the principal and secretaries yelling about “why the power wasn’t on”, and said she instantly thought “it’s an E.M.P. from a Soviet missile and this is the end”. She later told us the only reason she hadn’t come around to tell each of us goodbye was that she was too panicked to remember what classes any of us were in, and so she crumpled to the floor in the hallway and just sat there the whole five minutes it took the power to come back on.
My own freakout had come much earlier, during the writing; Sting’s second solo album had just come out then, and I played that obsessively as I wrote – and halfway during his song “They Dance Alone”, I suddenly realized that in the world I was writing about, no one would ever be able to hear that song again. I put down the pencil, sat on the floor between my stereo speakers and turned them both in towards me; then put the needle back to the beginning of the song and turned the volume up, and just sat, listening and wrapping myself in it. By the end of the song I was curled up on the floor and wailing in grief; I was convinced the bomb was going to drop someday, and there was no hope left for the world, and I was already in mourning.
That’s when the dreams started. For the next five or six years or so, I would have horrifically detailed nightmares about nuclear attacks every month or two. They’d usually begin innocuously – maybe they were about something completely different. But by the end, I’d be either part of a screaming horde trying to scramble for space in a civic shelter, knowing all the while that we weren’t going to survive anyway; or I’d be standing somewhere and watching the legions of Soviet planes overhead, watching the bomb bay doors opening on each one and the bombs all drop straight down towards me. Or sometimes they’d be really subtle – like the time I dreamed I was watching television and suddenly Diane Sawyer interrupted with a breaking report that NORAD had just picked up a series of missile tracks on radar, all of them headed for the United States, and watching her pause mid-sentence and blink away terrified tears.
I would always start up out of these dreams with a pounding heart, sometimes with a shout. Usually it was the middle of the night, and very dark outside; the old childhood fear of the dark that stayed tied to nuclear fear waking back up a bit each time. I’d usually get myself a glass of water, or sometimes tea, and would sip it, sitting curled up on my bed and anxiously looking out the window, too afraid to fall back asleep and waiting for dawn to come so I could begin a normal day and try to forget.
Those dreams followed me through my last year of high school, on into my first year of college. I took a couple political science courses to teach myself more about war, even as I was trying to find a way to balance my fears with my need to have hope and live a life. I was still having them in 1989, when suddenly talk of the Cold War switched over to talk of Glasnost and Perestroika – and watched, in amazement, as the Iron Curtain fell, and Gorbachev dissolved the Soviet Union, and then the Cold War ended – and both sides started disassembling their nuclear arsenals.
I didn’t stop having the nightmares right away – but they came less and less often, with months and sometimes a year in between each one. I think the last one I had was sometime in 1998. Also, the first time I saw Terminator 2, I had to leave the theater during Sarah Connor’s nightmare about the bomb hitting Los Angeles because it looked astonishingly like my own nightmares – but within a few years, I could watch it without having to cover my eyes (sort of). Then in 2001 I was witness to a much smaller-scale attack on the country, and was distracted by coping with that – but I recovered, and gradually let go of both that and my Cold War fears, and got caught up in just living my own life.
And suddenly we now have the sabre-rattling of a Russian prime minister in the news again, and the United States President is again joining with European allies – many of them former members of NATO – to levy sanctions against Russia in retaliation for an aggressive action against another nation.
I would not be surprised in the least to have another nuclear nightmare soon.