There was a time when nuclear war was a regular conversation topic in my family. It’s 1987. The Cold War is four years away from ending. President Reagan just called for Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” There are more than 65,000 nuclear warheads on the planet, my mom is engaged, and I’m nine years old. And I’m watching The Day After1.
The Day After was a made for T.V. movie back in ‘83 about a fictional nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. The setting – my hometown of Kansas City, Missouri.
The opening scenes are a love letter to the heartland, country fields and small towns. We see downtown Kansas City, the Kauffman and Arrowhead Stadiums, the Liberty Memorial. We’re introduced to a gamut of Midwestern people reacting to news broadcasts of an escalating conflict in Europe as they live their lives in flyover country. Then suddenly missiles begin to fly. There is confusion and panic and…BOOM…the attack sequence begins. Bright lights, mushroom clouds, fires, screams. Life interrupted by war.
And my nightmares of nuclear proliferation begin.
Watching any movie took more commitment back then. The VCR swallowed the black VHS tape as my grandpa nudged it with his fingers. He pushed play and adjusted the tracking so the audio and picture would align more precisely. There’s a night sky on the screen, white dots sprinkled throughout the blackness. Then a startling martelé of violin strings accompanied the appearance of unblinking eyes in the darkness. A yellow title emerged beneath: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow2.
I grew up in my grandparents’ house. They were tongue-speaking, prayer-meeting, hand-laying charismatic Catholics. And they read the book of Revelations3 often. And they spoke about the end times. And this man who saw tomorrow – Nostradamus – had a clairvoyance that fit right in with their interests.
Watching this documentary was like a drug. Everyone told me it would give me nightmares, but I couldn’t help myself. Orson Welles – the rotund narrator with his white beard and cigars and hollow baritone voice – terrified me. He was looking at me. He was talking to me. He was telling me why and how I was going to die. My grandparents bought it, and so I bought it. And I wasn’t even ten. The end times – this was real life to me.
My bedroom was on the first floor across from my grandparents’ room. We lived in a neighborhood where gunshots and sirens were customary. My ears and child-like sensitivities had acclimated to this cacophony of activity. But the sound of the box fan wedged inside my window, rapping and banging against itself, activated my nine-year-old imagination – it sounded like missiles. And with the book of Revelations and The Man Who Saw Tomorrow and The Day After…everything appeared to be the end of me.
In panic I’d knock on my grandparents’ bedroom door. My grandma would answer. Taking my hand in hers, she’d walk with me, supported by her wooden cane, and return me to my room. She’d sit at the edge of my bed, tuck me in, rub my head, and pray. They were prayers for peace of mind. For peaceful dreams. Then she’d pray in tongues.
Though I never understood what she was saying, her praying voice brought me solace. There was a rhythm to her prayer. It sang. And it calmed me. Then we’d say a prayer to St. Michael the Archangel to protect us through the night. She’d kiss my cheek. Then make the sign of the cross on my forehead with her thumb.
I will not mince words here. President Trump scares me. Kim Jong Un scares me. They have agitated an uneasiness I had long forgotten. President Trump continues to escalate his war of words against North Korea and vice versa. This clash is filled with ultimatums and antagonization. News stations in California and Hawaii are reporting on what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. And the United States and North Korea are pushing each other. And, what if this pushing ends with a pushed button, sending bombs across the world? And, we have no control over the power they have.
My mind races with questions through sleepless nights and anxious prayers. But then I think of my grandma. I’m reminded of the place I found serenity. I hear her voice through the negative noise. I hear the rhythm of peace and the song of calm that undulated from somewhere deep in her soul. I hear her blessing embodied by her thumb marking my forehead with a cross, sanctifying my safety in the arms of God. It’s a warm peace. The kind that settles me down, encouraging me to embrace life and not fear it. Today, at least, the world continues to spin and I am alive.