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Truly a Cloud

Each time I check the Web, I expect bombing.

Working at home, I dial up into the Digital Global Interweb (you're using it now!) many times a day, and I check news sites for headlines each time I connect -- The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, and others. As the page downloads and the HTML tables render, as the progress bar fills across the bottom of the browser window, I invariably think, has a nuclear war begun? I pause in self-manufactured fear, expecting a bright orange snapshot of a mushroom cloud, along with a screaming headline.

This happens every day; less regularly, but at least once a month, I browse through one of my favorite books, The Domesday Dictionary: Being an inventory of the artifacts and conceits of a new civilization, published in 1965. I have owned two copies, one now lost, both found in the throwaway piles of used bookstores.

The Domesday Dictionary is a work of art disguised as a reference book, a well-researched and elegant collection of tiny essays written by a psychoanalyst, Donald M. Kaplan, and a poet, Armand Schwerner, and edited by the psychoanalyst's wife, Louise Kaplan. Its prose converts military cant into small, errorless literary programs against which the mind can link:

Mushroom Cloud

The hallmark of a nuclear burst. Truly a cloud: it is wet, cool and sometimes capped with crystals of ice. The fireball (q.v.) has expanded so rapidly that its temperature falls to a point where the water vapor in the air that has been updrafted condenses into droplets. These droplets are too misty to create rain, but they are large enough to reflect the white light of the sun. The mushroom shape has been formed by the initial column of material sucked up between the bust and the material's outward swirling once within the fireball. The shape is fixed momentarily against the surrounding shock front. The cloud, now a billowy cumulus, passes upward through the subfreezing temperatures of the tropopause, being blown slowly shapeless by the winds. An amorphous mass, it reaches into the stratosphere. The heavy particles of the burst are far below, falling in the vicinity of ground zero. The cloud now contains the radioactive microdusts and gases of subsequent global fallout (q.v.). (194)

I've been thinking of these tall, cold, orange clouds for 20 years. When I was young the jargon of megatons and Mutually Assured Destruction combined with the the promises of Protestantism and the faux-mysticism of Star Wars. Inside that pre-adolescent mix of emotions and beliefs, I prayed at night that there would be no nuclear war, that my bed would not burn in the night. The mushroom cloud -- as a photograph, as a line drawing, graphically composed of words, sketched by cartoonists -- appeared on the covers of endless magazines and in newspaper editorials, underscored by Reagan's jokey, overheard gibbering about bombing the Soviet Union. I went to bed in terror.

My liberal parents were convinced that Reagan's decrepit finger would slip and press the big button. "If a nuclear bomb landed in New York," said my 12-year-old friend Stephen, sitting across from me at the lunch table in Stetson Middle School, "it would knock out the windows in West Chester," our town, a three-hour drive away. "But more likely a bomb would strike Philadelphia and take us with it, slowly, from leukemia." As I walked to visit my grandparents across town, I played out the scenes of a Ray Bradbury story, in which an automatic house, devoid of occupants, goes through its nurturing, programmed routine, cooking food and cleaning the floor. The last scene of the story describes the outlines of children playing on the side of the house, the inverse shadows left by atomic weapons.

In 2000, I live within the blast radius, in New York. My city is destroyed by Hollywood special effects teams at least twice a year, which makes the threat of the real thing seem familiar. In one scene of The Peacemaker, where a Serbian schoolteacher hides a bomb in his backpack, a Hagstrom Map of New York City was produced with the blast radius circled, and I saw from the screen that, given a Serbian-schoolteacher-nuclear-backpack scenario, my apartment would washed out towards Long Island in a radioactive fireball, my burning body mixing with the vaporized remains of the Brooklyn Bridge.

I'm not as obsessed as I seem -- this entry was originally only a paragraph long -- but the more I sit at the keyboard, the more I remember; it seems I' ve taken regular doses of atomic catastrophe in literary form for most of my life, without noticing. I read my Domesday Dictionary at intervals, and watch a video of Threads every year.

Threads is the best nuclear-holocaust drama of them all, made for British television. I saw it on PBS when I was 12 or 13. Its imagery sometimes hangs behind my eyes when I close them: a mushroom cloud's cool condensing over Sheffield, followed by a shot of urine pouring down a woman's pantleg; suburban walls exploding and bric-a-brac shattering, glass melting, a charred boy's body. Ruth, the middle-class young woman who centers the film, develops from a cheerful, rebellious mother-to-be into an exhausted creature who trades sexual favors for a dinner of burnt rats, and later collapses of leukemia in a field. The filmmakers render all of this as frankly as the Domesday Dictionary, making the misery palpable and sometimes lovely in its completeness.

There are also: A Canticle for Liebowitz, about Catholicism after the war, Dr. Strangelove, or On The Beach, a spotty, effective book -- also a film -- in which everything dies, including the rabbits. Add into that the collected works of Philip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison, who turned the earth to desert and filled it with extra-limbed monsters -- and hundreds of lesser efforts, as well as soppy songs by Sting and U2, and the anti-war cartoon When the Wind Blows, and you've only touched the surface. Nearly every day of my young life was touched with art about nuclear war, from the film version of Superman to the John Lithgow teen flick The Manhattan Project

In the cream of it, like Threads, The Domesday Dictionary, and Canticle, the narrative is tempered by a kind of dark pride in our accomplishments as world-destroyers; the human race now stands in the sands like Ozymandias and surveys an empty kingdom; the line "Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair" takes on its full ironic significance. A book like On The Beach, which predicts total annihilation of all life, is rare in its finality; usually, we see human life go on, the common man forced into incredible suffering, women birthing three-headed babies in huts built of scrapwood. In the best of the nuclear catastrophes, humans live only to be punished for the faults of their ancestors.

For citizens of the dystopias, canned food is more precious than irradiated gold, and the rampaging passions -- the savagery of the human animal squeezed into factories and boardrooms -- is released from centuries of repression. The barbarism of the initial bomb-dropping is echoed by millions of smaller violences among the remaining citizens. Medieval morals return, and ragworn, diseased bands of the toothless are led by strong, fur-clad men who drive the few remaining cars through burnt landscapes. Life becomes cheap, dangerous, and miserable; our system of lines and wires break apart, our economic transactions become violent; our portfolios evaporate.

These fantasies please me in their awfulness; they have all the drama my life lacks. The threat of nuclear war, the way it was approached in film and books, showed the monsters under our skin, the way that men in suits could kill with a gentle touch. The word that followed nuclear was often "holocaust," invoking the defining event of our century, when human efficiency and order were applied to genocide; the nuclear holocaust had echoes of the earlier one, shades of scientific expertise gone insane. Oppenheimer's haunted stare; Edward Teller wish that we might send nuclear bombs to the sun; Truman's statement from behind the desk after Hiroshima, August 6, 1945. By the time I was born the consequences of the actions of these men were a birthright, part of being American.

The fear is supposed to have passed, gone away with the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall. American Presidents now answer to the economists, not to generals and admirals, although my country still stockpiles enough weapons to kill everything many times and refuses to disarm. Try to see it from our side -- why should we disarm, when we have the most nuclear weapons? What's in it for us? Yes, every now and then, we get fundamentalist Christians in office, reading the Book of Revelations for clues. But in general we're calm, friendly people with guns.

All through this entry, I've been beating a drum that rarely is beat, and now that I've come to an end and said what I wanted, I can find no resolution, no particular place I want to go. ICBMs, exploding in midair, are as native to me as shoe-tying and fast food. The possibility of atomic war is a layer in my life, something permanent left there by childhood, and disarmament is even more likely after the cold war. My nieces and nephews don't have this part of themselves; they're children of the computer and game console, exploring rotating 3D planets of their own devising. They see mushroom clouds in action movies, but rarely, not daily.

The programmers who designed ARPANET, the Internet's predecessor, wrote the routing protocols -- the mechanisms by which packets of information move from computer to computer -- to function even in the event of a nuclear war. Ftrain is hosted in Omaha, and managed by Canadian sysadmins. Even if the bomb fell on Brooklyn tonight, you'd still have this Web site, at least the archives.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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