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“The Day After”

Middle school dreams (from The Day After)

Middle school dreams (from The Day After)

YouTube is a suggestive whiz. Not in the dirty way your subconscious is thinking, but in terms of linking related things from a greater-than-personal past. A link between Space: 1999 and the assortment of nuclear destruction movies and TV a decade later seems reasonable enough–Moon blown out of orbit by nuclear explosions vis a vis the world flattened and enwintered by power-mad Presidents, snapped sub commanders, or the wrong paperwork.  But I wonder if the great Google non-conscious mind understands the past’s power, what it means for forgotten horrors to be revisited.

If you’re old enough and had a television, you probably remember The Day AfterA made-for-TV movie commissioned by ABC, its 1983 premiere was in an era when only the biggest cities had more than eight or ten channels pulled in by roof antennas or rabbit ears. People arranged their schedules around the glowing box and people were presented the world through it the way older folks had news broken and culture formed by radio. Looking back, I have no idea how distorted my perception is, either remembered or at the time, but it seemed that TV towered over the culture. TV was culture. It certainly seemed that way to a 13-year-old stuck in a country-suburban town in 1983.

How strange time is to make something so big a footnote only old books and Wikipedia remember. I never saw the movie, but I’m not sure why: ABC only ran it once and there were no opportunities to recover what piano lessons or band practice or fighting parents made me miss. As a middle school audio-visual assistant I had access to the room behind the library, back in the teacher inner sanctum, where all the projectors were stored. Among the most precious objects to the A/V dork crowd were two or three VHS machines, heavy electronic blocks full of washing-machine motors, their mass holding down top-heavy A/V carts with a heavy faux wood-paneled tube TV strapped down on top. Lunch periods I hid from bullies real and imagined here, closing the door and sticking in a precious tape to watch a few minutes of something–anything to inject life into the airless school. Some lunches others were there, and someone brought The Day After, taped off the air. We would watch the famous nuclear attack sequence: about four minutes of old-school practical, matte and film-trick effects that attempted to render the nuclear obliteration of Lawrence, Kansas.

Kids are stupid. I remember we would watch this bit over and over–not where the clip above starts, but at about 2:50, with the first blast. I have a clear memory of the other two guys (of course, guys) commenting on the effects’ realism, comparing them to big-budget Hollywood movies, generally unfavorably. I’ll admit I joined in. There was something cool about the colors, the shading, how fast and violent it was. But walking the school’s dark halls, the streets tawny with fall, it bothered me a lot. The wedding, the couple flashing to orange and skeletons, rose out of algebra homework. I saw the skeletons inside people.

Ted Koppel talked about the movie on Nightline. I remember the Russians complained about it, calling it incendiary. Wikipedia notes it made a large impression on Reagan and led to arms reductions; I remember reading (though can’t find references now) that it had a similar effect inside the Politburo and helped Gorbachev convince the Soviet military that the first START arms reduction treaty was a good idea.

In the slow-motion surreal time of adolescence, it seemed like nothing was going anywhere, that the doom was coming, so I might as well forget about it. Drawling white racists like Texas Senator Phil Gramm seemed intent on building nukes, missiles and bombers as fast as they could, and standard-issue citizen racists were all for sending those Godless Communists to hell sooner rather than later. That their thought process didn’t extend to those hellbound Commies’ inevitable reaction remains an equivalent horror to me.

History has shown The Day After had many days after. Realizing the nature of personal history–that I can speak of what I once saw as the inevitable future as instead a cloudy and dissociated past–is an interesting…state. I don’t even know what to call it: not a problem to solve, certainly nothing to regret. YouTube surfaced an entirely forgotten self that I no longer recognize.

Nukes are still out there, though at least fewer of them. That they are no longer on hair-trigger alert is some small improvement, I suppose, but not much when they can be returned to the knife’s edge in less than an hour. Fear’s lesson is learned early and endlessly repeated, years of growth into happiness instantly reverted by accident–or focused manipulation. Ask any dog from the pound. But it is a fact there are fewer of them, the dire warnings of loose nukes heeded over the intervening decades. They have been rounded up, locked in bunkers, guarded by bored and underpaid soldiers, but guarded. If the boogieman’s current incarnation had nukes, it seems he would’ve used them already and not fooled around with hijacked airplanes. (Terror is a quality game, but raw quantity must count for something.) It seems that particular species of dark days may exist only in history now, their essence floating around places like missile silos and the Intrepid Museum, and wandering in the YouTube ether. Nuclear doomsday makes occasional movie and TV appearances, but Battlestar Galactica and the film version of McCarthy’s The Road seem more interested in character and political theory than the incipient fact of the end of the world. The Day After is seen more as a specimen of the Seventies disaster movie combined with the standard tropes of the once-standard TV form called the MOW: movie of the week. The Day After is in regular rotation on SyFy, but the era’s more sophisticated and critically-regarded movies–like the suicide-inducing Testament–are left to YouTube, or your library’s tattered VHS collection.

Climate change is the new emergency, or perhaps will be now that Hurricane Sandy has leveled the American center. We got through the nuclear eye of the needle, or are in a wider part of the tunnel. Could we repeat that long, steady save? I’m not sure if viewing the climate as a problem is even a useful frame: we have made a new reality and it’s not clear what can be done. There are far fewer missiles, but there are still missiles. Out of the bottle, the genie adjusts and settles down, but is always a neighbor.

The past months have been rough, raw and psychically abusive. Waking up some mornings after loss or terror feels like the world has ended, that what is left outside is a brittle Technicolor shadow: the right sideways glance would reveal cardboard buildings and spraypainted trees. Everything works except the few things close to you that don’t or are simply gone; people walk the streets and sip their coffee at tiny coffeehouse tables as if  everything is fine. When the glass ghost that is your friend sits with you at one of those little tables, you are surprised to not fall through the chair because you are a ghost now too.

Things are always ending and there is always a day after, every other day from then on being after. College is over for a friend and she feels the disorientation and loss: the world is new in an uncomfortable way. I’ve had many talks with my oldest friend on how strange things are, the silly surprise to realize high school was a long time ago and we are now somewhere here, wherever that is, yet connected to then. Late at night, when the light is wrong and the TV is silent, we feel that gauzy, confused loss. As a child, adults seemed slower, or a little used up. Now as one of them I understand the haunted, tired look isn’t from watching difficult movies. Things had happened to them. Even after accepting, putting to rest, moving on, even unremembered memory surfaces. In an instant the sidewalks turns to ice.

Veterans Day brings out the ever more frail men, numbered beanies covering their thin white hair, blue and green jackets covered with patches and insignia loose around hunched shoulders. I will see them soon and regard them as their mystery. They came through a time I cannot really imagine, having only the preformed visions out of newsreels and shouting headlines. They lived through many things and make a point of remembering, but each year they smile to see each other. Theirs is an example of how many days after there can be.

The day after implies a time before. We forget it isn’t now sometimes. I used to more than most but am much better now. Not everything is headed toward the end, though each day may have smaller ones. The end is not something we can know, but each small one is just big enough to clamber over and let fall behind. Better to take care of you now and let the end look after itself.

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One comment on ““The Day After”

  1. “The Day After” looked all sorts of fake, even back then. “Threads” was much better. Much.

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