Editor’s Note: The Cold War confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union reached a point of peak intensity, nearly leading to nuclear war, with the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 14–28, 1962. We are pleased to present here, not only the author’s remembrance of those and related events, but also an audio recording of him reading the essay below.
Student at Rochester University: “Was the bomb exploded at Alamogordo during the Manhattan Project the first one to be detonated?” Dr. Robert Oppenheimer: “Well, yes. In modern times, of course.”
It would be hard to communicate to someone growing up today just how widespread was the fallout from the threat of the Atomic Bomb. From July 16th, 1945, when the first bomb was tested over the Jornada del Muerto Desert, its occult light had continued to throw shadows from each object. The danger was not abstract; it was imminent, and it changed our whole way of looking at the world. At any moment, a chain-reaction might reach out to take us by the hand, and there was no telling where we would end up. By the time that we got there, our hands might no longer be able to grasp objects. Our minds might be blinded by their own illumination, which was said to be brighter than 10,000 suns. Our vision might no longer go where we directed it; instead, it might plummet to the far side of the planet. We might not be able to distinguish the brain of Einstein from a cloud, or from the folds of the shockwave that had spread out from Ground Zero, or from the elegant simplicity of the equation that he dreamed. Which direction would be “up,” and which would be “down”? Our feet might get no traction on the sky.
I vividly remember grammar school nuclear holocaust drills in the early 1960s: Get under your desk, put your head down on your knees, then put your hands on your head. (!?!) Yes, that should work, much as closing your eyes would make you invisible to the rest of the human race. The mind boggles at such unintentional comedy, in which the punch-line is the city going up like flash-paper. Such unintentional comedy was not a laughing matter! We did not consider laughing, yet how was it possible to do anything else but laugh?
In retrospect, I can see how truly small we were. Our lineage was obscure, and deliberately so; we were not left with the flicker of an idea about our strength. At the end of the last ice age, a war had rearranged the whole surface of the Earth. Cities popped like bubbles. Words became armies and chants destroyed empires. Millions died. Suns ate each other. Mirrors fought against their own reflections. Whales left their bones on the Andes. Gigantic chunks of our memory were wiped out. When we crawled out from our net of subterranean tubes, there was not much that we recognized. We were few in number, and hungry. Our eyes were hypnotically fixed on large objects in the foreground. Space, somehow, had become opaque, and even the laws of physics had been altered.
In 1962, we were only just starting to remember how to say our ABCs. We were the interchangeable extras in an internecine drama, whose stage-sets we saw, but whose scripts were directed from the depths of the Unconscious. Use us once and throw us away. We were caterpillars whose chrysalises would not have a chance to develop. Instead of wings, we would have Thalidomide-style flippers. It didn’t really matter if we were crouched beneath our desks or playing in the schoolyard. At best, when the blast took us, we might leave the imprints of our shadows on a wall. Looking backwards over our shoulders, these would seem as poignant to us as 18th Century cut-out paper silhouettes. Steam would leak from them, due to pressure from trapped oceans. Then tiny lightning bolts would flash, decalibrated. Our DNA would unzip. We would see the light, an artificial one, yet we would not know if the light saw us, and our voyage into it would seem more terrifying than staying where we were. Yanked back through our navels, we would wake up neither here nor there.
We had too much unfinished business. We would not be able to move smoothly to the outer edge of light, and then into the space beyond. A network of past actions would confront us, of which we were, until then, almost totally unaware. Our primal forms would get stuck. A great stadium would unfold out of a storm-drain, towering through the void, just as that storm-drain had unfolded from a pinhead. There, a supernatural Olympiad would be held. Banners would flap in the epileptic breeze. With four limbs or eight, and screaming for our blood, the best of the interspecies champions would appear. They would pop up from their periods. We would first have to determine how many hands we had. Also, why did none of them hold weapons? With a hiss of electricity, we would move straight into our targets, like boxers that had landed punches on the chin of the Beyond, only to find that they were miles from the fight. In the meantime, as we watched, our opponents would have cut us limb from limb. They would eat our hearts and flatten out our force-fields. The records of our passing would be less clear than a Rorschach blot. Runes would comment on our ambiguity. Sailors tangled in Sargasso wrecks would wag their fingers in judgment, as they boasted about the progress they were making. The human sculptures from Pompeii would mock us for our lack of “significant form.” In 5000 years, if our relics were to be shown in a museum, the curators would have to install electron microscopes, through which visitors could observe the haunted skid-marks that we left.
We were fetal nebulae. We were seers who could not read their instruction manuals; yet we could not do without them, and we chewed on them like pacifiers. 12,000 years ago, we had turned to run from the Lords of the Scalar Flying Guillotine, and we only just noticed that a flash had wiped them from the Earth. What a joy it was, to discover that the vitrified city that stretched before us had belonged to someone else. It was the purest of good luck that such a thing had happened. We were wide-eyed children, who would not hurt a fly. Nothing scared us more than the mile-long shadows that stretched out from our feet; some day we would figure out the best way to remove them. There were bad people out there. To teach them a lesson, we would suffer. The rumors of our death had not been greatly exaggerated. The horror was prodigious. Few had ever observed such suffering as ours! Yet mistakes were made. We were weather balloons that had crash-landed on the sky. If we saw the light, then there was no reason that we would have wanted to experience such a thing. There were presences within it, protean ones, who seemed all too familiar, and the light itself looked painful. Rituals would be held, or so we had heard, in which they would force us to confront our ancient fears. There was one thing that did not add up, however: that these protean presences trembled at the thought of our return. We were just the tiny children of the Jornada del Muerto Desert, with wide eyes that we did not dare to open. We were ciphers in training. We would have left the one world just to prove that we were impotent in the next.
Sides had been chosen, an age ago. It was 1962. There was no way to avoid the confrontation that was coming. There was no way to sidestep the jagged ruins in the foreground, whose spectral light illuminated the darkest corners of the Psyche. Still, “Duck and Cover” may have been as useful a strategy as any other, and I can appreciate the thought behind these Vedic Neo-Dada preparations.
Ritual gesture can have an impact on a multitude of levels, and to “go through the motions” is at times the only practical course of action. Duck and Cover was, I think, a legacy from the Second World War, during which the U.S. government launched massive rubber and scrap metal drives, which, as it turned out, were designed more to improve public morale than because the government didn’t have access to rubber and scrap metal. The principle seemed to be: it is always better to do something rather than nothing. In the face of an invasion by the Absolute, we must see to it that we died in the proper crouching pose.
My memories from the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis are quite strange and, I would say, almost wonderful. The emotions that it stirs are bittersweet and complex; an ache starts in my solar plexus and spreads upwards to my heart. The crisis happened in October, about a month after the start of the school year. In Worcester, Massachusetts, where I lived, it seemed as though the leaves were just beginning to change color—red and gold—and yet, already, there were many on the ground. Still, I can hear them crunching underfoot as I walked to school at 7:30 AM, and, still, I can see them floating from the trees. With each foot that they fell they seemed to move ever slower, coming almost to a stop, until that morning became a memory of itself. Then I fell into that memory; I have not stopped falling since.
This was probably the first time that I became aware of the possibility of my own death, as well as of the possible destruction of the rest of the human race and the planet. But the sensation was that of the Japanese Cherry Blossom Festival: a sense of the beauty and the transience of all things washed over me—or, perhaps I should say: blew over me. Behind the wind, there was another and much bigger wind that seemed like it was always just about to blow. This wind was the wind of our own depth of coiled energy, an alchemical wind, which for aeons had been sealed in its althanor. We sensed that we were guilty; we did not know of what. We were just kids on our way to school. We were only trying to get away with staring out of the window! Why should we be expected to pay the price for the dismantling of the third dimension? Still, it seemed that we were somehow in this up to our ears.
As we stared at our hands, it was easy enough to tell that our solidity had been compromised. They flickered, at times, like a TV signal that was not quite coming in. There were many questions that we did not think to ask. Among these were the following: If we were the receivers, then from what station was the signal being broadcast? Was only the bull’s-eye of the circular test pattern real, and why did it remind us of a nuclear alert? Would the late night hum continue to get louder until it shook apart the atoms of each set? Just who was in control of the vertical and the horizontal axes? There was information missing. We should probably have worn our adjustable antennas! Then again, there was no one left who could be trusted to adjust them. Our teachers only added to the metaphysical static. Our parents were the servants of a technological pod. They were not really our parents. In any case, they were dealing with their own pre-programmed problems with adjustment.
We knew too much, by far, without knowing that we knew anything. Just recently, we had decided to take our powers out of storage, and our ignorance was a danger to the cosmos as a whole. In our toy ships, with shovels in hand, we would set sail from our sandbox! With our miniaturized brains, we would boldly go where no man had gone before! The path was not a straight one, however, and the arc of our discovery bent towards the Abyss. We had stepped into the last act of a drama that had been set in motion years before our births, in the springtime of the world. Then, war was a game that the omnipotent seers played; death was an adventure, and the ocean was a vast but comprehensible text. Not only could we read the glyphs inside each atom, we could also read the emptiness on which they had been written. The gods were our contraptions. We had little respect for the authorities that would bar our access to “junk” DNA. We were living mirrors, from whose backs the mercury had not yet been removed. An oath prompted us to throw away almost everything we had, recklessly, and to cover our tracks by destroying the horizon. How infinitely strange it was to be a leaf that somehow did not know that it was hanging from a tree. At last, we had tied the year into a perfect figure eight. October, as predicted, had arrived.
It was the 14th of October, 1962, and the Doomsday Clock was reading at 12 minutes before 12:00. As we made our way to school, with our book bags on our shoulders, we could hear the newly fallen leaves crunch underfoot, like the bones of ancient warriors, like the husks of derelict gods, and we were struck dumb by the wonderful stillness of the moment. The beauty of the flame-like foliage was a harbinger of the descent of actual flame; the gentle falling of the leaves was perhaps a prelude to the imminent vaporization of our bodies, and to the gentle descent of our ashes through the air.