Nuclear memories: Russia, war and childhood fears rekindled
Those of us of a certain age remember the threat.
The 1960s were a time of domestic turmoil, yes. But they came, too, with a darker, existential menace: atomic bombs, ICBMs, thermonuclear war, annihilation. The buzzwords of destruction, with the Soviet Union seen as the architect of it all.
Nuclear war was the shadow in our lives. Now, it feels, those shadows are back.
The war in Ukraine, especially Russian President Vladimir Putin’s references to Moscow’s nuclear arsenal — and global discussions about nuclear weapons — have awakened memories that I thought were buried. And each day that Russia’s conventional war effort seems stalled, the more vivid my recollections become.
Families could buy bomb shelters and students dutifully practiced “duck and cover” — hiding under school desks as if that could save us. Two 1964 movies, “Fail Safe” and “Dr. Strangelove,” had similar plots — a mistaken U.S. order to bomb the USSR — but only the latter was played for laughs. “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” in 1970 gave us the bleak aftermath of an atomic bomb.
The voiceover said it all: “In one of the countless billions of galaxies in the universe lies a medium-size star. And one of its satellites, a green and insignificant planet, is now dead.”
Some of us in those years — “nuclear brats” with military family members who trained to intercept Russian bombers and who flew nuclear payloads — lived with the possibilities of nukes every day. We hoped that what was possible didn’t become probable.
My dad’s Air Force squadron, the 87th, flew the McDonnell F101B Voodoo out of Clinton County Air Force Base in Wilmington, Ohio. The alert fighters carried two Genies. They were unguided air-to-air rockets. Nuclear ones.
The squadron’s job was to intercept Russian bombers loaded with nuclear bombs if they tried to attack the United States. The interceptors would fire the Genies into the incoming formations. At 1.5 kilotons, it wasn’t a big nuke, but we knew it was a nuke. Two of them had as much explosive power as one of the giant air raids during World War II with hundreds of bombers.
As a kid, I knew where the nukes on the base were, or thought I did. It was not really a secret. There were raised mounds near the alert hangers. The amount of security was something you couldn’t miss. The German shepherds that patrolled there with handlers, behind signs that said intruders would be shot, were clearly not family pets.
Somewhere in America, amid amber waves of grain, we knew there were missile silos as well that fired more terrifying payloads. We knew about the bombers of Strategic Air Command, too. I guess other kids at other airfields saw the same mounds and alert aircraft we did.
The command center that controlled the fighters was called the mole hole — think of a miniature Cheyenne Mountain from the movie “War Games,” the 1983 Cold War sci-fi movie. One of the massive rooms held a world map with lights on it. I know now that those were U.S. installations and their counterparts in the then-Soviet Union. It was underground, and part of a larger complex that we did not get to explore.
And yes, there was a red phone.
Be it in movies or real life, many people have seen fighter planes take off on routine training missions. Ground and air crews check out the planes. Alert fighter launches was exactly that, but unfolding at hyper speed. Everyone was running. You only needed to see one scramble to know the difference.
All of that has come back to me in recent months with Putin’s saber-rattling. I thought about missile silos, alert aircraft and the Looking Glass. Alert aircraft were a 24-hour thing in my youth, along with Looking Glass, the airborne command posts that were aloft 24 hours a day and could order a retaliatory response if the ground centers had been destroyed.
Just why we were at a small airbase in Ohio was part of the threat. The base, about an hour north of Cincinnati, was a detachment from its headquarters at what was then Lockbourne Air Force Base near Columbus. Squadrons were dispersed. The thinking went like this: If an enemy hit the main base, its forces had been spread to other airfields that would survive and either continue defending the United States or retaliate.
There was, if I remember correctly, a Nike defense-missile site in the community too, providing air defense for the base. One of the Army officers stationed there and my dad played ping-pong regularly.
Our social group, in fact, was primarily the squadron members and their families. Over the years we heard that one of the wives, who was Japanese, had been a 12-year-old in one of the atomic bomb explosions in Japan. She did not talk about it, at least not with the kids. One night, as I eavesdropped before being chased to bed, I heard her say how bright the explosion was.
Because one of my favorite places was the Air Force Museum in Dayton, I saw a life-size model of the bombs that had fallen on her country. There were pictures of the aftermath, too. When I asked Dad about the destruction and how many bombs it took to make a city vanish, he said just one.
I asked him if the bombs that our enemies had were as big as Little Boy and Fat Man, the bombs that had destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He said their bombs and our bombs were much bigger now. I guess he caught the look on my face, because he added reassuringly that it was his job and the job of men and women like him to make sure that no bombs fell on us.
I wanted to believe him. But the museum also had models of our long-range missiles, too, and I knew no Voodoo was shooting anything like that down. And if it did, wouldn’t we still get blown up?
I didn’t mention my fears to Dad. He wasn’t known for being reassuring; today, we would call it blunt and fatalistic.
He and Mom did plan for emergencies, though. They wanted a house with a basement, and they showed me where the safest place in the basement was away from the windows. We always had a rack or two of canned goods as well, and they kept a can opener and eating utensils down there as well. Mom never talked about why she did that, but she kept a survivalist streak the rest of her life.
I am not sure if they were trying to convince me or themselves. After seeing Little Boy and Fat Man and the missiles at the museum, I always figured the only way we’d stay alive was if nobody ever fired one of the missiles or dropped one of the bombs — again.
I don’t know if my friends then, especially the military kids, felt the same way. Yet I suspect they knew what I did — that we were one really bright light away from nothingness.
Eventually we moved to other bases. My dad retired and returned to his native Louisiana, away from mounds and launch sites. And as I grew into early adulthood, I knew enough nukes were floating around to destroy the world multiple times, so it didn’t matter if I couldn’t see where they were stored.
One film brought that home in a visceral way. “The Day After,” a 1983 TV movie, showed a full-scale missile exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union and depicted the aftermath. Dad and I watched it together. He smoked his ever-present Pall Malls and confirmed that yep, that seemed accurate.
By the 1980s, I was a reporter in Shreveport, Louisiana, close to I-20 and minutes from the end of the runway at Barksdale Air Force Base. We accepted that there were nuclear-armed bombers there on alert, and that the base undoubtedly had multiple ICBMs aimed at it. If a warning ever came, my plan was to stop at a store, get the best bottle of booze I could and go park near the base and wait. I had no intention of being around for the aftermath.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, George H.W. Bush took the bombers off the 24-hour alert status. With that, the idea of a planet-killing thermonuclear exchange slid to the back of my mind. Until this year, until Ukraine, until Putin.
Now, as those images of childhood march through my mind once more, I wonder if my daughters and grandkids will live under the same lingering shadow that hovered over those in my generation. More important: Will the use of nuclear weapons remain only a possibility? Or are we, once again, one really bright light away from oblivion?
Gary Fields covers the election process and government for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/GaryEFields2
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