I spent much of my childhood thinking about the end times. End times of all kinds: gods-induced apocalypses, man-made armageddons, natural disasters, Judgment Day. What to do when the bombs fell, or plagues swept the earth, or the aliens came to suck the marrow from our bones, or the seas rose up to swallow us, or machines of our own invention rose up to enslave us all.
Lately I've been rereading some of the books that got me going down this path. Victoria Strauss' The Lady of Rhuddesmere (almost untraceable these days: Columbia's Interlibrary Loan Office took over three months to track it down) and its religious conjecture that mankind must completely and wholly succumb to evil before rising up again into the light. Orson Scott Card's The Folk of the Fringe and its tale of survival on the outskirts of what was once modern America.* O. T. Nelson's The Girl Who Owned a City and its story of feisty little Lisa who organizes the child survivors of a disease that wiped out everyone who reached puberty.
But most of all it was Warday that scared the hell out of me. Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka's Warday, written in the first person as if it were real, as if it were true, and dedicated to October 27th, 1988, "the last full day of the old world."
I was eleven years old when I read this book, a year or so before October 27th, 1988, the day before the book begins: the day before the USSR finally and seemingly inevitably went nuclear on our collective ass.
I was eleven years old and probably should have been able to understand, and yet I was confused about the chronology of things; about how something so real could not have happened yet, and how it might not ever happen, and yet again how it might. (It was another two years before the Wall came down and the world as we knew it began to crumble, began to become a little more human again.)
Moments from this book have stayed with me all these years. I requested it, too, through the Columbia Interlibrary Loan Office recently, and it's been a strange experience re-reading it more than two decades later (and, perhaps more importantly, more than two decades after the the initial events of the book).
I read the opening pages a couple weeks ago while Evan and I were taking the A-train downtown, and I was hit with a wave of near overwhelming anxiety: the same anticipatory doom that I felt as a child magnified by the fact that I live now in the place described. My stomach twisted and my teeth clenched and my jaw ached as I read Strieber's visceral description of being on the M5 bus heading down 5th Avenue here in Manhattan (here in my beloved Manhattan) as the bombs exploded over Brooklyn and Queens (the Soviets' aim was off, or the trigger mechanisms failed by mere milliseconds, and as a result only a million New Yorkers died in that instant when the bombs hit).
There is an almost lyrical terror in this man. It is an emotional state, perhaps, beyond guilt. I do not think it has a name.**
When I was eleven I sometimes wished we lived in the city instead of fifty miles north so that when the end of the world came we would be amongst the first to die. This felt safer somehow. Less fraught, less filled with despair. When I was eleven I also knew that a local nursery had chickens and I harbored plans to steal them as soon as the bombs hit so that my family wouldn't be amongst those to starve. (Logic and, you know, reality, were not necessarily my strong points.)
Spring Rain Instructions: If it rains get inside right away. And if you get wet you have to go to the office for geiger, then showers and get rid of your clothes. If you don't have any more you have to be in your underpants. You have to be careful, but spring rain is also nice. (Essay on spring, Miss Wilson's 3rd grade , Shawnee Elementary School)
It's strange to be reading this novel from the perspective of having outlived the Cold War. We no longer think in terms of MAD. We no longer keep in the backs of our minds the location of the nearest fallout shelter (though I was relived, upon first arriving on campus as a wee freshman, to learn that Barnard Hall has those ubiquitous signs prominently posted). Nuclear annihilation makes for pretty and nostalgic song lyrics*** but has little bearing on our day to day.
I know all of this in my head, have known this for many years. And yet. There is a part of my heart that still cringes, still sobs, still fights that eleven-year-old too-big-to-do-such-things urge to crawl into my mother's bed, to demand to hear that everything is alright.
Nineveh, Babylon, and Rome each bustled a time in the sun. So also, New York. Nobody ever called it an eternal city, it was too immediate for that. But we all thought it was one.
*Somehow the Mormon redemption aspect escaped me then, I suppose because at the time I hadn't thought much about Mormonism -- it has only been in the years since, after witnessing Mitt Romney's idiocy and reading Under the Banner of Heaven and watching the train wreck that was Proposition 8 that I have come to resent the Mormon Church, however unfair that might be. It's not a comfortable feeling, having the fact of one's own increasing narrow-mindedness thrown in one's face in such abrupt fashion.
**Italicized bits from Streiber, Whitley; Warday and the Journey Onward; New York; Warner Books, 1984.
***"If we wait for the time till all souls get it right / Then at least I know there'll be no nuclear annihilation / In my lifetime I'm still not right..." (Indigo Girls, Galileo)