June 11, 2007. 2007. It still sounds so far in the future to me. Back in 1987, when I was about 12, I’m pretty sure I imagined we’d all have flying cars by now.
Space travel would be routine. Astronauts would have already visited Mars. Popular family vacation destinations would include an Earth-orbit space station and a moon base.
That is, assuming America and the Soviet Union had managed to avoid World War III. Nuclear war. Nuclear winter. I had no idea what these really were when I first heard the terms as a kid. I just knew they weren’t good. And they were the only things that could rob us of the bright future promised by the 21st century, if we could just make it here alive.
It wasn’t until high school in the 1990s that I really began to somewhat comprehend the enormous power of nuclear weapons. I took a semester-long 20th Century US History class. I still remember the teacher’s description of the United States dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II.
“Boom. Big boom. Biggest boom ever,” he began. He then went into minute detail of what happened to the people directly killed and those who died from the fallout.
That threat of nuclear war was part of the culture of growing up in the 1980s. In third or fourth grade, I remember a clamor among my friends to watch a controversial TV movie called The Day After. Like most of those friends, I wasn’t allowed to watch it. Little did I know that the director of that movie had also been responsible for Star Trek II just a year before.
A year or two later, CBS began airing The New Twilight Zone. We watched that one every week, and nuclear war played a pivotal part in the first episode’s second segment.
An updated telling of the classic episode “A Kind of Stopwatch,” “A Little Peace and Quiet” dealt with a woman who finds a necklace that can freeze time and affect everyone except her. She lives through an extremely loud life, so she uses this at first mostly to obtain some well-deserved quiet moments.
By the end, though, she begins to abuse this power. And anyone who has seen more than a few Twilight Zones knows that simply isn’t allowed. When a couple of anti-nuke activists come to her door, she freezes time (“Shut up”) , drags them outside, and lays them on their backs in the grass. She looks out the window, resumes time (“Start talking”), and laughs while they get up and run away in fright.
Later that night, war breaks out between the Soviets and the US. She stops time and walks outside to see a nuclear missile frozen overhead, waiting to unleash destruction as soon as she resumes time. By stopping time, she has finally obtained world peace. Lesson learned, in the Twilight Zone.
Anxiety over nuclear war was also part of the background of a children’s novel I enjoyed back then called The Computer That Said “Steal Me.” It was years before I had my own computer, but I was always fascinated with them. In fact, by not having one, I had this misconception that they could do a lot more than they actually could, a la the series Whiz Kids.
Anyway, I remember being somewhat disappointed once I got into the novel to find that the “talking computer” was actually a computerized chess set. I remember one passage of the book describing jet fighter pilots who wore a patch over one eye so that if they were blinded by a nuclear flash, the other eye would still be usable.
The kid who stole the chess set used an elaborate method to pull off his scheme, involving a tape recorder alarm clock. His plan worked, but his guilty conscience caused him to try to secretly return the set. The return operation was poorly planned, though, and he is caught. Another lesson learned.
Of course, the nuclear threat was around long before the 1980s–that just happened to be the decade of my childhood. Even some episodes of the original Twilight Zone from the 1960s were obsessed with it. “Time Enough At Last” and “The Shelter” come to mind immediately, for instance, but there are plenty of others.
Now, the threat of nuclear war with Russia is not what it once was. Today’s generations instead have the ongoing threats of terrorism, which can take many forms.
Hopefully, twenty years from now, someone will be writing about those crazy times in the 2000’s when everyone was worried about terrorist attacks, a thing of the past. And hopefully, he or she will be doing so from the comfort of a talking, auto-piloted, flying car.