A Very Special Episode

Thirty years ago this evening, I was playing D&D with some of my classmates at Transylvania University. Someone had brought a portable TV into the study lounge, though, because there was a movie we wanted to see.

The movie was ABC’s The Day After, a disaster movie based on the premise of World War III, complete with nuclear exchanges. Although, we weren’t as twitchy as my parents’ generation (the CONELRAD, duck-and-cover kids) I was part of a cohort that on some level I think expected to be nuked. I certainly remember sitting in classrooms listening to my fellow junior high and high school students talk about our proximity to this military base or that defense plant with a strange mix of fatalism and competitive pride: “Oh yeah  — my neighborhood is sure to go.” My eighth-grade history teacher tried to reassure us, saying that the Russians wouldn’t go full Mutual Assured Destruction on us — they’d want the infrastructure. I can’t speak for my classmates, but I wasn’t terribly consoled.

About eight months before The Day After, I sat in my living room at home, watching Special Bulletin, a War of the Worlds-style dramatization of some hapless terrorists and equally hapless government personnel who wind up nuking Charleston, SC. So yeah, it was a year for Bomb-related paranoia.

But back to the D&D game. We were basically divided into small knots of people. Some sat with their backs to the TV, not wanting to see the images of obliteration. Others speculated about the verisimilitude of the “attack” — “Would it really be like this?” I was part of Team Snark: “OK, so when the big one drops, Jason Robards won’t need a barber.” And so on, treating it like a cheesy horror movie, which in some respects it now seems.

In retrospect, however, I’m pretty sure there was an element of false bravado to my comments. Certainly when we invaded Grenada as part of Operation Urgent Fury about a month before the movie aired, I was nervous enough. Part of that was because I had just turned 18 and had registered for the draft. The fact that there was no draft, and that even if one were declared, it would likely not go online fast enough to put me in the crosshairs, was about as consoling as my eighth-grade teacher. But part of it was also the wondering if every military action would be the one to trigger the final escalation.

And that was thirty years ago. The Spawn looks back on Cold War culture with a kind of puzzled amusement — folks really thought ducking under the desk might save them if they were H-bombed? And I’m glad that’s how she can look at it, without the vitality that movies like The Day After had when I was around her age. And her generation has its own choice of fears, dating from day care or grade school on a bright September day in 2001.

But I still remember Fall of thirty years ago — and it was a nervous time.

A tip of the Mondo Mortarboard to the CONELRAD blog, via the Nerd Girl, via Facebook.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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6 Responses to A Very Special Episode

  1. The Ancient says:

    I dimly remember that movie. In my mind, it was of a piece with the Nuclear Freeze movement and the brief notoriety of Helen Caldicott. An artifact of the loony left in the Age of Reagan.

  2. Technically, you registered for Selective Service, meaning you wouldn’t be called for certain. The draft was well over by then.

  3. Robbo says:

    Heh. 30 years ago I was a frosh at the People’s Glorious Soviet of Middletown, CT and the Hive was wetting its collective pants at the psychological impact of this movie. Because Reagan, you guys. As I recall, school counselors were standing by and there was a dark rumor that the campus health office had stocked up on cyanide caplets. You know, JUST IN CASE.

    I recall that by about half way through, for all the advanced hype, the audience of shallow young thugs in my local dorm lounge had become….well….not so much impacted. Gradually, the impulse to critique the production values – and troof be told, it was a pretty C3 grade disaster movie – won out over teh angst. So did the impulse, at least among certain male members of the audience, to try and find attractive wymmyn to comfort and console. Back in their rooms, of course. I personally went back to my own room smiling in self-complaicent cynicism.

    Good times. Good times.

  4. kpkey says:

    I remember that film as well as some church related post-Rapture dramas that we watched as a congregation (sort of apocolypsey, I guess, but not quite – either way: WHAT WERE MY PARENTS THINKING?). And so, I spent a fair amount of ages 10-14 freaked out that we would be bombed and/or that Jesus would return and I wouldn’t make the cut and/or that the bomb represented Jesus’ return and, well, I was regularly confused and pretty anxious.

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