I grew up under the shadow of the Cold War between the United States and the USSR. This probably would not have made so much of an impact on my childhood if it weren’t for one differentiating factor: my mother’s extreme paranoia.
It was simply part of my knowledge, for as long as I can remember, that at any moment, we could all be obliterated by nuclear bombs. I did not question this or think it strange that my mother spent so much time thinking and talking about nuclear war until much later in my life.
The “nukes,” as she called them, were a constant looming threat. News about politics, war, Gorbachev, Reagan, et al was on the evening news daily. My mother, eyes wide, watched raptly as the talking heads dissected the possibility that the two most powerful nations in the world would obliterate each other over this or that controversy.
On vacations at our grandparents home, nuclear war was the topic of conversation. My grandfather was a history connoisseur and a veteran of World War 2. He predicted World War 3 was imminent and the discussions lasted into the night over cans of cold beer, my grandmother’s Newport cigarettes and my mother’s True Blues. My brother and I would sneak out of our rooms after being put to bed, sip unattended beer, and listen to them discuss the end of the world as we know it.
I can’t say I found any of this particularly frightening. Maybe I was numb to it. You can only hear that you may die tomorrow in a nuclear blast so many times before it loses its impact. It was simply a fact of my life. Nuclear background noise.
As an adult, I can look back and separate fact from fiction for the most part. But as a kid, whatever my mother said was inherently true. So I did not question her interpretation of events. It wasn’t until later that I realized that there was a component of delusion mixed in with her fretting over nuclear missiles.
The “Underground Pentagon” aka Raven Rock Mountain Complex occupied a large tract of my mother’s obsession. We did indeed live close to it, that much was true. But my mother had all kind of stories about what was going on in there and why we were definitely going to be the target of the USSR’s first missiles for living in close proximity to it. She was constantly pointing out mountains with radio towers on top and telling us “Look kids, there’s the underground pentagon.” In retrospect, I think she was just pointing at random mountains. And I do not think she was lying, she has always believed all of her stories whole-heartedly.
I did a lot of book reports about the nuclear bomb. I was interested in the physics of it as well as the history. I knew about Trinity and Oppenheimer and Hiroshima. I knew what would happen to you in a nuclear blast, depending on your distance from it. I knew about nuclear winter. I knew about Chernobyl.
I am so grateful that when I grew up there was no internet and no 24 hour news cycle. If there had been, the background noise of assured nuclear destruction surely would have been so loud it would have overtaken life. I know this because after the September 11 attacks, my mother found a new obsession to fret about: terrorism. And the internet made it unbearable.
In a way I feel like imminent nuclear war was my Santa Claus. It was the story that was told to me over and over again as a child, and eventually I grew up and realized it wasn’t totally true. There was an element of reality to it, but the scale was all wrong.
The cold war ended. We were never attacked. I am still here. My mom is still here, still full of worry about something else.