This is an opinion column.
On the day the world ends, my first thought was, I hope we don’t have to eat the dog.
I was a boy then, eight years old, playing under a pecan tree on my grandparents’ farm when the sirens started wailing. I knew what that sound meant. You see, a few years before, I had seen the made-for-television movie “The Day After.”
Someone had pressed the button. We were at war. The ball was up. And I only had a few minutes left to gather what food there was in the house before taking refuge with my grandparents in the basement.
I ran towards the house. Next to me, my grandfather’s salt-and-pepper-gray schnauzer, Moe, galloped happily, unaware of what might happen to him if our food supplies ran out before he could safely emerge. Maybe it was better if he didn’t understand.
As I closed the distance between the pecan tree and the back porch, I felt like I was moving in slow motion. Time stretched out, giving me a moment to take stock of all the people I would never see again – mostly the ones who didn’t listen when I tried to tell them about “The Day After”.
My friends at school. When I explained the worse-than-death effects of radiation poisoning, they yelled “ewwwwww” like I farted or something. They were crazy.
My teachers. When I talked in class about the risk of technological paralysis if an EMP exploded in the upper atmosphere, they stared at me before telling me to put my head on my desk until the bell rang. They were definitely dead.
And my parents.
It was the hardest of all to digest. Since they were the ones who, in a moment of questionable parenthood, let me watch “The Day After”.
In 1983, “The Day After” wasn’t just a TV movie. It was a “special event” produced by ABC to bring the world’s superpowers to their senses. The film served as the perfect introduction to what would happen if the world’s nuclear powers fired on each other and fired. I learned important concepts such as fallout, nuclear winter and radiation half-life.
The network has enlisted a remarkable cast, including this guy from the ‘Police Academy’ films, the father of ‘Harry and the Hendersons’ and Flounder from ‘Animal House’, among others – all doomed to die on screen, but none with such grace and presence as the top of this A-list cast, Jason Robards.
The film ends with Robards – who plays a doctor then too sick from radiation to care for other patients – returning to die in the rubble of his Kansas City home. There he finds a bunch of post-apocalypse wanderers hanging out in what was once his living room.
“Get out of my house!” the dying Robards cry out to men with that gravelly voice still cured by gamma radiation. “Didn’t you hear me? I told you to get out of my house!
It was then that one of the vagabonds offered an apple to Robards. Robards – ashamed of this flash of humanity – embraces the man, then they weep in the trash of the American heart as the film fades to black. Before the credits, a message appears on the screen.
“The catastrophic events you have just witnessed are, in all likelihood, less severe than the destruction that would actually occur in the event of a full nuclear strike against the United States,” he said.
Over 100 million Americans have logged in to watch. And I was one of them. What my parents thought, I still don’t know.
I did not ask myself the question at the time. Instead, I soaked up every detail like a religious fanatic and evangelized this dystopian prophecy to anyone who would listen.
Most did not. Especially my parents.
When I told my dad that we should convert our crawl space into a basement, he asked me why. For a nuclear war, of course.
“Son, we live in Thomasville, Alabama,” he said. “There is nothing here that the Russians would ever want to bomb.”
But the fallout…
“We would have plenty of time to prepare,” he said.
I doubted his assurances, but one thing was certain: they did not apply to my grandparents’ house. Their farm was in Waverly Hall, Georgia, about 10 miles north of Fort Benning, one of the largest military bases in the United States. We were close enough that in the afternoon we could hear the artillery practicing their guns. It was the kind of target the Russians would bomb five or six times, and not with the cheap tactical nukes either. Seconds before the sky whitened with blinding light, I could even see the ICBMs as they reentered the atmosphere from the north.
As I ran, I looked up. There is nothing yet. Good. There was still time.
And I had reached the back porch stairs.
I sprinted the last 10 feet to the sliding glass door, which my adrenaline-charged arms might have smashed if I weren’t eight and a little lanky. Still, the sound was enough to scare my grandfather, Papa Gane, who had been drinking coffee and reading the paper at the breakfast table.
“What’s up, buddy? ” He asked. He always called me bud.
As happens to eight-year-olds when they get excited, I had forgotten how to talk.
“The…the…the…sssss…the sirens are going off!”
As I stared at the pantry door, trying to guess if its contents would sustain us through nuclear winter, my grandfather – who obviously hadn’t seen “The Day After” – got up from the table and walked calmly to the open glass door.
Oh my God, I thought, he’s not going to hear them, is he?
Before retiring to become a cattle rancher, Gane Augustus Whitmire had spent 20 years in the US Army, much of it as a jumpmaster in airborne. Also, as a hobby, he was trap and skeet shooting, good enough, I was told, to have once been a substitute for the US Olympic team.
And he hadn’t worn hearing protection for any of it.
A new shiver ran through my body as I waited to see the slightest spark of alarm in the old man. When he reached the door, he learned that his torso crossed the threshold and tilted his head. I could see the crow’s feet near his temple tightening. Then he nodded.
“Oh! ” he said. “The barbecue is ready!
The… the what?
“The BBQ. It’s ready, he repeated. “Are you hungry?”
I quickly learned important new facts.
First, during the summers, the Waverly Hall Fire Department held barbecues to raise money for new trucks, equipment, and other supplies.
And two, to let everyone know that the fire station was open, the city would sound the emergency warning sirens.
My knees were shaking as I tried to make sense of what I had just been told.
” What’s up, my friend ? You want to eat?”
“Let’s go, Moe! he shouted at the dog.
The schnauzer fled to the truck. I climbed slowly. My knees were still shaking. I didn’t believe what I was told and I wouldn’t until I saw it with my own eyes. What if he was wrong? Will we still have time? As we drove around town, I tried to do the math in my head. But when we turned the corner, there were the fire engines out of their bays and already a crowd of people gathering for smoked pork.
Besides being a retired cattle rancher, my grandfather served on the city council, and now that I think about it, he probably played a role in the town’s chow call system. When we got out of the truck, he immediately exchanged handshakes and chatted with a few of the people on the line, none of whom seemed angry or upset about this deployment of emergency resources by Mayberry RFD.
I wandered aimlessly, like stuck in a dream I couldn’t wake up from. I drifted through the fire station until I came across a portly, grizzled man stirring a tub of Brunswick stew with a boat’s paddle. Surely this couldn’t be sanitary, I thought, before the man saw me there, staring at him.
“Want some stew?” asked the man.
Still not quite able to speak, I nodded, and the man poured a ladle’s worth of stew into a styrofoam cup and put it in my hands.
I might have said “thank you”, but I’m not sure the words came out. With nothing left to do, I sat down at a folding table and tried the stew.
It was as if the world was not coming to an end, as if life continued, if not forever, at least for now.
That was four decades ago. Since then, the Cold War has come and gone and seemingly returned. Made-for-TV movies are more of a Netflix affair these days, but you can find “The Day After” on YouTube if you know where to look. The special effects are a bit cheesy, but sadly a lot of it still holds up.
This week, when he came home from school, my son started asking me questions about this new war. He tells me he supports the blue and yellow team.
I try to answer him honestly, but not too much. He is six years old, after all. I’m going to spare him the anxiety of “The Day After,” at least until he’s 10. I was supposed to be the last child of the Cold War, so I’ll assume that for now.
Then he asks me what’s for dinner.
“How about some Brunswick stew?” »
Kyle Whitmire is the state political columnist for Alabama Media Group, 2020 Walker Stone Award winner, 2021 SPJ Award winner for Opinion Writing, and 2021 Molly Ivins Award winner for Political Commentary. You can follow his work on his Facebook page, The war against the mute. And on Twitter. And on instagram.