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black & white

October 15, 2008

October 22, 1962

When President Kennedy spoke on TV everyone in Kearney NE, population 14210, was watching and listening. Closely and silently. It is an unsettling time of year. The ten foot wall of field corn that had grown up over the hot summer to surround our town in every compass direction has been harvested away. The flat fields of dirt and stubble hold neither hope nor promise; hide nothing. Nothing is all you see in any direction this time of year.

President Kennedy said the Russian A-bomb rockets in Cuba were a threat to our country and had to be removed, even if it meant war. When the President finished speaking the adults were still pretty quiet. Later there was quiet talk on porches up and down the block. Bedtime that night was like bedtime when there were tornado warnings on the TV weather report. Don’t worry the adults told us. Everything will be okay.

Don’t eat the snow, they told us that winter. A-bomb and H-bomb tests had thrown up an invisible cloud of radioactive particles circling around the earth. These bits of dust might possibly attach to earth-bound snowflakes falling through the radiation cloud. It is dangerous we were told and the warnings made us hesitate; we believed what they said on TV just like we believed our teachers at public school and Sunday school. But we still ate the snow.

The invisible radiation was like the dots of radium on the hands and numbers of my cheap wind-up wrist watch. Except the dots on the watch weren’t really radium, they were phosphorescent — they trapped radiated energy and leaked it slowly back out as light. The radiation was really like the fluoroscope machine at the shoe store. We’d stick our feet in special slots, then look through viewfinders and watch our green phosphorescent toes wiggle visibly through the layers of shoe leather.

October / November 1956

One afternoon when we got back from a trip to town our family’s first TV was sitting in the middle of the living room. It was big, in a wooden cabinet with a swiveling base, like furniture. That TV stayed with us for a long time, eventually ending up with my mostly German grandmother. She was still using it in the mid 1980’s.

Some of my first TV memories are of the Hungarian Freedom Fighters. The grainy and snowy pictures on the black and white TV showed rows of big undistinguished urban buildings, people darting in and out of doorways and windows, guns and gunfire. Later the streets were empty except for tanks; the Russians had invaded. The Hungarians lost their freedom to the communist Russians.

Those Hungarian cityscapes looked especially gray, large expanses of faceless gray buildings full of empty shadows of windows.

early 1960s

We visit uncles and aunts and cousins in Kansas City. The 350-mile drive takes most of the day, two lane blacktop all the way. Kansas City has shopping centers and major league baseball and suburbs where our relatives live. Their TV has more channels and stays on later than ours. On Saturday night one of the Kansas City stations runs horror movies. We kids stay up late and watch House of Dracula (1945) starring Lon Chaney. Terrifying as it is we fall asleep before the end when the forces of good put down the terrible trio of Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and the Wolf Man.

Later, back in Kearney, none of us kids will go alone down into the basement at night. The fear of the darkness at the bottom of the stairs is with us past Christmas and well into the New Year.

October 1982

Driving eastbound on I-80 along the impossibly flat Platte River valley near Grand Island NE, it’s a lovely autumn evening just turning to night. It is uncharacteristically calm and peaceful, a quiet time of day and a quiet time of the year. I’ve been out of school for a while now but my internal calendar still follows a lesson plan blocked into semesters and vacations. School folk have settled into their Fall classes with football games on the weekends. We’re a good bit of the way between end of summer and Thanksgiving break.

The ball of orange I see through the windshield, peeking up just above the eastern far horizon freezes every neuron in my brain. For a moment the universe is black, I see nothing though my eyes continue to function perfectly. Am I dreaming? No. Do I see an orange mushroom cloud way off in the distance? Yes. Sight returns. It is a long way off, just a bit north of due east. About where Omaha might be. Or the Strategic Air Command headquarters in Bellevue.

Brain function rushes back. “The bastards,” I think, but oddly feel no anger. I’m probably safe for the moment. Most of the closest strategic targets are in the eastern part of the state. Prevailing winds will keep radioactive fallout away from here. I should probably turn around and go back to Kearney. The orange mushroom shaped cloud hangs there, still and oddly beautiful. It is slowly getting bigger, spreading out at its base. The orange is not quite as intense as full night falls on the corn fields, on the interstate median, on the ribbon of trees defining the Platte River. The atomic fireball now looks just like an impossibly big impossibly full moon, rising peacefully over our impossibly flat state.

I continue driving east, another hour or so of interstate cruise control before I’m home.

sunday, 28 september 2008

by Wray Cummings

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  1. October 15, 2008 at 12:00 pm


  2. October 15, 2008 at 11:37 pm

    Wonderful piece. I really enjoyed the writing, the walk through the space age of US history. And then the ending, with the sublime beauty of a mushroom cloud. Chilling.

  3. maureen
    October 21, 2008 at 9:50 pm

    talk to your children

  4. Christina Pacosz
    October 27, 2008 at 1:38 pm

    Great journal entries skipping like a stone through the decades ending in ambiguity: full moon or nuclear blast.

  5. October 27, 2008 at 8:22 pm

    I’ve driven that stretch many times, and as a fellow dweller in the shadow of SAC, I know how many here feel it is (or more so, was) a magnet for attack. Very nice piece.

  6. October 28, 2008 at 4:06 pm

    Thanks, all, for the kind words. Encouragement is a tasty elixir.

  7. Roy Nagakubo
    April 25, 2012 at 8:33 pm

    Nebraska was a tender berry/orange mushroom cloud.

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