Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Fire and Ice




Here’s a YouTube version of Robert Frost’s short poem, “Fire and Ice,” which was first published in Harper’s Magazine in 1920 and later incorporated in the Pulitzer-winning book New Hampshire. It’s a short poem, and I give you permission to do a quick listen before reading the rest of this blog.

With all the bloviating going on between the heads of state of North Korea and the United States, I was reminded of Frost’s poem, written not long after the end of World War I, but well before the nuclear attacks by the U.S. on Japan at the end of World War II.

I grew up in the age of “duck and cover.” [Oh heck, I just Goggled the phrase and came up with this nine-minute 1951 Civil Defense film featuring Bert the Turtle.] I remember in school curling into a ball under my desk, covering my head and neck with my arms. Other times we filed into the hallways and, making sure not to be opposite a door where flying glass would be a problem, we impatiently sat covering our heads with our hands. The assumption was we should do everything possible to survive an enemy attack.

My house and school were about six miles away from Kodak Park in Rochester, New York. Kodak Park would have been a very likely target in a nuclear war with the USSR because of its film production and processing capabilities. At the time, all the spy-plane cameras and film were produced by Kodak or Polaroid (also a Rochester company back then).

What no one told us back then was that a typical mid-sized hydrogen bomb when exploded in the atmosphere would have a blast zone of nearly seven miles and a thermal radiation hot zone of fifteen miles. That would have been the effect if either of the four megaton H-bombs the US accidentally dropped on North Carolina on January 24, 1961 when a B-52 broke apart had exploded. Although three of the four “fail-safe” devices on one of the bombs did fail, the fourth held and the devices didn’t trigger an explosion. [i]

The world for me would have ended in fire. Crushed or not, I would have been toast.

For those not so near a likely target, the world might have ended in ice. For many years, “experts” predicted a nuclear winter would follow an all-out nuclear war. The hypothesis was that the firestorms caused by the nuclear bombs would combine to throw so much soot into the atmosphere it would block sufficient sunlight to cause a significant temperature drop and induce a permanent winter—at least until the soot precipitated out of the atmosphere.

Hey good news: we have a cure for global warming—a global nuclear war! While generally discredited now because models show cities won’t burn as originally anticipated and therefore not produce enough atmospheric debris,[ii] it struck a chord of plausibility as the world has experienced global cooling because of atmospheric soot. In 1816 the northern hemisphere suffered a “volcanic winter” generally attributed to the ash plume from the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in the East Dutch Indies. In the Berkshires and upstate New York where my ancestors lived there, was wide-spread crop failure as snow fell as late as June and frost occurred throughout the summer.[iii]

As a child, I was never scared of nuclear war. It had no meaning for me. The drills were just one of the things you did, like saying the pledge of allegiance every morning. You didn’t think about the meaning of either one. That changed for me in October 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis. It’s the first international news event that I really recall (I turned twelve while it was going on), and I remember it because of the palpable fear I sensed from adults around me. I remember watching the news with my family as President Kennedy announced on live television the embargo of Cuba. I had to ask my parents where “Cuber” was (and learned about New England accents!) I remember the huge typeface of the newspaper that included the critical word: BLOCKADE.

Negotiations worked that time, but there was a subsequent boom in backyard bunker building.

Now it seems some of the 1% are preparing for all kinds of potential disaster with luxury bunkers.[iv] I have neighbors who are contemplating how they could become subsistence farmers and hunt the woods for their meat. My neighbors have armed themselves in preparation of that dystopian future; they would surely have to defend their supplies and food from those who won’t be prepared.

I am making no such preparations, and I frankly have no fears of a nuclear holocaust. When I think of what it would take to survive a nuclear war or collapse of our food supplies, whatever the cause, I realize I don’t want to be a survivor. Maybe it’s because I’m on the downward slope of life. Maybe it’s because I am so distraught about our continual worldwide inhumane treatment of our fellow humans that I secretly think the world might be better off if our species became extinct.

I admit to being a chicken when it comes to death. I’d prefer it to happen with no pain and in my sleep. If it comes to a great disaster, I’d rather go in the fire of one big flash and know nothing of it than by the slow freeze of ice.

I have been thinking about the collapse of our food supplies, but in a fictional sense. It’s the proximate trigger for a future I am sketching out for a possible trilogy. I’ll let you know how that works out.

This post first published on Writers Who Kill