Love in the Shadow of the Bomb

I have been charged, and rightfully so, with sometimes being a little slow on the uptake.

When pleated pants came back into style in the 90s, for example, I scoffed at them while other middle-aged men sought refuge for rapidly-expanding guts behind their capacious folds of fabric–and try saying that five times fast. As soon as I finally got around to buying a pair, the next mail order catalog I picked up assured me that plain front slacks were all the rage, while pleats were passe.

And so it is with a movie I should have watched many years ago, but only got around to . . . last weekend. The Day After depicts what might have happened had conflict between NATO forces and Warsaw Pact countries caused the Cold War to turn hot.  How hot? Try between 50 and 150 million degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature at the core of a nuclear explosion. Instead of frying an egg on the sidewalk to demonstrate torrid summer weather, the newsman/woman would have been fried along with his/her TV station and all forms of life within a 16-to-20 mile range.

Why this should have been a matter of interest to me when The Day After was merely a made-for-TV movie, a genre beneath my notice at the time it was produced in 1983, is that much of the action takes place in my hometown of Sedalia, Missouri, a/k/a “The Queen City of the Prairies,” “The State Fair City,” and to the cognoscenti, “The Gateway to the Ozarks.” While the screenwriter and director took some geographical liberties–the Air Force base around which much of the action takes place is actually located in Knob Noster, twenty-two miles away–there was a factual basis for choosing central Missouri generally and Sedalia in particular. America’s nuclear missile arsenal had been sprinkled around the area, buried in underground silos behind high fences. If the Russkies were going to start shooting, instead of wasting an ICBM on trivial targets like Buffalo or Cincinnati it would be in their interest to go for the jugular instead of the capillary. If they were serious about defeating the U.S., they’d go for the knockout punch and fire everything they had at the little old county seat of Pettis County, MO.

Minuteman missile silo

Such was the widespread fear of nuclear war at the time that The Day After was the highest-rated television film in history, a record it held for over a quarter of a century. But while disaffected youth in Greenwich Village and other native bohemias wrote crappy poetry filled with despair because they figuratively lived with the specter of a nuclear holocaust, we literally lived in the shadow of the Bomb.

As one who survived to tell the tale, let me just say–it wasn’t all that bad.

First of all, arming a city to the teeth to fight a nuclear war is a labor-intensive undertaking. Our little town of around 22,000 swelled in size to perhaps 23,000 with an influx of Air Force personnel, many with smokin’ hot daughters who had learned the ways of love in far-off places. Take one of these girls to a pre-teen dance at the Air Force youth center and you’d better deliver something besides a kiss on the forehead when you dropped her off. For those of us who had gone no further than Presbyterian Hand-Jobs after a church basement sock-hop, it was a shock to the system. A Presbyterian Hand-Job, for the uninitiated, is when your date turns to you at the end of the night and, just as you’re leaning in for a kiss, extends her hand rigidly to shake yours and says “It’s been a lovely evening, let’s not spoil it now.”

Second, the housing provided to the transient defense personnel created a sort of trailer-park mini-suburb, with families moving in and out as one phase of construction for the coming Armageddon was completed and another phase was begun.  There was, as a result, a rotating fleet of empty mobile homes available for adolescent love trysts.  I sometimes pity my sons, who had to wait until my wife and I left home before they could pretend to be studying Algebra II while making the beast with two backs with their girlfriends, to inject a note of Shakespeare that is worth five points on your College Prep English final.

As time wore on and we reached driving age, we learned to use the shadow of the bomb as a quasi-aphrodisiac along the following lines:

VELMA JEAN: What the heck do you think you’re doing?

YOUNG MAN VERY MUCH LIKE THE AUTHOR: I wanted to feel your mammary glands.


YMVMLTA: I’ve fallen behind in Biology class.

VELMA JEAN: Unh-uh, no way. You’re not touching my girls just ’cause you took us to a drive-in movie.

YMVMLTA: Velma Jean–we live in the shadow of the bomb.

VELMA JEAN: What do you mean?

YMVMLTA: Because of all the Minuteman missiles buried around here, if a shooting war with Russia starts before the second feature, we’re all gonna die.

VELMA JEAN: (. . .) Well, all right. But I want another vanilla Coke.

YMVMLTA: For you–anything.

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