The World Set Free, H.G.Wells, 1914
I can still recall standing on the couch next to Mom, looking out the window of our second floor apartment, amazed at the spectacle below, not fully understanding that it was a true historic moment, but quite able to feel the excitement of it all. Benny Goodman was blaring from a speaker outside Dyers’ grocery store and the streets were filled with a surging crowd of dancing, kissing, hugging, deliriously happy people. “The war is over, honey;”, Mom said, “Daddy’s coming home.”
That moment would prove to be the high point of a long, slow slide into another kind of war, though – a much colder kind of war which would eventually permeate our cozy little world, and one day lead each of us to opposite sides of the planet in defense of the Motherland. In the meanwhile, however, we would have to make do with confronting our new enemies, The Commies, in comic books, movies, and backyard battles.
Once Uncle Joe had The Bomb, my friends, fear and paranoia spread throughout the land. We now had to learn how to ‘duck and cover’ in our classrooms at St. James (a lot of good that would do), and began to read stories in the Times-Union about people building bomb shelters in their backyards. There were air raid drills, when sirens throughout the city would alert all good citizens that it was time to either be ducking and covering at home, or finding their assigned air raid shelters. I was once out alone on the streets during one of these exercises; it was like being in a B-movie about the end of the world.
Much later, as budding young bohemians grown used to the threat of annihilation, we would spend endless summer days filled with angst and longing on the steps of the National Commercial Bank on Pearl Street, bumming Lucky Strikes and typically savoring a page from Gregory Corso’s ‘Bomb’, torn out and stashed in Marty’s wallet, to be retrieved at exceptionally fertile moments. Lines from that poem still reverberate in my head….
There was a rich, dark comfort in those words, like hot whiskey in the belly. We were young men living in the face of doom, surrounded by the empty faces of a dying world as it drifted toward oblivion. We were impatient, irreverent, too smart for our own good; and, some might say, we just wanted to get laid.
Little did we suspect that the bomb had already come and gone. A nuclear cloud, blown all the way from a test site in Nevada, passed over Albany in April of 1953* and collided with a bank of thunderstorms, dumping its deadly contents on us unawares. As full-blooded teenagers, we knew instinctively that the world was doomed; we just couldn’t see, taste, smell or feel the scope of it, nor have any inkling that it was already in our midst. We were waiting for the big bang; we didn’t know it would arrive like an x-ray. But we were cool.
*The nuclear cloud was from a surface shot called SIMON, conducted on April 25, 1953 as part of a series of atomic tests at Camp Desert Rock, Nevada. The fallout reached upstate New York thirty-six hours after the detonation, where a thunderstorm brought it to earth in an area estimated to be about 7000 square miles, centering on Albany. A nuclear physicist writing in Science magazine calculated that the thyroids of 10,000 infants in the Albany-Schenectady-Troy area could have received from 10 to 30 rads from the radioiodine in their milk, which was contaminated by the fallout – enough to produce from 10 to 100 cases of thyroid cancer over the next 20 years. SIMON had exceeded its expected yield by up to 43 kilotons, nearly four times the yield of Hiroshima.