Former Army Air Corps Maj. Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk died last week. He was 93. Van Kirk was the navigator and last surviving crewman on board the Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. Without getting into the decision to drop the bomb, it reminded me how much the potential for nuclear war was a part of my childhood.
While today’s American children face challenges and concepts unknown to me in the 1960s, like school shootings, my fellow boomers thought a lot about things like total thermonuclear annihilation. Those words together are bad enough on their own, but in combination, they made for a lot of sleepless nights. Toss in “throw weight,” “MIRV,” “SALT,” “megatonnage,” and you have enough fodder for insomnia deep into the 21st century.
I lived in two prime fun target areas in the 1960s: Marquette, Mich., which was next to K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base, a B-52 Strategic Air Command post, and Washington, D.C., which is where we hid President Richard Nixon and the Pentagon. Up until about age 6, I don’t think I really knew anything about nuclear war to speak of. It was a vague concept. I only remember seeing little yellow signs that said “CD” on them in the hall, where we were supposed to gather if we heard the siren.
We lived in Marquette during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and my dad, ever the scientist, later informed me that I “wouldn’t have felt a thing.”
OK, Dad. I’ll just go back to watching “Alvin and the Chipmunks” and try not to think about it. Me, I want a hula hoop.
Later, in 1969, The Washington Star Magazine ran a story about what would happen to D.C. if the Russians dropped a 50-megaton warhead on the nation’s capital. I distinctly recall a key phrase: In Fairfax County, car doors would melt.
We lived in Fairfax County. So, for the next several weeks, I would carefully observe every car door, waiting for it to melt. Maybe if I saw it melting before the blast and heat wave hit me, I could outrun it. This was about as logical as hiding under a desk or standing in the hall under the little yellow CD sign. My dad, once again, stepped in to reassure me:
“Don’t worry. You’d see a blue flash and a hell of a bang and that would be it.” And don’t ask me to tell you what he said during Apollo 13 when I asked if the astronauts would come back. Oh, OK.
“They’ll skip off the atmosphere and die.”
Anyway, this new knowledge of my possible nuclear annihilation led me to experience what I would consider a kind of sleepless PTSD, which lasted until about 1975 or so, which is when I discovered the various things people can do to avoid thinking about nuclear war. No wonder the Mad Men generation was smashed all the time and smoked.
I look back on all this and wonder how anyone went through that time without going insane; maybe we did, and that’s what the 1960s were really about: The New Hedonism Brought On By Nuclear Weapon Fear.
Sadly, the Japanese people had it happen to them, and the academic reasons for or against really don’t matter to the dead. It was a mankind fail. Maj. Van Kirk contended it was the right thing to do until the day he died.
I wasn’t there. I do have an opinion about it, but I can say that I am sorry it happened.
And if my dad were here, he could reassure you.