Of Mice, Men and Thermophilic Bacteria

Historical Perspective II


Recent nuclear discussions among heads of state took me back to a time, the cold war era of the sixties and seventies, when governments did their saber rattling with nuclear weapons.

For the first four years of the sixties, my dad was stationed at Hickam AFB, Hawaii, where I attended a school that stood adjacent to the Nimitz highway. When international tensions were high, long convoys of military vehicles, loaded with uniformed men and weapons, would rumble past our open windows consuming our attention. We wore ID bracelets and kept survival kits in our lockers and the plan was, in case of war, to transport us in buses from the school to some cave in the mountains.

At this time our government was conducting nuclear testing on Johnston Atoll about 860 miles from Hawaii. Once they detonated a bomb in the atmosphere above the atoll at night. The government encouraged everyone to witness the display. After several nights of delays, my siblings and I were watching TV, instead of the darkened horizon, when the bomb finally exploded. My mother, who was waiting once again at her bedroom window, fell back on her bed when a bright light filled the heavens. After the initial shock of seeing the blast, she rushed us out of the house to see the after effects of the explosion on the night sky. Our neighbors, who had taken up residence in lawn chairs for the event, were nervously chatting about what they just witnessed as bright red clouds drifted across the jet black sky. It was beautiful, but you could feel the fear that permeated the air.

In 1966, my dad retired from the Air Force and we moved to South Florida where his brother lived.  Aunt Virginia and Uncle Jack were living there during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. When they spoke of the tension of that time you could still see the terror on their faces; they really believed that they were going to die in a nuclear confrontation.

In 1975, having been instilled with a sense of patriotism by my father, I joined the Air Force. I ended up being stationed at Offutt AFB in Nebraska, the headquarters of the Strategic Air Command (SAC). Because of this location’s military significance, one always felt that there was a large bull’s eye overhead.

Once, my job took me to a missile installation where jokes and cartoons were conspicuously posted. “In case of a direct hit we close immediately” hung over the dining hall and another about not having time to kiss your butt goodbye also caught my eye. The personnel there were relaxed and easy-going, but their professionalism and awareness of their task was evident in their eyes. If there was a missile headed for the target over Offutt, this installation would already be vapor.

Fear of nuclear annihilation was ever present during these two decades. Not always on the surface, but a constant lingering shadow in the background. People buried bunkers in their backyards, yellow and black signs directed one to fallout shelters in public buildings and at many schools children rehearsed what to do in case of nuclear attack. During this time, whenever I would see a flash of light, I would wait for my flesh to be burned from my bones while my skeleton dissolved into molecules and atoms.

Political protests, riots and the birth of the counterculture, movements and events that define this era, were probably rooted in this specter of annihilation.

It wasn’t until I moved to Roanoke in the eighties, and away from military influences, that my fear of nuclear annihilation began to subside. Conventional wars still raged, but it appeared that hands were being pulled away from that red button of world extinction.

Billions of years from now, our Sun will become a Red Giant and life on earth, except for some species of thermophilic bacteria, will be nonexistent. Hopefully, the world “powers that be” are not inching their way back to those menacing times and our early demise. Con


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