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Newlyweds and the Doomsday Clock: Have We Saved the Last Dance For Them?

The weeks following my marriage were ecstasy. I was 19 and in love. The future seemed joyous, studded with promise. My wife was lovely, and I—a brooding and rather gloomy kid—was happier than I'd ever been.

bomb shelter

But there was a snake in this Edenic idyll we'd found for ourselves in southern California. We'd happened upon one another and gotten married in the days leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis. At work, I was told that we were known to be ground zero, the Soviet Union's highest priority target in the event of a nuclear exchange.

And the prospect of such an attack was mounting daily.

Karen and I shared an apartment in Hermosa Beach, the wide Pacific out our window at a time when it was still possible for people with very modest incomes to rent a place with a view of a large body of water. I earned my salary as a proofreader at North American Aviation in El Segundo, a massive "defense" plant that ran along the length of LAX. My wife had been a flight attendant (stewardess in those days) for American Airlines, though she had to quit the moment we were wed because one of the sexist work rules of those long ago days required that flight attendants be single. You can probably figure out the swinish reasons for that without my help, but in the event it doesn't occur to you, the airlines were pimping the fantasy that these attentive and pretty young women might be available for layover liaisons with balding and overweight business class travelers away from their wives for a few days. "Fly me" would later be an ad slogan for United, intended to accentuate that notion.

My new bride and I were among that generation of kids who had grown up terrorized on a regular basis by school drills teaching us to "duck and cover" in the event of the atomic bombing we pretty much assumed was lurking in our future.

My new bride and I were among that generation of kids who had grown up terrorized on a regular basis by school drills teaching us to "duck and cover" in the event of the atomic bombing we pretty much assumed was lurking in our future. We were steeped in an aura of apocalypse, in movies and in songs. At our proms, we had shuffled around our school gyms mouthing the lyrics to "Save the Last Dance For Me," always conscious of the doom-laden subtext of that popular song by the Drifters. And was it just me, but was anyone (or everyone) else hearing desperate hope for peace in that song by the Tokens in which "the lion sleeps tonight"?

There had been no time my generation had known when the future didn't seem tentative, provisional, shakily dependent on the crap shoot hope that sanity would always prevail among the world's leaders. We'd seen Seven Days in May, and On the Beach, and we'd read from the long bibliography of books about the end of the world, mostly imagining ourselves experiencing it up close and personal one dark day.

The summer before my wife and I were wed, there had been a story in The Los Angeles Times about a fire that had swept through one of the canyons, destroying a rather elaborate bomb shelter some resident had constructed in anticipation of nuclear Armageddon. For those of us apartment dwellers who didn't have yards to burrow into, there was a frisson of schadenfreude in knowing that the more affluent home owners with discretionary cash to build hidey-holes on the eve of destruction were no more likely to come through the atomic dust-up than those of us who lived in apartments.

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And, in those doom-clouded days after Karen and I exchanged vows in her apartment, joined together in holy matrimony by a preacher we found in the Yellow Pages after a hasty blood test put us right with the requirements for marriage of the state of California, it seemed that the dreaded day of mass annihilation was at hand. From a selfishly personal perspective, it was coming at the very worst possible time.

Tensions mounted as the Soviet Union sent ships steaming toward Cuba. Dire warnings were exchanged between Kennedy and Khruschev. At work, the air raid sirens went off one day in the midst of all that and I saw how close to panic most people were. Employees were running in all directions. Others sat at their desks or work stations, praying. In those days long before cell phones, people were trying to get outside lines to call home and bid loved ones farewell. When the "all clear" signal was sounded after a few brief moments of terror, everyone slunk around, embarrassed and sheepish, avoiding eye contact with one another.

But the crisis passed, thanks to intense negotiations and the restraint of leaders here and in Moscow.

In the decades since, there have been flare ups of fear. In the '80s, there was widespread concern, and much talk of the prospect of a "nuclear winter" that would follow a big exchange of nukes. Ronald Reagan caused a little stir when he joked in advance of a radio broadcast about attacking the Soviet Union. ("My fellow Americans," Reagan ad-libbed, " I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes." Sometimes, the sense of humor of right wingers is difficult to fathom.) But the threat of an exchange of nuclear weapons never seemed as real or as imminent as it seemed in October of 1962.

Until now.

When Donald Trump took office, the "Doomsday Clock" was re-set. For millennials or others who may not have heard of it, the Doomsday Clock was devised by the Chicago-based Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in 1947 to measure the likelihood of full-scale nuclear war. Last January, the hands of the clock were re-set to 2 1/2 minutes to midnight, closer to the probability of disaster than they'd been since 1953.

The tensions between North Korea and the U.S. are now mounting daily, but unlike the desperate suspense we knew in '62, adults are today in short supply. There seems to be no steadying hand, no reasonable voices to quell the tension, no Kennedy, no Khruschev. Instead we have two unstable child men, two outsized egos playing a game of chicken with untold millions of lives.

And there are young marrieds here and across the trembling planet, embarking on their lives, with dreams of their futures blighted by nightmare fears of what will happen next. Have we saved the last dance for them?

jaime oneill

Jaime O'Neill