When Nightmares Go Nuclear

May 3, 2014

Color version of mushroom cloud over Nagasaki, Japan, August 9, 1945. (http://www.mphpa.org via US Army Air Force). In public domain.

Color version of mushroom cloud over Nagasaki, Japan, August 9, 1945. (http://www.mphpa.org via US Army Air Force). In public domain.

I find myself seeing bright orange, yellow and white lights filling the sky and obscuring everything around me. It doesn’t matter whether I’m above ground, at home, at school or work, or on a Subway platform underground in New York. Once these lights hit, it’s over. I find myself no longer in my body, for it no longer exists. Yet I still have eyes with which to witness. Through a purple haze, the intense heat, literally searing, melting and vaporizing flesh and bone. A shock wave, crushing and churning the world all at once. Spirits once safely in bodies are now on the same plane of this new existence with me, all watching as the light, the heat and the supersonic shock wave tear into our former world. Where do we go from here, as the world is no more?

That’s a milder version of a nightmare that has been with me now off and on for thirty-four years. I’m sure that I was among the hundreds of millions of folks in the West whom dreamt often of a nuclear nightmare. It was during the final phase of the Cold War, with Soviet and American aggressions, Reagan’s presidency, and a renewed arms race. All made the prospect of “99 Luftballons” (1983) and the launch of 1,000 nuclear tipped ICBMs and SLBMs and one billion or more dead a dreadful, gnawing fact that I couldn’t do a damn thing about.

Screen shot from The Day After (November 1983) ABC movie, presumably suburban Kansas City, MO/KS, October 21, 2007. (Stout/NY Times).

Screen shot from The Day After (November 1983) ABC movie, presumably suburban Kansas City, MO/KS, October 21, 2007. (Stout/NY Times).

The very first time I fully understood the dangerous and fatal that defined this world was toward the end of fifth grade, in May ’80. It was an early May Thursday in Mrs. O’Daniel’s classroom at William H. Holmes Elementary in Mount Vernon, New York, a bright, sunny spring day. We were in independent reading mode, and Mrs. O’Daniel had given me permission to read ahead in our social studies textbook, which focused on American history.

We had left off with the Great Depression and all of the suffering that came with it. Of course, this was a collective history, one which didn’t even have the special sufferings of people of color or women in blue boxes — yet. So Whites represented all Americans. This wasn’t something I picked up on in ’80, at least consciously. But luckily, between Lerone Bennett’s edited three-volume Ebony Pictorial History of Black America (1974) at home and Mrs. O’Daniel constantly supplementing our knowledge at school, I was more aware of the deficiencies of textbooks long before I could articulate them.

As I turned the pages and read about the great battles of World War II, the horrors of Pearl Harbor and the gathering of the righteous power of the US to win the war, I suddenly saw something that shook me to my core. It was the picture of the atomic bomb’s mushroom cloud hovering over Nagasaki like death itself. It was in full color, bright and yellow and white, and obviously hot and broiling. The camera shot had managed to capture some of the landscape below, the area surrounding Nagasaki an August summer green. As I read about the 70,000 killed instantly at Hiroshima, an area the size of Mount Vernon completely flattened by a bomb that at its core had only a few pounds of weapons-grade uranium, I was frightened. I could be dead at a moment’s notice, or worse, suffer from radiation burns and sickness, in which case I’d truly be among the walking dead.

But this was only one phase of my nightmare. As things at 616 went from stable to completely out of control, my nuclear nightmares became more frequent. It seemed like there was a nuke for every day of the week during my last year as a Hebrew-Israelite. Watching The Day After on ABC in November ’83 didn’t help matters, but I also couldn’t help myself. I was both repulsed by and attracted to the idea of nuclear annihilation and survival. Maybe because I was already living through one hell of a disaster at 616.

Cropped screen shot of Los Angeles at beginning of nuclear strike, from Terminator 2 (1991), May 3, 2014. (http://youtube.com).

Cropped screen shot of Los Angeles at beginning of nuclear strike, from Terminator 2 (1991), May 3, 2014. (http://youtube.com).

My nuclear nightmares continued at nearly daily pace until after I saw Terminator 2 in June ’91. At that point, I realized that my nightmares weren’t so much about the plausibility of surviving a nuclear holocaust as they were about surviving my own preteen and teenage years. It occurred to me there are worse things in life than dying, and like surviving nuclear war, surviving a violent and unstable childhood like mine has significant side effects. I could be occasionally be up, I was much more frequently down, I could occasionally fly into a rage. And I could have recurring nightmares of me murdering my now dead ex-stepfather. All signs of PTSD.

Realizing this, I took control over my dream world, and managed to push my plutonium-tipped dreams into a box, along with so many things from my decade of evangelistically twisted fire and brimstone from two religions. I still watch end-of-the-world movies, though without the extreme fervor of dream-based certainty of suffering a lingering death. Though I do often find it funny how White fears permeate these movies.

The Curious Case of Mrs. O’Daniel

June 30, 2011

I meant to do a post on this last month, but got caught up in other work and other posts. This one’s about the unique experience me and about thirty of my William H. Holmes Elementary School classmates had between ’77 and ’81, and my unique experience in particular. That experience, at least for me (and to a slightly lesser extent, for my classmates), was in having a number of caring, highly qualified Black teachers before we went off to the vicious worlds of A.B. Davis Middle School, Nichols Middle School, and Mount Vernon High School.

Starting in first grade in ’75, I had Ms. Griffin at Nathan Hale Elementary (now Cecil Parker Elementary), Mrs. Shannon — my first teacher crush — in third grade at Holmes, and Mrs. Bryant, a great teacher, in sixth grade. But the toughest and yet very caring of all the Black teachers I had in K-6 in Mount Vernon was Mrs. O’Daniel, my fifth grade teacher. She was the teacher that made me realize how troubled the world around me really was.

I and we learned early on how not to cross Mrs. O’Daniel. Once early in the school year, when our class was wound up and acting out, Mrs. O’Daniel threatened to “introduce [us] to the Board of Education. Do y’all know what that is?” After raising my hand, I said, “Yeah, it’s the building next door to us.” “No, not that Board of Education,” Mrs. O’Daniel said with a slight smile, “this one.” This Board of Education was three yard sticks taped together, and she tapped the palm of her left hand with it to emphasize what it was for — our behinds.

She used it on me one time, because I happened to take something that wasn’t mine from her nook in the classroom, what, I don’t remember. Five taps with the Board of Education across my hand was quite enough for me in the ’79-’80 schools.

Mrs. O’Daniel, though, did much more than provide discipline for our classroom. She spent a lot of our time that year on history, American history, African American history, reading and writing. I read parts of W. E. B. Du Bois’ Souls of Black Folk in her class that year and wrote a small and wholly inadequate book report on it. I learned about the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki for the first time in May ’80. I learned so much about MLK and Malcolm X that year, more than I’d learn all through middle school and high school.

I also discovered how far behind some of my classmates were. We had two twelve-year-olds and a thirteen-year old in our class, and all of them read well below the fifth grade level. Mrs. O’Daniel assigned me and two other classmates the task of working with the older classmates to help them build up their reading and writing skills. That spring, I spent a month working with the oldest member of our class, going over words that I once struggled with in second and third grade. I felt bad for him, but even more puzzled about how a teenager could be stuck in fifth grade reading only on the second grade level.

There was a mystery to Mrs. O’Daniel as far as I was concerned. I still can’t remember if she’d grown up in North Carolina or Alabama, or if she had any kids or grand kids, or if her husband was still alive. When she announced in the early spring of ’80 that she had just turned sixty, we were stunned, thinking of how old sixty was compared to ten, eleven or even thirteen. She seemed a bit strange, but certainly not old beyond our knowledge that she was born in 1920. Mrs. O’Daniel was as tall as teacher as I ever had, but hardly frail or old outside of her salt and less salt hair.

She died in ’83, sometime during my first weeks in Mount Vernon High School. Some of my former Holmes classmates, who were now in Humanities in ninth grade, broke down and cried when they heard the news. I must admit, I was stunned. I’d never known anyone who had contact with me and died before. All I knew was that an older person who cared about me, about all of my classmates, had passed away.

It made me sad, but it didn’t sink in until much, much later how fortunate I was to have had Mrs. O’Daniel and Mrs. Bryant, Mrs. Shannon and Ms. Griffin as my teachers early on. I had no idea that the only teacher of color that I’d have until I reached the University of Pittsburgh would be Ms. Simmons, a first-year, seventh-grade math teacher I stood toe to toe with by Xmas ’81. I think that my understanding of African American history and culture would’ve been much more limited prior to my Pitt years if it weren’t for Mrs. O’Daniel. And for that, and so much more, I thank her.


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