"99 Luftballons" (1983), Dreams, Ebony Pictorial History of Black America (1974), Lerone Bennett, Mrs. O'Daniel, Nena, Nightmares, Nuclear Annihilation, Nuclear War, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD, Subliminal Messages, Terminator 2 (1991), Textbooks, The Day After (1983), Whiteness
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.
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.
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.