Friday, November 10, 2006

War – Part 2: Omega Man

Yet again I draw up on a movie as my muse, The Omega Man with Charlton Heston as Robert Neville. This wasn’t a particularly good movie, although the suspense was palpable, more to the point, it was a doomsday film, like many, many such films during the late 60s and throughout the 70s. It was a sign of the times. The world lived in very real fear of total annihilation and Hollywood represented this in movies.

We know what transpired during the end of the 60s with peace rallies and demonstrations against “the bomb” and so forth. Regardless of the great events of the era with Apollo program, etc. in the back of everyone’s mind was the possibility of a flash, a warm feeling and then nothingness. (Note again the proper use of the word “regardless” and not that abomination irregardless.)

The TV and radios emitting a high-pitched “this is a test” broadcast would strike a nerve every single time. I even remember exercises in school where we’d be told to crawl underneath our desks upon hearing the howler on the intercom. Fun and games.

For years afterwards, I would hoard little amounts of food for days, chocolate bars and dry fruit stowed under my desk at home, which I would renew and restock every few days. I always kept a radio nearby with spare batteries. My little knife would always be tended and sharpened. Even my dress was commensurate with apocalyptic events. I would favour jeans and sneakers and would feel physically ill-at ease in dress pants, shirt and shoes, because, well, if a bomb exploded nearby, I would be more mobile and ready in overalls and running shoes.

These were not conscious thoughts on my part, they were simply the habits of a young mind really, a kid whose comprehension of a nuclear blast was black and white: either I’d see a flash, feel warm and die, or I would survive and wake up to a living hell.

I enjoy doomsday movies now that the cold war is over. I also understand that blockbuster nuclear bombs are actually not all that powerful in the grand scheme of things. Younger, I was told that 6 warheads would wipe out the entire planet. This was common knowledge, albeit quite false. The purpose was served though: “Just one nuclear bomb can fuck up your whole day.”

The cold war was indeed a war in the strictest sense of the word: there was conflict, there was an enemy, and there were casualties. Most of the wounded were psychological in nature, and of course there were physical casualties in skirmishes and within the espionage community. No one remained unaffected. No one.

The effect was far-reaching and as usual, insidious. That we didn’t blow ourselves to smithereens is a testament that our enemies weren’t any crazier than we were.

How we got there is irrelevant for now. The fact that the entire world was on pins and needles for decades is the stuff nightmares are made of.
I am fairly certain that a part of my recurring depression symptoms do originate from the fear of being blown up when I was a kid, or more specifically once I was aware that forces were at work that could wipe out my entire universe with my not being able to do a damned thing about it. This makes a really good case for the peaceniks’ demonstrations.

Kids normally have the “invincibility” complex at some stage in their development, and death just isn’t part of their vocabulary. To some degree this was true for me, in the form of reckless riding on my bicycle, with the car later on, and other such insane activities. But deep down, instant death was very much part of my vocabulary and that of my friends. Not something we talked about very much mind you. Even today, a pitched howler tone on the TV or radio will square my heart solidly in my throat. I am hardwired that it can only mean one thing, until I get a grip of myself. Even the after-hours colour-carrier tone on the TV will startle me if I’m not expecting it.

Being reminded day after day of imminent detonation skewed our perspective, and rightly so. Hate and loathing fuelled by fear make for a potent recipe and because of it we were very ready and willing to retaliate, if it came down to it.

In this sense, luckily, the war was cold and never degenerated into all arms conflict.

The seed of retribution had been planted, but never fully came to fruition.


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