You’ve seen the video. You probably saw it years and years ago, but it’s been reissued in high definition and gone a little bit viral. I saw it as a child, though I couldn’t tell you when. I’ve seen it many times since, and I’ve seen others like it. What you see in the opening frame is an older bus, like a school bus but painted in a darker shade. The film is in black and white but I assume that the bus was probably some kind of military olive green. It’s parked in the sun on a featureless bit of desert sand, and the camera opens on a static shot: just the bus, sitting there. There isn’t any sound. I don’t know for sure if the shot seems ominous only because I already know what’s about to happen, or if it would seem ominous anyway. I suspect that it would. Just the framing, the stark light. You know something’s about to happen. And if you didn’t already know what it was, I think you’d still assume that it wasn’t going to be be anything good.
And then of course it does happen. The blast, when it comes, arrives in two waves. The first is heat, and the bus seems to go fluid as its paint job transforms instantly into smoke. The bus itself ignites, the tires rupture. A couple of seconds later a second, concussive blast wave flips the bus over and tears it apart, the whole thing disappearing into a cloud of dust. The camera, which faces away from the blast and must, I assume, have been heavily shielded, survives. But there’s nothing else to see. And that specific blast sequence, since first saw the footage decades ago, always struck me as something I sort of wished that I didn’t know about. I mean that the heat comes first. The concussion looks like it could kill you but not before you’ve had a couple really bad seconds to think about it.
Like I said, I don’t know when I saw it first, but I was very young. It was the kind of thing they showed us at school. As I recall they showed us that sort of thing often. It was part of social studies, sometimes, but being the 80s and living where we did, there were also occasional speakers, anti-nuclear activists who would come through to educate us on the perils of nuclear war. I remember in particular one individual who put up a slideshow illustrating the fact that even if we hid in the mountains, the air-blast nature of most modern thermonuclear weapons would ensure our destruction anyway. He was missing the point. None of us cared about that. We had all talked about it, and none of us wanted to survive an attack. The kids were all in agreement about that. As far as we were concerned, the whole post-apocalyptic scenario held no appeal. If it was going to happen, we wanted to be squarely in the blast radius. We even discussed the lucky fact of our proximity to a nuclear weapons plant, reasoning that this probably had us on a soviet target list. We’d get vaporized, and that would be that. Seemed like the best option all around. Did I mention that we were about eleven years old at this point?
The activists, I suppose, were trying to motivate us to get involved, somehow, in the disarmament movement. They weren’t just being sadists, or at any rate not entirely. The scare tactic was supposed to get us up and moving, which was a pretty common idea in the 80s as I recall. But it missed the most basic thing about us: we were kids, and kids understand their own basic powerlessness very clearly. Giving eleven-year-old kids in the 80s detailed information on their own pending incineration was really just doubling down on what we already knew. We knew we were doomed, and we knew that we couldn’t do anything about it. We felt incrementally shittier after assemblies like that, and locked in our shared fatalism a little more. But that was about it.
I have kids that age myself now, and I sense some parallels. Now, before we go further let me be clear: none of this is intended as a polemic in favor of keeping kids in the dark. I don’t know that we needed quite as much repetition on the nuclear threat as we were getting back in 1983 or 84, but it’s not like anyone could have concealed it. It was an existential threat to the planet, and people were going to talk about it. There wasn’t any real way for us not to know what the doomsday clock was set to. When the world is in grave danger, it’s not really something you can sweep under the rug. At a certain point kids may as well know, uncomfortable as that is. But I notice is that the apocalyptic news is coming hot and heavy once again, and I wonder what the kids are doing about it internally. They’re not going to tell me, even if prompted. Death-pondering is inner kid-world stuff, at some level. But I notice that they do seem awfully scared, and fear pops up in strange places. I suspect that it all connects.
My little guy, for example, has been frightened lately, and that’s actually a little odd. Normally he’s a profoundly morbid child, fond of horror games and the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series. The darker side of experience has a happy sort of pull for him, which I tend to get. I was pretty similar at his age, reading Lovecraft in the corner and delighting in all the ookie bits. But he gets genuinely scared now too, right at the margins of what he enjoys.
The other day (and he’s a very private guy) he actually went so far as divulge this to me. He explained that a girl in his class and been saying scary things, indicating that everyone who knew her was in danger, and telling a scary tale about some voice in the night that force you to stay up until dawn or else. It got to him, where other stuff doesn’t, and he was having trouble getting to sleep. I was glad that he told me, and for the most part we handled it together. The first thing I pointed out was that the girl needed some fresh material, as nearly all of this was old internet creepypasta from years ago. Since he didn’t want to share the kid’s name, I told him that “Creepypasta” would henceforth be her nickname, which made him giggle. What followed was a good, long conversation about the nature of scary things. And woven into that conversation was the fact that there are certain kinds of scary things that are fun, precisely because they’re outside of what’s real. And that’s important, because there are plenty of real things to be scared of, and feeling scared about those things is okay. But we talked about the idea that it’s useful to keep those things straight. Real life offers enough real fear. But it doesn’t include ookie ghosts and accursed third graders.
Like I said, I was glad that he actually talked to me, because there’s nothing easy about keeping those things straight, especially in a developing brain. And especially not when the real scariness is so pervasive, and so urgent. Just like my friends and I understood that we were more or less certain to be randomly immolated some day, my kids are more or less certain that if they’re not the last generation to inhabit this world, they’ll probably know the kids that are. If they don’t see the endgame themselves, they’ll see the beginning of the end, and they’re not jazzed about it. They shouldn’t be. And I’m not really big on trying to convince them that it’s all going to be okay. My talk track, when we discuss those things, is that the next few decades are going to be pretty challenging, but that millions of people are trying to make things better, and they can choose to be part of that when they’re big. But I also like to tell them what they already know. I like to tell them that there’s not a whole lot that little kids can do in the meantime, and there’s only so much worry that they can afford to pour into it now. Unlike those well-meaning anti-nuke activists, I’m not about to shoulder them with the task of saving a world that won’t actually let them do anything at all. If they grow up conscious of the urgency in front of them as adults, I’ve done at least some kind of job. Until then, I prefer to give them hugs, and try to keep their nightmares in the correct categories. Getting away from the nightmares isn’t really something you can do. I learned that from a slideshow, a long time ago.