The Cold Truth

There is a church down the street. It’s in a boring building that would not stand out any more than a dentist’s office at a strip mall. It immediately catches my eye at every passing. There is a faded yellow and grey metal sign pinned the façade. This house of worship doubles as a fall out shelter. Part of me is always tempted to join, but only for exploration. I need to know what qualifies them to save me from more than just Satan.

I’ve wanted a fall out shelter since my earliest childhood memories. The only memories that predate this obsession involve the pure joy of not being forced to wear clothing. Within a short formative time I was ripped from my own personal Eden. Not only was it frowned upon to run around naked, apparently Russians wanted to kill me. I didn’t even know who they were or how far away they might be. This was the Cold War as interpreted by a five year old.

I grew up in The Tri-Cities, WA. I’ve just deleted my last sentence because it involved the exaggeration, “…right next to the Hanford Nuclear Site.” None of us literally lived next to it, but you hear that a lot when we pass our story on to outsiders. It’s like a harrowing tale of survival with our third generation gene pool crawling from the B-Reactor. My story doesn’t stem from the physical problems of Hanford’s presence.

The people closest to me usually notice that I have a detailed memory of strange moments from the past. I say strange only because I remember details about moments that have nothing to do with the big picture. I’ll remember things like a friend not using a knife on certain food items or the color of your bedroom curtains in 7th grade. A lot of my childhood memories are like this.

I remember an intense fear on the nightly news. The adults would get uncomfortable. I didn’t know what they were talking about, but Hanford came up a lot. Apparently “we” were “a target”. My cousins were older and started feeding into the topic. They explained what a nuclear bomb was and that I needed a bunker. We planned our bunkers in great detail. The logistics for a small child were boggling. “What pets get to go? How do you feed them? How long will you be down there? What do you do with the poop? Will you need multiple rooms and how much digging will that take? Clearly there won’t be enough food and at least two cats must stay behind and perish.” This went on for years. I became very good at planning my survival.

In 1983 my confidence crumbled like it had been hit by an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. I was 8 years old and picked up the TV Guide magazine. On the cover I saw a burned out city, grey skies and charred bodies hanging from bus windows. Before this I did not have a visual image to pair with my fear. That was the day they advertised a made for TV event called The Day After. Everything after that became my day after. I threw myself on the messy bed sobbing on a sunny day. My mom walked in confused and annoyed. It’s not strange to see your 8 year old crying. What came out of my mouth made her take a step back. I hysterically yelled, “Why do the Russians want to kill me!!!” She didn’t have an answer but promptly removed the snot and tear covered TV Guide from my little fingers. I was not allowed to watch this film. The following weekend my mom and cousins gathered around to watch this major event on TV. Answers were needed. “What will radiation do? Why will I end up bleeding from my rectum? Will Steve Guttenberg survive?” (Don’t worry. He ended up making Police Academy 1-4.)

As my family gathered on the couch I was forced to stay in my bedroom. They were protecting me. This was in a single-wide trailer. I could still hear the entire movie and the muffled conversations. I stood in my doorway and tried to watch on the hallway wall reflection. It was glossy faux wood paneling and I could at least tell when a scene was changing. People were so upset by this film that call lines were set up to calm the nerves of a hysterical population on the verge of a melt down. I missed it.

Years went by and I learned what post-apocalyptic meant. I couldn’t get enough of the doom. On the surface it’s just an affinity for a genre. Until recently I didn’t understand the impact of this. I mentally fed a bad topic. I spent 30 years not picturing the future because it was too scary. In reality the future doesn’t even exist and is certainly not worth worrying about. I’ll end this by quoting the best piece of advice I’ve ever heard:

“Don’t worry about the future; or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubblegum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind; the kind that blindside you at 4pm on some idle Tuesday.” – The Sunscreen Song

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Patricia Thackham Roberts

Patricia Roberts

Trish grew up in Finley and now lives in Spokane. She works in corporate America but teaches painting classes on the side. In her free time she writes quirky stories about her life, bikes great distances and takes road trips to odd little towns. She is fascinated with post-apocalyptic fiction and attributes this to growing up in the Tri-Cities.

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  • Suzy Garza Higley

    I remember that feeling too….and knowing World War III would happen before I was out of high school. Sad to have worried so much at such a young age. …especially when we now know that worrying is just a waste of energy.

  • Kriste Colley

    I absolutely loved this post. Also, in the middle of such seriousness, I busted out laughing about your Steve Guttenberg comment!! On a much smaller scale, I used to be terrified of fire because firemen came and had a fire safety talk with my elementary class. All I knew was that my family did NOT have an escape plan, or a meeting place, or rope ladders. That fear stayed with me for years as a child. Thank you for your piece!

  • Lou Galindo

    I remember that movie! It scared the crap out of me for years, but I guess that was the point? The funny thing is that growing up in Florida I never worried about nuclear war, but instead worried about things like “rogue tsunamis” flooding us and drowning, even though we lived a good 15 miles east of the beach. Kids are weird.