My Life Atomic by J. D. Petersen

I wasn’t expected to live long. Born in the shadow of a great war, it was casually assumed I would perish in the next. As such, death was in my cards from day one; not a heroic battlefield death leading a squad of crack soldiers against insurmountable odds, but very possibly at my school desk doing my sums and minding my own business.

A blinding flash would be what killed me, or at least that would be all I'd notice. I remember my teacher encouraging me to seek cover under my desk, but even at my age, I knew a flimsy plywood table probably wouldn’t provide much protection against a device that could vaporize New York City in a heartbeat. Incineration, the birthright of my generation. My parents knew this, my entire extended family knew, and my teachers and coach knew it too. We rarely talked about it; what can you do? 

     In the spring of 1969, death was the furthest thing from my mind, which held only two things: our glorious astronauts and their daring mission to the Moon. I guess, it should be called their ‘race to the Moon’, but honestly, we hadn’t seen much of our opponents, who incidentally happened to be the same people that sought to kill me. The hope was that if we beat them to the Moon, and it sure looked like it, they would give up on their villainous designs and let me live a long and happy life. The Moon race was thus somewhat personal.

     I had a Saturn V model, complete with removable service module and lunar lander, on my bedside table and this was the first and last thing I saw every day. It was a thing of beauty. Just before I fell asleep, I often tried to imagine a Russian equivalent. Could communism really match American ingenuity? My answer was, inevitably, no. We had our freedom and a slightly suspect German genius named Wernher von Braun; master of rocketry and public relations. Our rockets would leave red Ivan in the dust.

     Dad, and me, and when possible my best friend Toby Griffin, watched every space related program anyone cared to air - on occasion, I would even be allowed up well past my bedtime. My granddad, who had lived with us since events conspired to burn down his own house, made a distinct effortnot to watch anything related to the Apollo program. Yet he would always be around to comment, loudly, from the kitchen. ‘Nuts! He would shout, ‘Just nuts!’ A classification he had learned from our late great ex-president Eisenhower, who once popped up from retirement to comment on the Moon race with just one word. Nuts!

     When my dad took the bait, a lively discussion would arise which usually suffered from the twin tedium of being both long and predictable. A discussion in which a number of arguments became a staple. Primarily, my granddad would tell dad that he hadn’t fought in the war to have idiots waste our national budget on reaching a large rock floating in space. To which my dad would reply that grandpa hadn’t really fought anybody in the war, but had, in fact, spent the entire war at Fort Quakatee, Minnesota, teaching recruits how to fix and operate bulldozers. This, in turn, would lead my granddad onto a long-winded exposition on bulldozers and their contribution to civilization. 

     Granddad was a bona fide dozer-man. He had driven bulldozers all over the Oklahoma panhandle in the thirties, moving dirt for poor farmers, and knew a bunch of people and as many sad stories. When dust blew in from the great plains of Kansas and Colorado, granddad would just doze it right back across the state line. For years, he seesawed with nature like that, keeping roads clear, and schools and hospitals open. People would cheer him with their hats as he passed on the road, ‘there goes Chuck the dozer-man of Jersey.’ He became so famous the United States Army Corps of Engineers tracked him down and offered a commission as bulldozer-instructor, a position he held throughout the war with great merit. After the War, he dozed prime woodland to make room for ranch-style housing in the tri-state area. Granddad would, and often did, proudly state, that, pound for pound, he was the best dozer-man on the eastern seaboard. I never found out if there was another driver with a better weight to skill ratio, or if he had a dozer-driving nemesis on the west coast.

     Granddad had always hoped my dad would follow in his tracks and flatten stuff for a living. He was terribly disappointed when his son instead showed flair for mathematics and got a scholarship studying physics at California Institute of Technology, an event that led to a far greater role in the war than granddad could possibly have imagined. During the War, dad helped build the atom bomb, the mightiest bulldozer of them all. 

     Dad still worked in the nuclear business. Exactly what part of the business remained a veiled mystery to the entire family, but it was either the Atomic Energy Commission, or some part of the military, possibly both. Sometimes he would go to Nevada for a few weeks and return pale as a sheet. On these occasions, he would spend the next few days in his office staring blankly out the window, and not even granddad would disturb him. In the summer of 1968, after a particularly long trip to Nevada, dad informed us that he was blowing the family savings on a bunker – decision made.

     Concluding he knew a helluva lot more about atom bombs and protection against them than any contractor in the area, he set forth designing and constructing the family shelter on his own. The ground was broken in August, the concrete poured in September, and by mid-October the family had their very own private nuclear bunker, complete with emergency rations and allsorts survival equipment. When mom informed him we would be the only bunker-family in the neighborhood, he promptly bought a twelve-gauge shotgun. The following Sunday he took the entire family deep into the woods and taught us to load and unload the shotgun. We then fired two shots each in the direction of some menacing trees, after which we sat down for a picnic mom had prepared. When we returned dad stored the shotgun in the bunker, along with a box of fifty buckshots.

     House rules stated that we should never ever go down into the shelter. It was to remain pristine and virginal until needed – hopefully never, but who knows, those Russians were crazy. To my mind, it appeared that a structure capable of withstanding a nuclear war would suffer little damage if Toby and I snuck down there to play Star Trek, and so down we went, as often as we could. We never meant to eat the rations, but who leaves tins of canned fruit within the reach of twelve-year olds? The bunker was dug out and removed twenty years later when dad retired, having, luckily, never been used for its original purpose. Going through the remains of his Armageddon preparations, dad remarked that we probably should have stocked more canned fruit. Mom said we should have built a pool.

     Mom was always the calm sensible one, at least compared to her bunker-building husband. The one that kept her composure, even when I was expelled from collage in my late teens, and the one who saw just a little bit further than everyone else. I don’t remember her ever losing her temper with anyone. Throughout my childhood, she remained steady as a rock, unfazed by anything life chose to throw at her and, as I discovered later, heavily medicated. She taught cooking and housekeeping to young suburban wives every Wednesday evening. They would arrive just after dinner, a signal for dad and me to visit the cinema, and cook and clean for two or three hours. The food was mostly whimsical space age dishes entombed in brightly colored aspic - quivering food was all the rage back then. When we returned from the cinema, oh the wondrous days of childhood cinema where every film was a Technicolor marvel, dad would stare at the shivering cubes of tuna and salad and ask if she really expected us to eat that. She rarely did.

     Toby and I, on the other hand, had no problem eating the gelatinous goo in the bunker every Thursday. The translucent substance was suitably futuristic to be rations for our adventures in strange far-flung solar systems, where Earthly foods could be in short supply and Earthlings themselves often a delicious source of nutrients for alien monsters, whose death-ray eyes, luckily, were no match for our disintegrators. In those days, we fought every kind of evil you could care to imagine. From highly aggressive blubber, indecently not unlike moms aspic dishes, to gigantic reptile-like creatures that flew and had blinding atomic breath that would kill a man dead in an instant. Days of danger and bravery for Toby and me, but that’s what it takes to fly into outer space, we knew it well. 

     For me it was all just a game, but real danger was never far from the heart of poor Toby, with his faraway dad flying jets for the Air Force in Nam. That was something. I would sometimes catch a glimpse of it on Tv, fighterbombers streaking over lush green jungle spewing fire like dragons, soldiers attacking from the belly of helicopter gunships, or the mighty B-52 bombers migrating from Guam, dropping their eggs on Vietnam so the whole jungle shook. ‘My God, there are people down there,’ mom would say. My dad would reply, ‘let’s hope not.’ and granddad would just say, ‘not anymore.’ We watched with a mix or horror and excitement. Then we would watch Carson, or some such show, calming ourselves with light predictable humor.

     The space program was my escape from things whose nature I barely glimpsed, just like my dad’s bunker and my mom’s aspic dishes, and while my granddad didn’t seem to need escapism, he had, almost with certainty, burned down his house and escaped to ours because he couldn’t to live alone after grandma died. Escaping into outer space seemed the ultimate escape – a flyaway into Gods own backyard. 

    We weren’t a religious household, not by a long shot. I mean we attended church regularly, everyone did, but inside our foursquare God rarely had a say in things. I guess I was the most pious in the house. It just didn’t seem so farfetched to me, with all the other things going on around me, and some nights I would pray for our astronauts and their space program and for the safe return of poor Mr. Griffin from distant Vietnam. Straighten up and fly right, Mr. Griffin, straighten up and fly right. He never did return.

     So that was it, the greatest year of my preteens. As spring turned to summer, my heart filled with uncontainable excitement and a desire to see that big white rocket lift away into God's great abode. I worshipped my astronaut heroes, but deep inside I knew the Moon-flight was the kind of story you’d tell to a child who was afraid of the dark.


© J.D. Petersen, 2014

J. D. Petersen is a Danish writer and freelance journalist living in Copenhagen. His short stories draw inspiration from the human condition and the absurdities of life. He writes a regular column for the Danish magazine SCENARIO (in both Danish and English), published by Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies. His fiction has appeared in the British literary journal Litro. 

My Life Atomic was read by Richard Flight on 3rd October 2014 for Hearth & Home