The Magazine

Nuclear Family

Christopher Caldwell, suburban conformist.

Oct 13, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 05 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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IN 1983, around the time NATO was placing medium-range missiles in Europe, ABC aired the made-for-TV movie "The Day After," which concerned what would happen to Lawrence, Kansas, in a nuclear war. The film had been trumpeted for weeks in advance as "unquestionably-the-most-shocking" this and "a-chilling-meditation-upon" that. Who would miss it? "No-American-who-cares-about-the-future," that's who. The message of the larger culture, relayed to us through ABC's sponsors, was that "anyone-with-the-courage-to-face" various something-or-other would tune in. Elie Wiesel, William F. Buckley Jr., and Secretary of State George Shultz were enlisted to calm the inevitable hysteria that would follow.

I was home from college at the time and insisted the whole family watch. This took some nagging. Seeing Jason Robards's skin drip off his face was not exactly my family's bag. But their horror at witnessing nuclear armageddon on their TV screens was nothing compared with my own horror at confronting the possibility that I sprang from a family of Americans-who-didn't-care-about-the-future.

So there we sat after dinner, in front of the television set with our drinks and nuts and knitting, taking our medicine along with 100 million other Americans. In one decisive scene, a woman who lives next door to a nuclear base is puttering around her kitchen, loading the dishwasher or something. We hear a rumble and a sound like "Shwoo! Shwoo!" and see, outside the picture window, two enormous intercontinental ballistic missiles roaring out of their silos and leaving a wake of vapor. I dropped my Rubik's Cube in my lap. Here it was: the Apocalypse. The living will envy the dead, and all that. Everyone on the sofa was grim and hushed.

Except my mother. Reaching for a handful of nuts, she frowned at the screen, then paused, and said, "Look at that. What a gorgeous kitchen."

The word that best describes my feelings at that moment is grateful. I was grateful that none of my friends from college was present, which would have faced me with the hard choice of either finding an excuse for my mother's act of lèse-opinion or repudiating her maternity altogether.

It didn't take me many years (at least not too many) to realize that, if there was a conformist suburban sycophant in the living room that night in 1983, it was not Mom. But it's with some embarrassment that I myself have begun to pick up her habit of ignoring what everyone says is the "subject" of what I'm looking at.

This kind of taking one's eye off the thematic ball is not something that tends to win much intellectual respect, except perhaps from Auden in his "Musée des Beaux Arts," when he admires how, in Breughel's "Icarus," "everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster."

A few months ago, I was walking through the National Museum of American History with my family. One of the more stirring exhibits there commemorates the sit-ins that began at the segregated Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, on February 1, 1960. The Woolworth's was integrated only after months of jeers and threats and thrown food. That sit-in is arguably the fulcrum on which the whole civil rights movement pivoted. The exhibit is stirring because the American history museum doesn't merely have photographs and captions and the odd personal effect or contemporaneous telegraph--it has the lunch counter itself, with its grimy chrome-and-green-leatherette swivel stools, its Formica countertop, its pie racks, its metal condiment-caddies, and behind those, the actual menus of the time, which the protesters would have faced for hour after grueling hour.

So what did I think as I stood before this shrine to American liberty? I thought: "Thirty-nine cents for a banana split! Holy cow! Today that'd set you back six bucks at the Dairy Queen. At least!"

Then, the other day I found myself transfixed by some photos out of a history book. They were of top-level White House meetings from the Vietnam-war era. Was I scanning Robert McNamara's face for evidence of treachery, or studying George Ball's for beatitudinal wisdom? I wish I could say I was. Actually, I was trying to figure out, by looking at the position of the ashtrays on the table, which of the Kennedy-Johnson brain trust smoked. I can't say I succeeded. I did, however, find out that, in LBJ's February 1966 Honolulu meeting with South Vietnamese premier Nguyen Cao Ky . . . I found out . . . well, I can't actually tell you that much about Ky, but he was a smoker. Unfiltereds, as best I can make out.

--Christopher Caldwell