I try to tell people what it was like to be so scared of nothing and the sheer ubiquity of the topic, but it's hard. It never comes through. I fail.
But I keep trying, because it's all so strange; I mean, I'm old enough to have fucked men that got sent to war to fight the Commies. It's so strange. It's so personal.
In my school's basement cafeteria, painted brown and yellow in my childhood and thankfully later renovated, there was a sign over the the vending machine that sold cola and Hawaiian Punch and seltzer, designating the area a Nuclear Fallout Shelter.
I saw that sign every day for years starting when I was five, pondering it every time I walked down the stairs to lunch, to recess, to our Brownie troop meetings.
"What does it mean?" I asked, one day, pointing at it. I was probably six.
That's when they told me about the bombs that leave things that come in the rain. The sign meant this place would be safe while it was very cold outside and bad things you can't see that attach to metal tried to get in to eat your skin and make you lose your hair.
I frowned, puzzled. Turn right and you were in the cafeteria, but turn left and left again and there was a heavy metal door. It led to the outside and was made of metal. It didn't seem a very good seal against bombs that would leave such hungry things in the rain.
"How long then?" I asked. The cafeteria was so ugly, and not the sort of place I wanted to spend much time at all.
"Years. Twenty years."
I didn't even know what twenty years was, but I imagined it in that ugly cafeteria with its terrible food (we weren't allowed to bring our own, lest we compete) and the pats of butter stuck to the ceiling where older girls had flung them.
I worked out how to rearrange the tables to make for the most sleeping space. I thought about where to put classrooms, what to do about toilets. It was a small place, an ugly place for such a long time.
In third grade, The Day After was a big television event and we were supposed to watch it with our parents. They sent notes home about it and everything.
Elyse had to go to therapy after that, when she began to dream of nuclear war every night.
It didn't bother me so much, but then I read books about nuclear war all the time by then. Z for Zacharias and Hiroshima, children's books and not. It was good I was precocious, I'd be ready to know things if I needed to, in case the poison in the rain came for all the grownups first. There were windows in our classroom, so I worried about that.
Every time I enter an office or a shop or some other non-residential place, I think of how to make it a refuge, a shelter, from bombs that leave things in the rain. Here will be the bedrooms. Here, infirmary. Here we will store food. Here there will be privacy for sex. Here there will be children.
Every day for thirty years I have done this. Every day for the rest of my life I will do this.
That's what it was like. So real, so omnipresent, that if the specter of nuclear war was mentioned, it seemed to make everything around it real, no matter how fanciful.
Because I sort of always write like this, you probably don't believe me. But if you remember it, you're nodding, because you know, you remember, and because at some point you'll take a drink at a party and laugh over your glass to someone else who knows and remembers and talk about how you thought when you were six or seven or eight that you were going to live your entire life sealed inside an ugly cafeteria or a drugstore or the halls of a stadium, vomiting and losing your hair.
It's like the biggest secret club in the whole world. And it sucks. But I think it's why I'm so good at endlessly rearranging the stuff in our freezer to make more fit. I grew up thinking about cramped geometries.