American Culture

Remembering my own atomic angst with The Day After The Day After

I feel like I lived Steven Church’s The Day After the Day After: My Atomic Angst, even if I didn’t grow up in Kansas. Church manages to capture the nuclear angst that overshadowed my own Cold War-childhood. I was too old for “duck and cover,” but Reagan had the arms race in full swing, so the threat of Armageddon loomed over all. “I was afraid of the future,” Church wrote, “more comfortable with the fantastical….”


Church grew up in Lawrence, Kansas, the town featured in the 1983 television movie, which was also filmed there. The overlap had a profound impact on Church because “[t]his synchronicity between fiction and reality was not an unusual experience” for him. “This was the sort of boundary-blurring experience that defined my childhood,” he says.

In the same way, I lived just a few miles to the east—downwind—of Three Mile Island when it nearly melted down almost simultaneously with The China Syndrome. What’s real and what’s imaginary and how do the two play off each other? What memories result, and how do we understand those memories?

The Day After came a few years after TMI. I remember watching it on a grainy color TV in my dad’s living room. In school the next day, we talked about the movie. It might’ve been the first time that I’d been assigned to watch TV as homework, but I’d have watched the movie anyway. It was stark, startling, bleak. I loved Jason Robards from his performance in Something Wicked This Way Comes, so to see him in a different movie, a movie with mushroom clouds, was a highlight. JoBeth Williams, hot off Poltergeist, showed up, too.

Church’s book also conflates (intentionally) the experience of Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, and the other Wolverines from Red Dawn in his childhood story of atomic angst. I loved that movie as a kid (and as a guilt pleasure will still watch it from time to time).

Church kept delighting me–and I don’t use that word lightly–with the different cultural references he made in his book and the different metaphors he used to support his theme. Wizard of Oz, Super Friends, Marvel Comics, John Brown and “Bleeding Kansas,” Wrath of Kahn, backyard basketball—I have lived that life. In the midst of that imagination, Church finds strange comfort in the daily farm report on TV. I had a farm report, too: the 100-acre farm my dad owned, where I toiled away summers and my first two years of high school.

In a way, I still live the life Church is talking about. “To hold your own child in your hands—in one of the hands you inherited from your father—is to feel the entire universe in your palm,” he says. Amen, I respond, amen.

Church’s use of the fictionalized adulthood of Danny Dahlberg, a character in the movie, makes for an innovative and proactive narrative conceit. It lets Church say things he, as a reliable narrator, couldn’t otherwise say. Its was a particularly neat device–and particularly effective.

I also like the little bit of journalism Church throws in there when we goes to talk to the film’s director, Nicholas Meyer, and the way he ties in real-life post-tornado destruction into the book’s theme of apocalypse. Kansas has a long history of violence, real and imaginary, man-made and natural, which he conjures with respect, fear, and awe. Overall, he really gives himself tremendously fertile ground to explore, and then he explores it in interesting and thoughtful ways.

The book’s many layers kept me captivated. I didn’t feel like he was beating me over the head with his associations, either, which allowed me to do a lot of the “work” and be engaged with the text in really enjoyable ways. That allowed the book’s themes to reveale themselves to me gradually, richly.

The book also ties into a Memory Studies class I’m taking this semester. “What happens when 100 million Americans (at least) remember a television experience?” he asks, right in line with some of the questions we were asking in class at the moment. “It gathers the collective weight of memory like a magnet. It becomes bigger than itself, larger than life. It lives forever.” I’d be curious to hear what Day After memories, if any, S&R readers have.

I’m not sure if I agree with one of Church’s main assertions: “[A]rt needs to be about engagement and activism and not about escaping reality.” I don’t know if I agree with the activism part, but I agree that what separates art from entertainment is whether it’s main function is escapism. Art can certainly do that, but it has to do more, too.

Church’s book, I think, is a great example.

8 replies »

  1. Might have to try this book. Supposedly Reagan watched the mini-series and it moved him to propose (however briefly) abolishing nuclear weapons at the Reykjavík summit with Gorbachev. Even though I’m an anti-nukes activist, I never saw the series. Looked for it a couple of weeks ago on Netflix — not there! Meanwhile, I always wondered why they picked on poor Lawrence, site of the Lawrence, or Quantrill’s, Massacre in the Civil War.

  2. I was 14 when this movie was shown on TV and I watched it with great fear and dread. My 14 year old take away from this film: no need to plan for the future because the future will be obliterated.

    I lived with this apocalyptic dread for the next 16 years. I drifted around in college and though I earned over 100 units, I never focused on getting a degree because in my mind “the end was near.”

    In 1999 I secretly feared the whole Y2k thing, and though I did not share my fears with anyone, I believed that it was quite possible that we would all be “fleeing into the mountains” soon. On Jan. 1, 2000 I woke up and realized that I had wasted 16 years of my life fearing an apocalypse that may never come (or at least may never come in my lifetime). I made a serious adjustment in my worldview and began to live as if there would be a “tomorrow.”

    For this reason I cannot read “apocalyptic” literature, such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I have no interest in re-visiting apocalyptic fears or visions. What comes will come, and I no interest in re-living the fear of it… some ways, because of the years I spent living in apocalyptic dread, I feel as though I have died a “first” death (if that makes any sense). Like my attachments to this world are not quite as attached as they would have been without that 16 years of fear and dread.

    • I never watched The Day After Tomorrow, although I have heard a lot about it. I had a similar moment when I read “On the Beach” in junior high, however, and it was hard. Hell, during the first Gulf War, I surreptitiously hid away stuff that I’d need if a nuclear war was triggered as a result of the war ballooning out of the Middle East. That thankfully never happened, but I was still prepared for it. I kept track of where my dad’s shotgun was and found the key to the case where the shells were kept locked up. I worked out plans for how to get us up into the mountains where there was more food, what the best road were in order to hide from the initial flash and where the shockwaves wouldn’t kill my family, and so on.

      Nowadays I enjoy apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic literature, games, and movies are personal favorites. That’s generally because they’re nearly always stories of survival and hope, and I firmly believe that there is always hope, no matter how bad things are. Lucifer’s Hammer, Footfall, Independence Day, The Day after Tomorrow, 2012, the Fallout series of games, and so on – personal favorites.

  3. Thanks for sharing your story. Powerful stuff. It pains me to know that so many of us who grew up under the shroud of the possible mushroom cloud walked away with so much anxiety.

    “The Road,” by the way, is a hard book, so I can’t blame you there. It is, I admit, my favorite book, though, because it’s such a beautiful love story between father and son.

    I’m mostly worried about the Zombie Apocalypse. 😉

  4. I admire people like Brian who view the apocalypse as a challenge rather than dread it. Let me in your bunker!

    • I didn’t say I would enjoy the end of the world, only that I wanted to live through it and held out hope for the future even after the end of the world.