Day by day, I observed the mound of dirt increase to a hillock, then a hill, overflowing onto my neighbor's driveway. The adjacent cavity broadened and deepened, then mostly deepened. Some tree, I thought to myself.
Suddenly, the hill was gone. In its place was a pile of concrete blocks, reinforcement rods, and a cement mixer. Not a tree, I thought to myself.
My neighbor must have worked nights, for I never saw the man himself, only evidence of his labors. His "fall-out shelter" was capped with a manhole cover and what looked like a periscope. By that time, I had need of a lawn-mower and took advantage of a sale at Sears. My neighbor covered over his shelter with dirt. His financial resources apparently depleted, he put off planting a lawn for some months. But he was ready. I began paying special attention to the news.
The "Cold War" was raging. Our government carried out well publicized tests of thermonuclear devices, which were called "hydrogen bombs" back then. The word "megaton" gained currency along with "ground zero." The evening news reported casual comments by a Pentagon official. He used the term "overkill." A new word to me. The military benefit was plain enough: overkill provides the margin of safety against -- well, underkill.
The numbers in the news were scary, particularly the huge sums those "Russians" were reportedly investing in "civil defense." Posters featuring "mushroom clouds" appeared on sign boards. All forms of what would later be called "the media" expressed the chilling sentiment that after a "nuclear holocaust," the side with the most civilian survivors would win. Surviving became a patriotic duty. Digging shelters took on noble dimensions.
Today, there are presidential candidates born since the beginning of the Atomic Age whose image of nuclear explosions must be gleaned from streaky old "newsreels." Most U.S. Senators are not old enough to remember the early thermonuclear detonations and doubtless presume that some atoll in the Pacific was named after a two-piece bathing suit.
The world's leaders are inured to the nuclear "threat," having grown up in the presence of the unthinkable being thought about. Hardly a reassuring perspective.
My own awareness of the atom dates back to Camp San-Y-Ca on Mount San Gorgonio and a certain old Dr. Larkin. One night, he made his appearance at the campfire carrying a newspaper under his arm. It was not unusual for him to bring props to illustrate his stories or to give object lessons. That night was different: No opening puns, no baffling riddles.
Instead, Dr. Larkin delivered an elementary account of the atom and its nucleus, of fission and gigantic energies. My twelve-year-old mind struggled to cope with a "kiloton" of dynamite. Suddenly, Dr. Larkin unfolded the paper and held it aloft for all to see. A two-word headline covered half the page. "ATOMIC BOMB!"
It was August 6, 1945.
Cynics decried the whole idea. "So you stay down there for weeks," they shrugged. "The radiation subsides and you come up. To what!"
Others found themselves repulsed on idealistic grounds. "Would you gun down your neighbor over a can of peaches?"
Economic considerations seemed out of place. Still, my priorities included carpeting of the living room, and I knew my fellow ride-poolers faced similar financial constraints.
"Maybe the Russians will wait until our dining room set is paid off," I blurted.
The next Saturday I paced off an area in the back yard and pounded in four stakes. I owe a lot to my country, thought I. The least I can do is provide the means by which my own family shall outlive the pending calamity. Digging a hole costs zilch. I took shovel in hand and a deep breath.
Never mind that my own family watches with suspicion as I dig up the kids' croquet court. They'll be glad someday. Never mind the blisters and backache. With each turn of the shovel, though, my enthusiasm for the project diminished. Less than a foot down, I struck rocks, cursed the Russians, and quit.
The use of "overkill" has mushroomed in English usage over the years, displacing dozens of less lethal expressions...
overabundance, overachieve, overact,
Thus the atomic age has given the English Language its
ultimate obscenity: "overkill" has come to mean mere excess.
Dr. Larkin. In mid-2002, I received an e-mail from Francis Post, a retired railroad engineer, relating the following story about Dr. Larkin, but not providing his first name:
You must have been in the next group of campers after mine. Early in our stay at Camp San-Y-Ca, Dr. Larkin came to our shelter on a dark evening with a small, silver box. It was made in Germany and had a jeweller's loupe mounted on one side. He let each of us glance at the tiny flashes of light caused by the atomic fission in a speck of radium that was mounted beneath the loupe. He also told us there was enough energy in a cup of water to drive a steamship across an ocean if we could find a way to harness the energy.For another reference to Dr. Larkin, see sincere. PN