August 16th, 2013 / 2:32 pm
Behind the Scenes

I Still Think About the Bomb Sometimes


After The Day After ran on ABC in November, 1983, it took me weeks to sleep normally again. The attack scene cycled through my brain, night after night. But not the panicky running and the electromagnetic pulse. Just the mushroom cloud. Just the bright light revealing the skeletons within the doomed. Just the fire and the flash.

Much of The Day After takes place in Kansas City. At the time, my family and I lived in Kansas City. Because of The Day After, and until he left office, I was always at least a little afraid of Ronald Reagan.


This pizza place near our house had some arcade cabinets, and the one I liked best was Missile Command.

Here’s the best decision the designers of Missile Command made on the cabinet: they gave it a trackball. A joystick makes reliable moves. A trackball is about imprecision.

In Missile Command, the imprecision of the trackball amplifies as the game speeds up. As the play-anxiety increases, as the bombs fall faster and faster, the hand on the trackball gets less deft and spins the ball ever more wildly. One may wrack and rock a joystick back and forth with ever-tensing muscle movements, but the trackball gets spun and whacked hard, and it responds with less exactness. The crosshairs that direct the anti-ballistic missiles from the ground to the flashing pixel at the end of the colored bomb trails panic as you panic.

Younger, I played video games with my body, not just my hands and my eyes. I shifted and jumped as my onscreen avatar shifted and jumped. I was once made fun of in a 7-11 when some older boys saw me jump when Jumpman jumped to avoid a barrel. I threw myself into Missile Command. I moved as the crosshairs moved. I wilted when the last of my cities was vaporized and the game ended.


Of all the nuclear device delivery options, my favorite is the atomic cannon. It seems the weirdest to me.

Dropping a bomb from a plane seems reasonable. You’re up in the air. You fly away quickly.

Sending a bomb to a target on a rocket seems reasonable to me. It launches into the atmosphere. It travels a great distance.

Loading an atomic shell into a cannon and firing it a few miles away seems ludicrous, even if it’s not. After some consideration, I’ve decided that it feels ludicrous to me because the general shape of the cannon has not changed all that significantly. I can see within the shape of any cannon all its ancestral iterations. I can see someone loading a nuclear shell into a bamboo tube and exploding it out onto the field of war.

Once on a road trip, I stopped at the atomic cannon in Junction City, Kansas to see one in person. I remember thinking it was smaller than I wanted it to be.


Now all the bombs are suitcase small and dirty. Now all the bombs they talk about are in the hands of madmen and independent actors. Now the bombs are about smallscale terror. And they seem worse to some people because of it.

But I’m not sure. Then the fear was there, and global and constant. Now it comes in punctuated moments. Once it cloaked my planet entirely, always. Now it is a possible thunderclap. Once it was just the temperature. Now I might hear it in the distance. Once I just always felt it on my skin.


I still think about the bomb sometimes. You?

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  1. Ken Baumann

      Yep. Sometimes I expect loud, distant impacts to be followed by that light.

      THE MAKING OF THE ATOMIC BOMB reads like the most precise and magnificent folly. What awful, awful cohesion.

      The Genbaku Dome felt uncanny, tranquil. Its huge iron girders were beautifully—easily—warped. Curved out like arranged flowers.

      I’ll always remember the feeling of Hiroshima’s central ease, the wind, the placid rivers forming a V. Eating ice cream after visiting the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Being asked to fill out cards about our “experience of Hiroshima”, the city employees desperate to hear that someone’s visiting for an unrelated reason.

  2. Rauan Klassnik

      it’s amazing there hasn’t been a “bomb,” I mean it just seems like it should have happened by now.

      that being said I think I’m just too busy worrying about Guacamole
      and compiling up lists of important poets, blah, blah

  3. Marc

      The atomic cannon is huge compared to the Davy Crockett. It’s an atomic gun!

      I grew up in mid-Missouri, in a town that was destroyed in The Day After, and still recall when the government took the Minuteman III missiles out of the ground. It was a relief, right up until they decided to house the B-2 program at Whiteman afb, which meant we were still a primary target during a first strike!

  4. deadgod

      Ther’s letters seald, and my two Schoolefellowes,
      Whom I will trust as I will Adders fang’d
      They beare the mandat, they must sweep my way
      And marshall me to knauery: let it work,
      For tis the sport to haue the enginer
      Hoist with his owne petar
      , an’t shall goe hard
      But I will delue one yard belowe their mines,
      And blowe them at the Moone: ô tis most sweet
      When in one line two crafts directly meete,
      This man shall set me packing,
      Ile lugge the guts into the neighbour roome;
      Mother good night indeed, this Counsayler
      Is now most still, most secret, and most graue,
      Who was in life a most foolish prating knaue.
      Come sir, to draw toward an end with you.
      Good night mother.


  5. Matthew Simmons

      Re: the Davy Crockett, I’m speechless. Thanks for the link!

  6. mimi

      I’m a mushroom-cloud layin’ motherfucker, motherfucker.

      –Jules Winnfield

  7. Mike Meginnis

      There were a couple years when it was almost all I thought about. Now I think about it less.

  8. Jeremy Hopkins

      I think about the bad rep trackballs have gotten. Trackballs are tops.

  9. shanshan