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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