When We Thought the Bomb had Dropped
By Karla Fetrow
When most people think of the Cold War, they think of a time when communism was a palpable threat and Russia loomed, big and powerful, ready to step in and rule the world if America failed to protect Western freedom. For most of America however, in the roaring nineteen seventies, Russia was little more than just another country half way across the world, dark and looming, mysterious and highly competitive.
Not so for Alaska. The Cold War meant that you were up against an invisible fence, fortified by very visible artillery. We always knew when tensions escalated between the East and the West, because tanks suddenly began rolling down pathways cut close to the roads, and jets swarmed, shattering the sky with their mechanical roars. High in the mountains, you could see the large white discs of the Dew Line alert system and the occasional dome of a covered missile site, and you could never forget we were watching and being watched.
It was strange living in the shadow of a nuclear missile site. You would think it would be comfortable, looking up at that astonishing projectile, knowing it was there to defend you, but it wasn’t. The missiles were a reminder of how terribly fragile we are. The one closest to my home was a part of the anti-missile defense; that is it was a missile to bring down the missiles that were firing at us. It was so huge, ten people holding hands around the base would not be able to completely encircle it. The newspapers made a pun that the next missile to be erected would be an anti-anti missile; that is, it would go after the missiles that were going after the missiles we had initially fired. While it caused a few laughs, mainly it caused people to shudder.
The threat of a nuclear war was so real to us that hotels carried instructions for finding fallout shelters next to the Gideon Bibles on the dresser, the schools held routine drills and every home routinely replenished their cache of emergency water supplies and canned goods. We had a bomb shelter; a rather makeshift one. It was a concrete, half finished basement, with one small row of upper windows facing the mountains. There we kept the ping pong table, the washer and dryer, several folding army cots, a broad band radio, medical supply kit, bottled water, canned goods, hand tools and a small generator.
Going into this basement was like entering a stage area. Descending the steps you chose which dramatic role you would play, locked down in this half ethereal world of washing machines, ping pong games and basic survival. Possible scenarios rose over and over again of the close huddling, the deathly quiet, the long hours of wait before you could resurface. Sometimes it seemed more real, this prepared refuge against the holocaust than the ordinary life circling cheerfully upstairs.
While we were reminded every single day that we were teetering on the edge of war, we still had our own diversions from such morbid warnings. The pipeline was being constructed and there was so much money in the air, it seemed you could just reach out and snap it up. Everyone had jobs; good jobs; and the air was electric with flourishing businesses.
I was just out of my teens and sharing my first apartment with my sister, Mary, and our two significant others. We were on an astronomy kick that year. We shivered as we discussed black holes that somehow seemed more fearful than nuclear bombs. We tried to chart constellations with star maps, usually failing. We constructed a solar system from styrofoam balls and neon colored paints, pinning it to the living room ceiling. Some of the planets were a bit out of proportion, but we were proud of it and fond of retelling everyone about the kid that informed us we had made a mistake – Venus wasn’t a planet, it was a star.
It was one of those very late nights when we stayed up to watch our local television station’s very own late night talk show. It would have been boring except the cameramen were stoners with a sense of humor. The host never even had guests, but conducted his show by sitting at a desk and answering telephone calls, while the cameras took aimless shots at his hands and feet, moved the stage props behind him, replacing them with plastic marijuana plants, and sometimes even let a streaker run across the stage. It was amazing what you could get away with on the air at two in the morning, even more amazing the things it would occur to people to do if they’re out roaming around.
It occurred to someone to drop the bomb. At least, that was our impression. We felt the vibration first, a low muttering that chopped the air into little slow moving pieces. Our solar system fell, one by one, the neon balls seeming to float. Time moved so slow, we could track the progress of each ball visually, but so fast, no words could be uttered. And then it hit us, a roar more thunderous than the crash of an angry ocean, followed by a bright, red-orange flash. The concussion from the impact knocked the curtains from the windows and sent the chairs and table rattling across the kitchen floor. Only one person said, “it’s begun…” but it was what we were all thinking.
I reached for the telephone, intent on calling my parents, four miles away, but she had gotten to the phone first. It rang before I had a chance to start dialing. “Is everything okay over there?” My mother asked anxiously.
“Yes, we’re a bit shook up, but no one was hurt.”
“I just don’t know how it could have happened. The base has been alerted, but they haven’t reported any unusual air traffic.”
I reassured her I’d call her back when I had learned more and walked to our now wide open door where neighbors were congregating. Nobody knew anything. The police had been called but the police lived in Anchorage and it would be twenty minutes at least before they arrived. A few army helicopters hovered and swooped, flashing their spotlights over the clustered residential area and beyond to the wilderness swallowed in darkness.
“We should go to Tip’s bar,” suggested somebody, and everybody agreed. If there were any expert opinions at all, they would be found at Tip’s.
There was some scattered debris between the apartments and the bar. Nothing remarkable, just some cracked door posts, a collapsed car port, some broken outdoor furniture tilted like injured animals, but Tip’s Bar was in shambles. The windows were smashed. Half the bar stools lay out on the ground. The customers seemed more confused about what had happened than we were.
“Them commie bastards. I knew they’d come to this. They’re blowing the fish out of the water so we can’t have any. That’s what it is,” said one.
A few had already gone to their trucks and picked out their favorite rifles. They had formed a posse and they were going out hunting for the culprit. One had found religion. “It was a miracle. I was just sitting here, minding my own business, when the bar stools flew out of the bar, then half of them flew back in again. It’s a sign.”
Throughout the rest of the night and all the next day, the entire community stayed on the telephone line trying to learn who dropped the bomb and why and debated as to how it had missed its assumed target, the military base just a few miles away. It wasn’t until a couple of days later, we learned it had not been a bomb at all, but that someone had blown up a military bunker. Within a week we had learned it wasn’t communists or an enemy agent at all, but four teenage boys who had taken on a bigger project than they had expected.
They had thought the bunker was just a shell and dynamited it, but it had been full of stored artillery. The explosion had caused a three hundred foot crater in what had once been a rolling hill. The boys had suffered flash burns and when they sought medical attention, it was reported. It was also reported that one of the boys had been too close and had died.
The bomb scare brought to the little community it’s first police force, but not before the citizens had organized their own patrol and was doing their own volunteer watch for trouble makers. It also very neatly leveled out a large chunk of real estate that was carved into wealthy homes to be sold on the exclusive Powder Ridge. Powder Ridge residents, of course, have no idea how their real estate got its name, but the locals who remember would rather leave that capricious piece of land to deal with its ghosts.
The day the East and the West decided to end their race to build nuclear arms and stack them along the borders was a day of enormous relief for Alaskan residents. The day the missile silo was dismantled was like removing a giant shadow that had lingered too long, its dreary tread too pronounced, from in front of the sun. We had been frightened by a bomb that wasn’t a bomb. We had gone out to chase an enemy that wasn’t there. An entire generation has grown up with no idea of what it means to be in the middle of a Cold War. It’s dreary. It’s dark. It’s filled with distrust. Every day, when you wake up, you feel lucky that everything is normal, that coffee is brewing in the kitchen, that trees are waving outside your door and that the bomb hasn’t dropped.
Karla Fetrow: For Alaskans, the Cold War meant that you were eternally under the shadow of The Bomb and every day of your life you felt lucky that the world was still here.