The Mayans being before my time, I’m too young for their End of the World.
Theirs comes from an ancient calendar that says “the fourteenth baktun” — a new era —will commence on Dec. 21, 2012.
Mine’s newer. It comes from Mrs. Elkin, my second grade teacher, who told us how to hide during an atomic bomb attack. None of us had much confidence that sitting under our desks would work, which is why my End of the World makes no reference to calendars. Instead, it comes with a mushroom cloud.
For most of my young life, this is how I thought about The End, and with all due respect to the Mayans, there is something grand, even colossal, about an atomic finish, and here’s my proof.
Historian Alex Wellerstein once posted an old video, produced, I presume, by the U.S. military, around 1952. It shows an atomic bomb exploding on the Nevada desert.
Like most bomb blast images, you can see it from a respectful distance, a long stem with a mushroom cloud on top — but this video is different. It includes shots from the ground up, from an ordinary soldier’s point of view and on this particular day, there were soldiers there, standing in trenches, watching.
As they look, they get hit by a shock wave…
After which, they are told to leave their trenches and head toward the explosion, which is at that moment rising to the sky directly in front of them. I have never seen — and Alex says these are very rare — an atomic bomb with people so exposed and so close.
Here they are even closer. That’s the bottom of the mushroom cloud which now towers above them. “I suddenly get a sense for how big the cloud is,” Alex writes, “even though it must be many miles away.”
In the video there’s a tracking shot that takes you from these soldiers up the column of smoke, higher and higher — it just goes on and on and on — until we reach the cloud on top. As atomic bombs go, this wasn’t a big one. So this is a rare look at the immensity of these weapons.
What you can’t see, of course, is the horror they cause, the damage this bomb is doing to these soldiers, the damage it could do to homes, cities, animals, people. But oddly, a sense of scale has been missing from most images of an atomic Armageddon. This video is the closest I can get to imagining the immensity of my End of the World.
I don’t know what the Mayans imagined for their finish — I’m not expecting to find out on Friday — but this was the nightmare I grew up with. I’m very glad that over the years what I feared is getting a little less likely.
Here’s the video:
Thanks to Alex Wellerstein, historian at the at the American Institute of Physics, whose cold war tales are regularly posted on his Restricted Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog. That’s where I go when I’m looking to be (metaphorically only), blown away.
And that’s where I found this video and his accompanying essay. He called it “In Search of a Sense of Scale.”