It’s just you and me, now.
The last two punks. Desperate honeymooners on the eve of the apocalypse.
The shattered glass in your hair glitters pretty (are we flirting?).
Before us is a barren, sandy nothing.
Leftovers from a forest of mushroom clouds that shaved so close to the surface nothing was left but blood and peeled back soil.
I’m envisioning ashy, nuclear winter for the first time, and I’m not sure why it’s taken so long for those images to awaken inside of me. I think I was blinded by the pictures: those sooty, black and white nothings displaying Hiroshima and Nagasaki being blown off the face of the Earth.
The pictures are so small, peaking their way out of text books, sandwiched between dry passages dripping with platitudes. Text about defeating Japan, about the oncoming Cold War, about Albert Einstein, and FDR, and Harry Truman, and nothing that really encapsulates what the pictures are actually showing you: instant death, made commercial, ready like a Henry Ford assembly line. The picture is a small, flaccid, wallpaperish preview of the absolute end.
It contains every massive thing that words fail to touch, and yet its inadequacy is legion.
Call it foreshadowing. Benign until it grows.
Did you know the United States alone has some 7,700 nuclear warheads?
I’ve looked at those pictures my whole life. They’ve been in the background of music videos I love, they’ve been used in commercials and montages, they’ve been denuded and decontextualized and reduced to the very scrap they leave behind.
Like Pandora’s Box, these images contain a fate so astronomically and uncannily large, so frightful and impossible to digest, that we’ve reduced to it stock footage. To sound bites. To crackling images that the resolution on our latest cell phones put to shame.
“Below us, spread out almost as far as I could see, was a great fire, but it was like no ordinary fire. It contained a dozen colors, all of them blindingly bright, more colors than I imagined existed, and in the center and brightest of all, a gigantic red ball of flame that seemed larger than the sun. Indeed, it seemed that, somehow, the sun had been knocked out of the sky and was on the ground below us and beginning to rise again, only coming straight up towards us — and fast.”
The words of Sgt. Abe Spitzer , radio operator watching from a B-29 as the bomb called Fat Man obliterated Nagasaki. I don’t see what he’s describing in the pictures. I see clouds, smoke — a gray pillar snaking from the Earth. The Earth at an unknowable distance, uninhabited as far as I can tell. Just wisps and puffs of smoke, like so much hot air. Hard to tell of the destruction below from staring at the pictures.
Like an exploding death star — a matrix of lives being ripped apart, in an instant, reduced to a prettifying light show, with a John Williams score.
Pictures lie, I’ve learned. They don’t show — and don’t care — for the small things they’re obscuring. Context and contradiction will be paved over in favor of a pretty, well composed image. Even Christ himself (if you believe that sort of thing) hangs limp and bleeding from a torture device on the walls of countless homes across the country. Thinking of him gives us calm — a force of benevolence and tolerance and peace.
Hard to imagine the suffering encased in the skull of the plastic Christ that hangs on my wall, the kind that must have been screaming inside of his head, and in the heads of anyone else unlucky enough to be crucified (imagine, Simon Peter was crucified upside down, to experience the shrill I’m talking about, and then some?). Somehow, the image has become quaint: American Gothic, deep fried, rural. Apple pie and honey suckle and atomic bombs.
The crucifixion, at some point, lost its danger. It lost its tragedy, and, consequently, its ability to redeem.
Old American Jesus lost his significance.
Which is why we all flocked slack-jawed to the Passion of the Christ in 2003, to watch Jim Caviezel get flayed alive by whips and cat-o-nine tails and shattered glass. We wanted to taste a little bit of that horror, to put the blood back on the wall, to get closer to the feelings that we’d lost in the images. We wanted to re-learn how to suffer with purpose.
We hid razor blades in our popcorn, and all flocked to the movies to grovel.
Did you know Fat Man detonated right outside of a Roman Catholic cathedral?
There’s a crucifix on the wall of the place we’re in now.
You and me, the last punks, only now it’s 2014, and we’re tucked away in a mom ‘n pop barbecue joint off Route 50.
The place we’re in smells of grease and butter. A boar’s skull is mounted on the back wall, speaking less to death than to Georgia O’Keeffe. Shelves lined with hot sauces recall camels and cactuses and cartoon cowboys, sweating bullets and burping up atomic mushroom clouds from their throats. Oil slicks their jeans.
Our wild west is comfortable. A dive whose pleasures have been culled from the silver screen. Roy Rogers is riding tonight, and I think he’d be at home in the booth next to ours.
Tonight, we’re Hopper’s Nighthawks by way of the rustic south, apparitions of a weekend-to-come dancing behind our eyes and animating our conversations; the sweet ghosts of our future, sworn to attacking our livers and spotting our memories. All ghosts should be so benevolent.
It lurks behind us, though. Storm clouds trapped inside a laminated poster, pinned to the wall and declaring, “The Darkest Day the World Has Ever Known”. A little boy eyes It. He’s reflected hazily in the lamination: diamond dimples frame his mouth and strawberry blond hair shoots out of his head. There’s barbecue smeared across his lips. Curiosity lights up his young eyes.
How old is he? As old as we were when It happened, maybe. No, he must be younger. The baby fat’s still in his cheeks.
“The Darkest Day the World Has Ever Known,” is just history to him: dust covered, text book history, sandwiched between his birth and the war-drums of the past, when the south was wild, well before these lonely highways knew concrete.
That’s how young he is. Young enough to know It only through pictures and videos and maybe the occasional hushed whisper. Something he might have snagged from adult conversation, or heard tossed about on television. Politicized, no doubt, maybe memorialized in school. Surely taught, if not only to explain the scars that stretch across his waking life; unobtrusive keloid, hazy but there all the same.
He’s felt it, but he doesn’t know it.
Now, he reaches a hand out to touch it: a picture of the North Tower, smoke billowing from within its damaged insides. It’s encased in this lamination, and it’s been reproduced countless times on the poster: eight, maybe twelve different front pages from 9-12-2001.
America has been attacked, the headlines assure us.
The world will never be the same.
We sit and eat not five feet from it, and we don’t really notice it until he reaches his fingers out, and his mother flinches: “What are you doing?”
“It looks like the Hindenburg,” he says.
“It looks just like the Hindenburg.”
And he isn’t wrong, you know; that old black and white photograph of a German blimp disengorged, its insides bruising the sky. And yet, somehow, it seems…offensive? She tenses up. There’s an electric hum that radiates through our group.
This is ancient history. It happened before he was born.
Why is it such a striking characterization? His comment is earnest. Apt, intelligent. He has a sharp mind, a wonderful curiosity.
Why does it feel so flip? To dredge up something from the past; something so safe, so distant, so relatively benign, to describe the darkest day our world has ever known. You’d have to flip through a long rolodex of history to light upon the Hindenburg, but 9-11? It’s not ancient history to us.
The Hindenburg…that’s the cover of Led Zeppelin’s first album. The airship, on fire. God, they’ve even made an action figure out of it. Hard to recall the tragedy just beyond those plastic flames. The place where real bodies knew fire. Where real lives were lost.
Is that what it is? Is the Hindenburg now pop culture?
God. It lurches inside me somewhere; the thought that, maybe, this, too, will be pop culture for the future. That maybe it’s become pop culture already.
These thoughts are a back road swamp. I remember kids telling Holocaust jokes in school, and I never understood where they came from, until now I’m thinking they came from this swamp: where pop culture and tragedy become indistinguishable.
It’s a swamp where images start to lose their weight after countless reproduction; where a sarcastic response to culture belays a sarcastic response to history.
Where maybe nothing means anything because nothing is real.
But how else do we accurately report on our past?
How else do we memorialize it?
The story has to be told. When it’s told too often, it becomes media.
When did the Zapruder footage become a video game?
When did it lose its suffocating and nauseating power? When does history eat our hero of Camelot whole, and reduce his life to something not much larger than the very pixels that make up the blood on Jackie’s dress?
Stories allow men to be giants by recasting them as myth.
Photography, though–does it somehow cut them? Turn them into an Andy Warhol painting?
June 6th is the 70th anniversary of D-Day, and I’m not too proud to say I’ve celebrated in the past by playing a video game–rushing up the beach in a pixelated world from the comfort of my couch, and learning the wrong lessons: that this is fun, that this is exciting, that this is somehow artistic. That you can somehow start over if you mess up, if you can’t get out of the boat on time. That this, of course, is just a game.
Turning war into a game is something of a boyhood ritual, to be sure, but it feels different. Maybe it’s because it looks so real. Maybe it’s because you can buy it. Maybe it’s because, just as easily, you can throw it away.
You and me, last two punks.
Back in the restaurant, we straighten up.
“Eat your sandwich,” the boy’s mother says, and his fingers, inching so steadily towards the laminate, retreat and return to the pork-chop on his plate. For now, the issue is resolved. Detente. If his sandwich is half as good as mine is, he’ll have forgotten the whole thing in a couple of minutes.
But it won’t forget him.
History doesn’t let go. It’s got a stranglehold around your neck before you’re even born, and it doesn’t care. You have to work hard at history, but it doesn’t have to work hard at you. I think, maybe, this kid understands that (his references betray an old soul). I hope he does.
These roots draw deep water, planted in the blood of history. They’ve lashed him to a past that was once active, that’s been molding his world since before he was even a part of it. It wasn’t so long ago; he must have passed it on his way into the world. Yet, for him, it is a fact of distant, unknowable fathers, sung in the scars of old men. Seems, sometimes, that all the best we can do is enshrine them in laminate.
It wasn’t fact for us. It unfolded, clumsily, before our eyes. It wounded us. It altered us. It was anything but academic.