Ken Newton FB image

You must have a little bit of age to remember the movie, a Thanksgiving season treat about nuclear annihilation.

Barely remembered these days, “The Day After” caused quite a stir when it came out in November 1983.

It aired on ABC and had a viewership of 100 million Americans, including one, President Ronald Reagan, who got an advance screening and wrote in his diary that it left him “greatly depressed” and strengthened his resolve “to see there is never a nuclear war.”

Most interesting, at least for people in these parts, was the screenplay’s location, primarily Kansas City and Lawrence, Kansas. Atomic blasts decimate the region, and survivors make their way among the ruins, waiting for radiation sickness to claim them.

Grim fare, to be sure. The movie provided no subtlety in its message: Keep up the Cold War, and these charred cities can be your own.

People my age became products of this struggle, the Soviet Union and the United States locked in the brinkmanship of nuclear superiority.

Their build-up of weapons, went the theory, meant to ensure mutually assured destruction, a supposed deterrent from any bomb ever being used. Knowing the players involved, their fervor in the compiling of arsenals, few took comfort in this idea.

As a youngster, I took part in drills to duck under desks should a nuclear attack happen in rural Missouri before the day’s final school bell rang.

As a young reporter, I interviewed numerous politicians and asked countless questions about nuclear disarmament, the subject du jour of those times.

In cities like St. Joseph, civil defense authorities designated certain locations as public fallout shelters, not lead-lined vaults but places that might be characterized as “better than nothing” in case the worst happened.

A 1963 list published in this newspaper included 71 buildings for such use. Some of the buildings no longer exist.

The city’s Fire Prevention Bureau reported the Hotel Robidoux had a shelter capacity of 1,740, with room for another 150 in its garage. City Auditorium could accommodate 3,090, according to the list. More modestly, the Mechanics Bank at Fifth and Edmond streets, could shelter 95.

Sturdy buildings that had shelters reside near my workplace. The Downtown Library could take in 105 people to avoid fallout, while the Downtown Post Office had space for 480. For that matter, the News-Press had a shelter designation and a capacity of 355.

From the Cold War emerged no nuclear blasts carried out in hostility, no devastation on the order of “The Day After.”

Any given generation finds itself defined by an event outside its control.

My parents came of age during the Great Depression, with World War II close on its heels.

Baby boomers, the folks my age, grew up in the shadow of nuclear uncertainty, of political assassinations and of Vietnam. It shaped our thinking.

One day 19 years ago, I made sure all my children heard from me, answering the unanswerable as they sorted out thoughts about terrorists attacking New York and Washington. It would remain for them “that day,” the one where you remember exactly where you were the moment you heard.

Now, young people have their own crisis, a deadly virus of sweeping transmission, one pushing their accustomed activities aside, one putting them in face coverings, one stepping up the level of concern among adults trying to keep them from harm.

The start of most school years brings for students a good dose of excitement. In 2020, it brings anxieties.

This becomes their story to tell one day.

Ken Newton's column runs on Tuesday and Sunday. Follow him on Twitter: @SJNPNewton.​