When she was grown up and about to be married, my oldest niece told her fleet of aunts that we had struck fear in the heart of her childhood with our talk, with our out-loud worries about nuclear war.
Along with her younger sister and my oldest daughter, she was a child at the pinnacle of the 1980s nuclear arms race, the U.S. and Soviet arsenals expanding wildly. The Doomsday Clock was ticking; in 1984 the minute hand read three before midnight, the hour of nuclear disaster.
I was oblivious that our talk was picked up by the children around us, who appeared busy with crayons and games of make-believe. Yet we carried the dangers wrought by our weapons and our national swagger on the tips of our tongues.
There were accounts of Cold War-era close calls: the NORAD command center ready to launch at aberrant blips skimming across the radar screen. As the government encouraged evacuation plans, in the early '80s peace groups in Seattle diagrammed a bulls-eye of concentric circles marking points of detonation and destruction.
In musings on where to glimpse the last moment of Earth, Discovery Park rose to the surface. With its bluff overlooking Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains silhouetted against the sky, it would be a place to watch beauty and terror. Here were the threads that wove fear into childhoods. It was the world of adults and politics that failed then, and fails in a different twist now.
Now, in 2007, the history unfolding around us is urgent. My children have grown up in a country nearly always waging a distant war.
Washington's Hanford Nuclear Reservation raced to produce the plutonium for the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945. The Nagasaki blast followed by three days the world's first atomic bombing, when Hiroshima disintegrated in a literal flash.
More than 60 years later, the nuclear "club" has grown. The Bush administration has ramped up threats, unleashing strategies to wage endless wars, and plunging Iraq into ruin in its "war against terrorism." It vows to keep open the "nuclear option" and seeks funding to develop new nuclear weapons, spinning toward a dangerous nuclear escalation.
The Doomsday Clock, stopped at seven minutes since 2002, was moved forward in January to five minutes before midnight, a warning of climatic threats and a frightening new nuclear age.
Our neighbor, Bangor, is home to Trident nuclear submarines, each carrying the destructive power of 1,000 Hiroshima bombs. Flanked by Bangor's nuclear arsenal and Hanford's nuclear waste, we live amid the power to end millions of lives, to block the sun. The pressure, marked by pilgrimages of protests, mounts to avert catastrophe, to shutter those weapons for good.
We are still aunts and parents looking for a citizen's step against the rising nuclear tide, to end the child's nightmare, and demand a better world. Humankind would pull back from the precipice of bystanders burned into shadows, their silhouettes pressed into sidewalk and fence, and of life turned to ash and stone.
In this world, weapons would fall silent, and children would know peace. The Earth we tend, that curves like a nest and cradles our homes, would stretch on unthreatened. The sun and moon would cast their light over city, farm, desert and sea, marking time in a weaponless sky.
Nancy Dickeman lives in Seattle.
© 2007 The Seattle Post-Intelligencer