The Lighter Side of Nuclear Annihilation | Trouble with Old People, September 2018

by Steve Van Auken


There have always been experts ready to warn about looming tragedy. My own peer group has seen any number of threats to the Republic. Some of these (Asian Carp in lakes, fruit in beer, Facebook) have actually happened. Others have passed right through our national consciousness, leaving behind only a haze of needless anxiety.

Rock and roll began in the 1950s. There was immediate panic by responsible people. Rock’s earthy beats and lyrics would make young people stupid. Because, you see, rock tunes were such a step down from the sophisticated songs that were popular before rock came along — finely-crafted numbers like “Itsy-Bitsy, Teeny-Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” (“One, two, three, four. Tell the people what she wore!”) and “The Battle of New Orleans”  (“We filled his mouth with cannon balls and powdered his behind, and when we set the powder off the gator lost his mind!”) and Perry Como’s subtle, moody classic, “Hot Diggity-Dog” (“Hot diggity-dog diggity-boom what you do to me, it’s so new to me, what you do to me!”)

As it turned out, if Americans were getting dumber, it was not because Elvis was in the house. Social commentators had identified a new and terrible threat.


Fluoride had been added to our water. The reason it was put there was because it helped protect against tooth decay. But America’s conspiracy theorists realized this must be a plot to poison us all. They raged about it for decades — until their position was undermined by the fact that no one actually got sick and everybody’s teeth got better. Down but never out, they were forced to search for other fact-free catastrophes. (Did you know that what you thought are jet trails in the sky are actually chemicals that the government is spreading to poison us?)

The biggest threat that never came true was being attacked by Russian atomic bombs. This sounds sort of quaint now that some unstable countries have nuclear weapons. But it is hard to overstate how serious the Russian threat appeared in the 1950s. Educators tried to help us kids handle the stress by showing us the lighter side of nuclear annihilation. A cartoon turtle told us how to “duck and cover” under our desk. My friend Ronny Bash and I climbed a tree in his yard so we would be closer to the sky, and better able to use our plastic binoculars to spot the attacking Russian planes.

America’s vigilance did not end in the 1950s. Fifteen years later, when I was in basic training in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, one of our sergeants explained what to do if in combat we saw a nuclear explosion. “First, dig you a hole. Get in it. Put your poncho over your head. When the danger has passed, get out and continue your mission. Any questions?  OK, smoke ’em if you got ’em.”

Another fear involved our dreadful lack of foreign language skills. Educators noted with alarm that young Americans could barely be bothered to learn English (corrupted as we were by rock and roll), let alone a foreign language. This was in marked contrast to the youth of other countries. They were all busily studying German and Chinese, when they weren’t studying Urdu. With their polyglot skills they would out-compete us in the global marketplace. This worried a lot of thoughtful people. Right up until it became clear that the whole world had decided–lucky us!–to learn English.

MORE TROUBLE WITH OLD PEOPLE: The List of Dangerous Things

Now, not only are we not required to speak another language, the other people of the world won’t let us. Try visiting Montreal and dusting-off your high school French. You will get away with “speaking French” for about 10 seconds. At that point, the Canadian citizen switches to English. She wants to practice her English, which is so much better than your French. And maybe her English is better than yours, too.

A massive fear was that the U.S. would Go Communist. The Russians, ruled by a brutal dictatorship (this part was true, and still is) supposedly had agents lurking everywhere. Your next door neighbor might be one. Politicians based careers on accusing each other of being “soft on Communism.”

This is a charge not often heard today — not since the Russians decided they didn’t want to be communists anymore. What they really wanted was to be capitalists, and to make a lot of money. In the U.S., the party that once prided itself on being toughest on Communism recently elected a president who was trying hard to build a hotel with his name on it in the center of Moscow. If Richard Nixon were alive today, he would be telling Oprah all about his new book, “Intimate Dinners with Krushchev: Our Untold Story.”

Then, 20 years ago, we were warned about “Y2K.”  When the new century dawned, all our computers would go on strike and refuse to process our water bills or tell the clerks at Wendy’s how much change to give. The bad news was that a lot of people worried. The good news was that most of the bad things never happened. And work was created for retired engineers who still spoke the ancient languages, Cobol and Fortran.


A lot of crises have been predicted. Most of them never occurred. Which of course does not mean that the next one won’t really happen. But we seniors are a pretty resilient bunch. The next time the Very Bad Thing is predicted, keep your eye on us. We remember how to duck and cover.


Steve Van Auken has now lived in Akron long enough to give directions according to where things used to be.