In 1983 the made for TV movie “The Day After” exploded all over the faces of the American television audience. It famously drove home the potential horrors of nuclear war to President Ronald Reagan like nothing else, and inspired heated debate about nuclear proliferation and the arms race. In addition to that, it was an enormous ratings success, watched by over 100 million viewers, and terrified a generation.
Steven Church (“The Guinness Book of Me”, “Theoretical Killings”) was a young boy in Lawrence, Kansas, an idyllic college town in the country’s heartland. In 1982, when Hollywood came knocking on Lawrence’s door, he, like much of the town, was excited. The movie produced there that year was a little picture called “The Day After”. Church’s memoir “The Day After the Day After: My Atomic Angst”, recollects his experiences growing up in Lawrence, witnessing the production and airing of “The Day After”, and how it wove itself into the fabric of his life.
The author skillfully intertwines the violent history of Lawrence, from Quantrill’s murderous raids in the 1860s to the “Days of Rage” a hundred years later, with his own personal narrative. Like many children who grew up during the Cold War, he lived in fear of being evaporated in a nuclear war. As a spectator, he witnessed the producers of the film simulate the destruction of his hometown. He watched the citizens of Lawrence, his neighbors and classmates, in small extra roles as citizens of Lawrence, and later as survivors of Armageddon. And as a viewer he developed a fanciful connection with Danny Dahlberg, a young character in the film, and imagined him grown up, afraid to leave his fallout shelter.
Themes from the movie, of disintegration and the destruction of everything that is known, manifest further in Church’s life as his parent’s marriage breaks down in front of him, and he is confronted with the death of his brother. Through his recollections he attempts to navigate the complex psychological impact the film had on himself and others, and discover why, almost thirty years later, it still resonates in his life.
As someone roughly Church’s age, who also grew up certain that he would be annihilated in a nuclear apocalypse (my hometown was home to three military bases that largely revolved around nuclear weapons), “The Day After the Day After” has a particular resonance for me. The sentiments it expresses closely mirror my own from that era. My thoughts, emotions, and fears were all similar to the author’s. Like Church, I was a skate-rat with a soft spot for college basketball, I used to imagine the bombs falling around me, and the Russians parachuting out of the sky into my backyard while I stood helpless.
“The Day After the Day After” is by turns funny, dark, and imaginative. It brings together threads of history, personal and family remembrance, and flights of fancy. Church deftly slips back and forth in time, within his own life, and within the life of the city of Lawrence. The book is an intricately constructed, pop culture saturated, examination of a distinct period in the narrative of a single boy and an entire nation, and it illustrates how an overly melodramatic, made for TV movie, with cheesy special effects and Steve Guttenberg, left a lasting impression. He shows how events, from monumental to miniscule, can define a place and a time and a life.
I can’t recommend “The Day After the Day After: My Atomic Angst” highly enough. It is moving and poignant, and, most importantly, a lot of fun to read. And if that isn’t enough, there is an entire chapter on “Red Dawn”, which means that you should pick this up.