In the early 1980s, when I was a fifth-grader at Jefferson Elementary School, in a small town in Minnesota, our teacher, Mr. Odegaard, asked us if we wanted to see something. We did. So he took us down a little-used stairway, through a door and into a tunnel beneath our school. He flicked on the lights. The sound of our shuffling feet echoed down a long, dark corridor.
“The walls down here are solid concrete,” I remember him telling us, “and you need three feet to stop gamma rays. When the Russians launch their missiles, this is where I’m coming!”
Mr. Odegaard was an unusual teacher and one of my favorites. He felt that we should know about the real world, in addition to multiplication and division, geography and grammar. He also explained — in great detail — the finer points of the nuclear winter.
“Beta rays,” he told us, “those are dangerous, but they can’t go very far. Gamma rays. Those are the ones you have to worry about. Gamma rays can go right through anything.”
I don’t remember how far he said gamma rays could go, but I do remember that it seemed impossibly far. There was no escape. Gamma rays would go everywhere and pollute everything until the end of time. I also remember how it all felt so close at hand, how it only would take a few foolish minutes for the last war to begin.
Another day around that same time, I was sitting outside with my best friend Jon discussing this when he told me that after the missiles were launched, his dad was going to drive them to ground zero, because he didn’t want them to die slow, painful deaths. I had no idea what my family’s plans were.
Such were the dilemmas of the Cold War, which seems so strange and distant now…