Once again we paid homage to these, the grimmest of our anniversaries. Aug. 6, the bombing of Hiroshima. Aug. 9, the bombing of Nagasaki.
By now, there has grown a kind of ritual to these anniversaries. We round up the usual survivors, the usual statistics, the usual sentiments. We remind ourselves annually that those two "primitive" nuclear bombs killed 200,000 immediately, and 130,000 slowly.
We have on hand for these occasions a ready supply of powerful quotes about nuclear bombs. Which one did you hear this year? Einstein, Eisenhower or perhaps this one from Churchill: "The Stone Age may return on the gleaming wings of Science and . . . may even bring about its total destruction. Beware, I say: Time may be short. . . .'"
Still, this is always a curious anniversary. It's less of a memorial to the pain of the past than a homage to the anxiety of the present.
This past week we commemorated 37 years of life with the bomb. Two generations of us have grown up with the sense of their future hanging by a hair trigger.
The war babies, the postwar babies were the first whose childhood nightmares took mushroom shapes. Our monster was one that we couldn't escape. Despite the school drills, all the civil defense follies of the '50s, we knew that it would be impossible to duck the bomb.
The bomb has hung over us like some apocalypse without the promise of redemption. It's hard to calculate just how completely the bomb has permeated our daily lives. I don't know whether the existence of this doomsday weapon paralyzed us or catalyzed us, made us feel hopelessness or an urgency. But even during the decades of denial, it hovered at the edge of our consciousness.
One teen-aged summer night, I lay in the dark and played out a fantasy with a friend: what would you do if you knew, you absolutely knew, the bomb would be dropped in a year? How many of our actual adult decisions are still made in that mode?
How do we live with this bomb? Do we live as if the end were inevitable, and opt for the private pleasures of life? Do we live as if change were possible? Do we live as if we can plan for our old age?
These questions have all seemed more intense this year, when our government began to talk in a mad patois about winnable wars and survivable wars. As the president ordered the making of 17,000 more bombs and reassured us with bizarre plans for civil defense, the country began to talk again about the unthinkable.
In the midst of this, a teen-age friend rephrased my own childhood questions. Matter-of-factly she said that if she knew there was going to be a nuclear war, she wouldn't make plans toward medical school. Medical school, you see, took so long, was such hard work.
I reminded her about all the people who had made their lives since the bomb was invented. We don't stop, don't wrap ourselves in mourning sheets and wait for the end. We proceed, have to proceed, as if there is sense to it.
Yet I have often wondered how much of the postwar unwillingness to delay gratification, to postpone pleasure, to sacrifice for the next generation, came from the sense that we are living, literally, on a dead line.
We may not overtly think about the bomb when we invest in an IRA, sign a 25-year mortgage, plan a pregnancy. But it sits there mocking us from our subconscious.
I know that humans have always lived with fear of the future. Over centuries, religious zealots have regularly been sure that Armageddon was around the corner. Over centuries, ordinary people have had fears of plague, childbirth and wars. We are hardly the first to ask, how would I live if I knew precisely when I would die?
Yet this is different. We are not talking about death but extinction. Not talking about our future, but about any future. This was, once again, the ominous background hum, the theme song for the anniversary of such an incompatible couple: the human being and the nuclear bomb.
Copyright (c) 1982, The Boston Globe Newspaper Company