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Take Three / Three Views of the Southland | AL MARTINEZ

Recalling When the Apocalypse Was Just Around the Corner

January 16, 1998|AL MARTINEZ

It was just after I had written a series of newspaper articles on urban devastation in a nuclear war that the Cuban missile crisis occurred.

I was already awash with the theoretical horror of millions dead and cities in ruin when suddenly the possibility seemed very real.

The year was 1962. The U.S. had discovered missile emplacements on Castro's island 90 miles away and had ordered the Navy to stop Russian ships from bringing more missiles in.

John Kennedy was shaking his fist at Nikita Khrushchev, and nuclear war seemed imminent. People who had built bomb shelters were sleeping in them, and others were leaving the big cities for less targetable climes.

Then we waited for all hell to break loose. Time seemed to freeze beneath a cloak of anticipation that covered us like a funeral shroud. Somewhere beyond our dread, fingers on the nuclear triggers tightened.

After a week of unbearable tension, Khrushchev backed down. The missiles were returned to the Soviet Union, the emplacements were dismantled and the crisis defused. The world, in a very real sense, breathed a sigh of relief.

Although there were other close encounters during the period, that remains my most chilling memory of the Cold War. It was a time of terror and uncertainty. Armageddon was just around the corner.

Now it's on the wall of the Los Angeles Central Library.

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Forty-three photographs suggest what it was like back then when H-bomb annihilation was just a trigger-pull away. They're part of an exhibit by the Los Angeles chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility called "Atomic City: L.A. in the Nuclear Era."

Jonathan Parfrey, executive director of the chapter, put the show together with the help of many others, benefiting from newspaper and university files and the personal collections of those who lived through the terror.

At least one purpose of the display, Parfrey says, is to remind us that the Atomic Era isn't really over, which is something we all suspected anyhow. Nuclear proliferation is the song of the day, and God knows what crazy, angry little men even now hold the key to human destruction.

"As recent as 1995 we were on the brink," Parfrey said the other day in the library. He grew up during the Cold War and eventually became an anti-nuke activist, which partially explains his interest. "It was five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but we came within minutes of war."

His reference was to a November article in Scientific American that reports on an incident in which Russia mistook a U.S. research missile for a military missile and was about to launch a retaliatory attack. The American missile's true mission was discovered just in time.

"Yeltsin had already opened the black box," Parfrey said, shaking his head in incredulity. "And that was in 1995!"

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Among the photos that line the library walls, we see a father and his two sons proudly surveying their new bomb shelter in 1956 Venice, an enclosure which, we learned years later, would have become an oven in a nuclear war.

In another picture, we see children under their desks in a North Hollywood elementary school in the "duck and cover" routine that was supposed to save them as the world ended. It would have been their last small view of life.

Ignored were the warnings of atomic scientists who, writing in 1946, observed that "we know that no adequate defense against atomic explosives is now known or likely to be developed." L.A., a center of military industry, would probably be destroyed in the first few hours of an atomic war.

The photographs of the era are both frightening and compelling. Like death viewed from a distance, they seem improbable and surreal. Did that really happen? Was that really us?

We see a public shelter in East L.A., a newspaper map of projected nuclear destruction, Nike missiles poised to strike, test-bombed mannequins scattered in death, protest posters, a civil defense drill, radiation-mutated giant ants from the movie "Them," a book cover from "The Day They H-Bombed Los Angeles," visions of doomsday imprinted on a city of angels . . .

It was an era easily forgotten, but we don't dare.

The philosopher George Santayana said, "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it," and that's reason enough to hang 43 Cold War photographs on a public wall. And Parfrey is correct in saying the Atomic Era isn't over. Strontium-90 from those old above-ground atomic tests will be around for another 240,000 years, for one thing, killing us with cancer at its leisure. Try ticking that off second by second.

The photograph I remember most was taken from L.A. in 1953: the flash of an atomic test 250 miles away merging with the first blush of dawn to form the kind of eerie half-light that exists on the other side of creation.

I think about it later as I drive through L.A., seeing the city whole and flourishing. The dawn of doomsday never occurred. But we came so close . . .

Al Martinez's e-mail address is al.martinez@latimes.com

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