Things may seem bad what with the combined downers of the COVID-19 pandemic and political and social divisiveness in America right now. Yet history has a way of reminding us not to fret too much. We forget how close we were to atomic annihilation in 1961.
Some of us remember nuclear attack drills at our elementary school in the late 1950s. I recall the teacher pulling the yellowed, paper shades down over the windows as we dropped to the floor under our school desks covering our heads and closing our eyes – procedures intended to protect us from a nearby atomic explosion. Yellow and black Civil Defense signs were posted over the interior, windowless rooms in our school intended for use as fallout shelters.
The Doomsday Clock, maintained since 1947 by the members of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, represents according to Wikipedia, “…a hypothetical global nuclear catastrophe as ‘midnight’ and the scientist’s opinion on how close the world is to that catastrophe as a number of minutes to midnight.” Midnight is the “end of the world.”
Because of increased communication between the Soviet Union and U.S. in 1960, the clock was drawn back 5 minutes from 2 minutes to midnight to 7 minutes to midnight. Regardless, the clock still nearly struck 12 midnight 60 years ago on Jan. 23, 1961, in little Faro, about 12 miles north of Goldsboro.
But first … We are a flawed species we Homo sapiens, are we not? We act before we think and say things we ought not to say and tweet things we ought not to write. We fail far too often to engage our brains before putting our mouths in gear. We habitually allow our emotions to control our lives rather than us our emotions. We think of ourselves too much and others too little. We’re skilled at being the proverbial “pot calling the kettle black,” judging others while blind to our own faults.
“We,” as the Methodist Church prayer for forgiveness recites, “break God’s law, rebel against his love, and do not love our neighbors.”
Amongst our many failures and faults, though, there are also sacred, Godly sparks in each of us. We are, after all, created in God’s image.
One of those sacred sparks, blessedly, must be pure, unadulterated luck. With all our imperfections, we should have by now blown ourselves back to pre-creation or, if not that far back, at least “back to the Stone Age” as US Air Force General Curtis LeMay famously quipped in speaking about what our strategy should be, “bomb ’em back to the Stone Age,” in speaking about his strategy for defeating the North Vietnamese.
Why must those God-fired sparks include luck? Because even though we’ve tried to blow ourselves back to the Stone Age dozens of times since we let the nuclear genie out of the bottle, we haven’t succeeded. Still, our own, self-created nuclear Armageddon has been far closer than many of us know.
Goldsboro’s own near-revision back to the Stone Age was only one of at least 27 (reported) nuclear accidents involving American military aircraft carrying nuclear weapons since the 1950s. In these mishaps, nuclear bombs were dropped, crashed, burned, blasted, and/or lost but none of them resulted in the bomb achieving critical mass and a nuclear explosion.
According to Wikipedia and other sources, “A Boeing B-52G Stratofortress based at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base carrying two 3-4-megaton Mark 39 nuclear bombs broke up in mid-air, dropping its nuclear payload in the process. The pilot in command ordered the crew to eject at 9,000 feet. Five crewmen successfully ejected or bailed out of the aircraft and landed safely; another ejected, but did not survive the landing, and two died in the crash. The crew’s final view of the aircraft was in an intact state with its payload of two 3-4-megaton bombs onboard; however, the bombs separated from the gyrating aircraft as it broke up between 1,000 and 2,000 feet. Information declassified in 2013 showed one of the bombs came very close to detonating.”
If it had detonated, Swansboro might have been spared. But again, according to Wikipedia, “Lt. Jack ReVelle, the bomb disposal expert responsible for disarming the device, claimed, ‘We came very close’ to a nuclear detonation that would have completely changed much of eastern North Carolina. He also said the yield of each bomb was more than 250 times the destructive power of the Hiroshima bomb, large enough to create a 100 percent kill zone within a radius of 8.5 miles.”
Thank God that despite our best attempts at annihilating ourselves – the creation of the means of our self-destruction and our unavoidable human error compounded by all our other faults and failings as a species – we’ve somehow kept the Doomsday Clock from striking 12.
Sure. Things seem bad right now. But we were actually a hair’s breadth from things being incomprehensibly worse exactly 60 years ago. Perhaps the sacred sparks of luck that twinkle in our spirits are actually much more than luck. Could those sparks be Providence protecting us from our worst selves, shielding us from our many flaws including from our own self-destruction before God’s time for our demise?
I’d like to think so.
Tideland News columnist Barry Fetzer writes from his home on Queens Creek.