If I Should Die Before I Wake

Regular readers of this column are probably tired of hearing about Durham, New Hampshire, a small but not miniscule town that happens to house the University of New Hampshire, a medium-sized state school with a national reputation in a few research areas. Durham is my hometown, it’s where I’m from and where my mother is from. It is no Grover’s Corners, no Lake Wobegone, no Spoon River—although it does have the advantage of existing, and as Saint Anselm taught us more than a little while ago, existence is a greatness-making property. I agree with Anselm when it comes to geography; not so much when applied to “that than which nothing greater can be imagined”—i.e., The Big Joker in the Sky.

I refer to Durham because it’s where I formed my values, where I became an earlier but not completely absorbed part of me. Since I’m adopted, some psychologists might say I may have attachment issues, anxiety about having objects yanked away like a nipple out of a yawling infant or, in my case, not having been breast-fed, a bottle’s nipple. I don’t see it, but I also can’t see a smudge of chocolate on the left side of my chin. (Wipe it off, would you? Thanks.) I’ve spent enough time with psychologists to find most of their theories about me as interesting as tarot readers, though not as exotically dressed.

As it happened, Durham was less than 10 miles from Pease Air Force Base, from where planes took off all day and all night. I don’t know whether I was told Pease’s mission, whether I imagined it, or whether it’s even true, but I believed each of those planes had an atomic bomb in its belly to be flown over Russia. The pilot would wait to see if orders came to open up the undercarriage and end the world. If not, the plane would return to Pease, get gassed up and be flown back by another pilot who’d await orders. In my mind, the same pattern was being followed by Soviet flights over the United States. Lying in bed at night, I’d hear the gentle rumble of the jets and wonder whether I’d get out of my morning’s spelling test by getting incinerated by a Russian atomic bomb dr. I also remember picturing the American and Soviet pilots’ paths crossing each other twice, first as they flew to wait for the end of the world, then as they flew home knowing they were safe for one more day. On their way to bring about nuclear Armageddon, I pictured them waving their fists at each other as they passed, but giving gentle, happy nods on their way back.

I’m too young to have been taught civil defense practices in schools—climbing under desks, avoiding looking at the flash, not grabbing a classmate’s breast in a final flawed attempt to avoid dying a virgin. (That last was not in the curriculum, but must have been on every 13-year-old boy’s mind.) My childhood had no training to avoid death in a nuclear holocaust; instead, I had a silent acceptance that eventually it would come, our luck would run out of gas and we’d all fry together, leaving just cockroaches behind.

Going to sleep to the hum of a nuclear holocaust might not seem all that comforting, but for some reason it was. I’d drift off, knowing everything could disappear before I opened my eyes. Although I stopped saying bedtime prayers when I was five or so, the theological seed of destruction had been firmly planted and taken root:

“Now, I lay me down to sleep.

I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

If I should die before I wake,

I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

If He can find it in the ashes.

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