Coming of Age in an Apocalypse

Is it normal for 9-year olds to write poems for a nuclear holocaust, ones that wistfully imagine the earth carrying on and humanity swiped from its surface?

I had no idea that nature could not persist in the aftermath. In my poem, which was published in the left-wing newspaper my father edited, everything got incredibly quiet. Green things sent their tendrils up through concrete and broke the ugliness of civilization down. When I was 9, we lived then on the wild banks of the Trinity River in Northern California, an incredibly lush place that won all of the battles in gardening. We knew that we merely held our imminent eradication back through constant weeding, rototilling, fencing, and mowing. The vines of blackberries, the bodies of oaks and madrones, star thistles and river drunk grasses, piles of leaves and needles could quickly obscure and devour our paths. Moss grew bright and sudden on trees and rocks and shallows and the loamy mess of the woods got into our fingernails and noses, swept us along, sucked us in, whipped our faces, scraped our knees. Deer ravaged the vegetable patch until my father put in an enormous fence with ever diminishing openings in the wire meant to keep out the smallest of creatures. The bottom rungs he buried beneath the surface. Once he borrowed a gun and waited up, only to wound a deer, which haunted him: she probably limped off to suffer for hours before dying somewhere in the darkness, he said. Once he planted rows of tiny marijuana plants and my mother and sister (protecting us from Camp, government sanctioned militants who we saw on the news standing before other peoples’ burning crops) secretly pulled them up and blamed a neighbor (protecting themselves from my father.) My mom joked about a story she would write: the title would be Roach Clips in my Demitasse, the word for the delicate cups and saucers on great grandmother’s hutch. Humor, subterfuge, and dissimulation kept the violence at bay.

Dinners involved talk of how the government was listening and lying and secretly selling drugs and weapons and hell bent on nuclear annihilation. Our relatives had been poisoned by DDT. The water was running out. We had fled the city and, when the Jonestown massacre was followed by the assassination of San Francisco’s Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone, my mom said she thought we had left in the nick of time. When anything got lost, we would tease my father that it had been stolen by a “big black man with a machine gun,” which always made him stop raging and laugh. White people making light of white supremacist fears. Externalization was a high art in our home and I was often blamed, grabbed up cruelly by my father, ripped from my innocent play.

The apocalypse was out there.

My plan at the time had been to become a veterinarian so that I could live in a cave and have something to offer the animals I would know and love. I did not care much for human kind. My plan was to retreat from the world, from the fighting and the danger of my father, from the empty tummy and the dread and yearning of poverty. I would live off the land with friends, with foxes, rabbits, otters, deer.

I believe the refrain in my poem, went something like: the bombs blow up, but life goes on.

The threat of atomic war receded over the years and I put it in the large category of things over which I am powerless. I have savored a friend’s whimsy: I just assume the apocalypse already happened. She said. We are already living in the aftermath.

Coming of age in an apocalypse, it was fifth grade when I realized I might be gay. To the deep resounding of Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust,” something tough and bright in one of the eighth-grade girls struck me. I would watch them practicing their “routine” over lunch breaks and whisper her name into my pillow and tell no one. Subterfuge, dissimulation, and humor I had learned well. All around me the messages. Bullies invoked dykes and fags and queers and homos. There were things we ought not talk about, things we didn’t need to know, hundreds of shameful things that tomboys could expect to one day out grow.

Now the entitlement and sensitivity of queer white youth provokes me as it would any survivalist: too soft, too dangerous to want. I gave up my plan of the cave, replaced it with a vision of being a doctor and leaving the country, going into other cultures, seeking relief from the gender apocalypse, from the culture wars, and seeking a tradition of social justice that I could neither find nor make here. Instead, I became a historian. I recount the history of white supremacy. I undress it, remove its layers of race, of sex, of class, of gender.

After the election of 2016, so many famous people died, David Bowie and Prince, Princess Leah, icons of an expectant age gave up. In the early 70s when I was 4, listening to “Free to Be You and Me” and playing New Games, where everyone wins, carried along in a giant cookie machine made of hippie dads and moms or lifting a giant earth ball above the ground of us, innocent in our high waters and tennies, the right had been slowly dismantling.

In this apocalypse, a young trans boy leaves the planet, another beautiful boy pictured on social media in hot pink make-up over closed eyelids with tiny hearts drawn at his brow, gilded with glitter. Glitter, glam, Major Tom, sung by a space station astronaut, drifts into space, peacefully, eulogy to the dead rocker. But here, it goes off like a bomb. I listened with jagged breath.

Another one bites the dust and another one’s gone and another one’s gone and another one’s gone.

I don’t fault myself for being ignorant at age nine of the complete and total devastation that one bomb would cause, not until I was seventeen, at a speech given by Helen Caldecott, wherein she described how nuclear winter would darken and starve my homeland for miles. I wept then, as she took us step by step through the process. We were meant to react to this threat positively, to commit ourselves to activism. At fairs where my father staffed booths, we thirsted over ice creams called “nuclear freezies.”

Of all of this, the thing I consciously held against my father was his response to my dream of the cave, of leaving him and all of humanity behind. “There is no point,” he said, “they are going to nuke the planet.”

Now, come the apocalypse, I still have a plan. Somehow, I will get back to the river house, where I will meet my mother and her husband. I count on my sister and her family showing up too. I know it is in us deep, in a matter-of-fact way, so we might not even open both eyes when we hear the distant booms. We’ll be on the road and I hope there will be enough gas to get across the desert.