“My dad’s at work and he left it unlocked. If you want to see it, now’s your chance. Get here as soon as you can.” I absolutely wanted to see it, so I hung up the phone, clipped my survival knife onto my belt, pointed my Diamond Back BMX bike toward Jamie’s house, and coasted out of my driveway into the street. Like the rest of our friends in 1985, Jamie and I were American Cold War kids—part of a generation whose imaginations were structured by the prospect of impending apocalypse. Our days at school included duck-and-cover drills, in which we took shelter from nuclear blasts under Trapper-Keeper notebooks and particle-board desks. Our nights at home were filled with smoking adults discussing Soviets in Afghanistan and missile silos in Colorado. Our inner lives were shadowed by the inescapable awareness that one day the grown-ups might simply lose control and wreathe the world in inconsolable fire.
Growing up under the threat of imminent destruction has, to understate, a certain impact on one’s understanding of both the world and one’s life within it. Ours was a binary world, a world of good and evil, populated exclusively with allies and enemies. And the courageous work of our besieged lives was that of subversive resistance. Our heroes were spies and soldiers, dissidents and survivors: the US hockey team celebrating in Lake Placid, Lech Walesa staring out from the cover of Time magazine, Matthew Broderick preventing nuclear destruction in War Games, Rocky Balboa stepping into the ring with Ivan Drago, and—perhaps above all—Patrick Swayze leading his friends in Red Dawn. On Saturdays we biked to the Army-Navy store to marvel darkly at Soviet weapons, met our friends in the woods to play “war,” and called out “Wolverines!” to one another as we turned our bikes toward home in the dark. But even for Cold War kids such as ourselves, what Jamie was about to show me was something altogether different.
Ten minutes after hanging up the phone I hopped the curb at Jamie’s house, coasted across the front yard, and dropped my bike at the edge of the woods. Jamie, carrying a flashlight, stepped out of a thicket of trees and motioned for me to follow. We walked into the woods in silence. Coming to a pile of brush and checking that we were alone, he said, “We’re here. Help me move these branches.” As we pulled the branches aside, the grey metal hatch on the ground came into view. Kneeling down, Jamie lifted the hatch, handed me his flashlight, and, gesturing toward the ladder descending into the dark, told me to climb down.