Friday, June 17, 2011

A Short Vision

I spoke with my father recently, and he told me about a strange memory from his childhood. As a young boy, around the age of 4 or 5, he was watching the Ed Sullivan Show. He did not remember whether or not his parents were in the room with him or not. At one point in the broadcast, Mr. Sullivan said, quite innocently,  "I’m gonna tell you if you have youngsters in the living room tell them not to be alarmed at this ‘cause it’s a fantasy, the whole thing is animated…."

Naturally, my father stayed to watch. Wouldn't you?

What he saw, he never forgot. Melting faces. Death. Dark and grisly scenes entirely out of place on the family-friend Ed Sullivan Show. Being too young to really follow the vague plot of the film, my father remembered only the imagery--and it stayed with him for years. Decades. It faded into the dim reaches of his mind becoming increasingly surreal and alien with each passing year. Had he really seen such a thing, my father wondered, or had it all been simply a dream? A nightmare?

It wasn't. It was real--and this is it:

The film, titled "A Short Vision," was created by Peter Foldes and his wife, Joan, shortly after the first detonation of a hydrogen bomb by the United States in 1952. Graphically, this short cartoon holds up remarkably well for being more than a half-century old. Thematically, it is dark; it is scary. This cruel depiction of atomic Armageddon aired on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1954--a mere three years before the Soviets launched Sputnik. To my father, Sputnik (already an object of terror in those Cold War years) became even more menacing. Sputnik and the strange object from "A Short Vision" became one and the same: a terror in the skies, ready to rain death and fire and destruction upon everyone and everything that ever was.

You can see why the brief film, witnessed only once in childhood, had such a profound and lasting impact on my father's mind.

Today, the fear of nuclear annihilation is far less prevalent than it was in the 1950s. We've become accustomed to the existence of nuclear weapons, and no longer fear them--all the more so with the collapse of the Soviet Union robbing the west of a cruel villain figure around which all of our nuclear fear could gather. This short cartoon, therefore, ought to be far less terrifying today than it was when my father saw it, so many years ago. That atmosphere of terror is long dead. Yet I find myself cold upon watching it. The fear may be gone, but the threat of nuclear devastation will always be with us. And today, that threat is far, far greater than it has ever been before. It's only a matter of time before someone, somewhere decides to use nuclear weaponry to further his or her ambitions, or because he or she feels a responsibility to do so. It has already happened twice, after all. With each new blast and each passing year, our fear will wane. Unless something is done, I fear that short vision may prove to be truly prophetic.

You can read more about the history of the "A Short Vision" cartoon at knol.

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