“And we live by the side of the road,
On the side of a hill,
As the valley explodes.
The land grows weary of its own.”
—U2, “A Sort of Homecoming”
Journalism lost one of its greats last week. Jonathan Schell, a best-selling nonfiction author, columnist and correspondent for The New Yorker, Newsday and The Nation, died of cancer at his Brooklyn home on March 25. He was 70. I wish I could have told him what his work meant to me.
Schell published his seminal text, “The Fate of the Earth,” an apocalyptic vision of global nuclear annihilation, in 1982. A year later, it largely inspired the ABC TV movie “The Day After,” according to The New York Times. The film presented an atomic holocaust as seen through the eyes of Lawrence, Kan., a college town with white clapboard churches and weatherworn barns.
There is no happy ending, no redemption, no hope in this movie. It remains among the most-watched TV events ever, reportedly viewed by 100 million people. I was 15 when I saw it. It scared the hell out of me, and it shaped me like no other film I have ever watched.
“The Day After” introduced me to nuclear war –– the mushroom cloud, radiation, fallout. It gave me nightmares for years. The scene in which a pair of intercontinental ballistic missiles slam into a Kansas highway was seared into my teenage brain. Jason Robards, who played Dr. Russell Oakes, a prominent surgeon, cowers in the front seat of his car, instantly reduced to a penniless, homeless shell of a man. From there he can only drag himself through the rubble of a charred landscape, coughing and wheezing, his hair falling out as he goes.
The film was a visceral experience for me. I remember the scenes of irradiated ash drifting like snow through the toxic air. I remember the screams of a mother giving birth in a hospital overrun by sickness.
Schell asked us to envision an earth scorched by humankind’s greatest folly. “Since we cannot afford under any circumstance to let a holocaust occur,” he wrote, “we are forced in this one case to become the historians of the future –– to chronicle and commit to memory an event that we have never experienced and must never experience.”