Growing Up Under the Mushroom Cloud, Waiting for the Hammer to Fall

It was about a year ago that I started this blog. Although I’m not a big marker of milestones, I’d say it’s definitely been an interesting time. The past year has seen me rise from the dungeons of utter obscurity to the lofty heights of absolute anonymity. Which is to say, not a lot has changed, but it’s been a fun ride.

The first thing I posted here was an examination of a song by my all-time favorites, Queen, rock royalty and my personal “Shakespeare of Music.” The song was “Machines” from the album The Works, which has always been one of my favorite Queen records. It’s music that takes me back to the summer days of my youth. So now, with summer again upon us, I want to look at another track from The Works, one of the greatest rockers in the Queen canon, “Hammer to Fall.”

Recall that this album (and therefore the song) was released in 1984. For those who forget, or are too young to remember, this was during the heat of the Cold War. In the United States, this was the heart of the belligerent Reagan era. I was in high school at the time. I doubt that anyone who wasn’t a child during this period can truly understand what it felt like to grow up with the constant threat of nuclear holocaust hanging over our heads. For me, “Hammer to Fall” comes as close as possible to expressing the hopeless angst of that childhood.

As a younger child, in the 70s, growing up in SoCal, we had earthquake drills mixed in with the traditional fire drills at school—and occasionally we also had bomb drills, which were essentially the same as earthquake drills: Instead of lining up and filing outside, you crouched under your desk until you got the all clear, and then you lined up and filed outside. Even as an 8- or 10-year-old, the idea that a desk, which would barely protect me from falling ceiling tiles, was going to protect me from a nuclear blast seemed utterly ludicrous.

Nonetheless, I crouched. And kept my mouth shut. And hated the Russians, like all good patriotic Americans should do.

By the time I got to high school, sure, I’d learned to do a little independent thinking. But many of the lessons of youth are hard-coded, and the Russians were still clearly the enemy during the 80s. But I could listen to a song like “Hammer to Fall” and begin to see that there was another side to the story. For starters, how did it make any sense to say that my country is better than your country because my nuclear arsenal can blow up the world ten times while your nuclear arsenal can only blow up the world five times? No one has need of blowing up the world more than once, and really, once is too much.

Brian May’s lyric sets it out from the opening of the song:

Here we stand or here we fall
History won’t care at all
Make the bed, light the light
Lady Mercy won’t be home tonight

So now we’ve got all these weapons pointed at each other—what are we prepared to do with them? We’ve made our bed; are we prepared to sleep in it? The future is in our hands, but if we do this thing, there is no future: “We’re just waiting / For the hammer to fall.”

My favorite lyric from the song has always been the last verse, which throughout the years has continued to pop into my head at odd moments:

For we who grew up tall and proud
In the shadow of the Mushroom Cloud
Convinced our voices can’t be heard
We just wanna scream it louder and louder

As kids, we had no control over the political situation of the world but had to listen to adults talking about what was best for us, how they were “securing our future.” Really, is anything so different now? Adults always know what’s best and continue to screw everything up while kids scream futilely to be heard.

That last verse goes straight into the last chorus, as if answering what we might be screaming, and poses an interesting solution, which would no doubt be branded pacifist:

What the hell we fighting for?
Just surrender and it won’t hurt at all
You just got time to say your prayers
While you’re waiting for the Hammer to Fall

The commonly held belief at the time was that if one side pushed the button and let the missiles fly, the other side would retaliate and we’d end up with both sides decimated (along with the rest of the world, which unfortunately would be wiped out by the nuclear winter, toxic clouds, and so forth). (We’ve probably all seen the movie WarGames from 1983, and if not, it’s worth a watch—all those simulated missiles flying across the screens at the end!)

But the side that doesn’t launch first actually has a choice. As the hammer is about to fall on you, you can choose to not take the other side out with you. Even as a teen, I felt this “surrender” was preferable than killing other innocent people. I mean, if your own death was already assured because the bombs were flying at you, what do you gain by killing others? Obviously, keeping the first side from pushing the button was the smartest course, and how things ultimately played out in the Cold War.

But we could never be sure that it would end that way. So, as children, we accepted a certain level of fear, a certain nihilism, really. And we learned to live with it. You can say that there are problems in the world today, global terrorism, economic tensions, wars, random shootings, and I’m sure those have their effects on people as well. But I just don’t think any of that is quite the same as the threat of total annihilation hanging over your head.

Now, thirty years later, I find myself working as a freelance writer for a software company that’s based in California but has offices globally. As it happens, the people at the company that I interact with most are located in Russia. That’s right, I’m working with the Russians. Now, if you had told my 17-year-old self that 30 years later this would be the case, there’s no way he would have believed it. It would have been inconceivable. The Russians were the enemy! They were hated. My teen self could see no future where that would ever change.

Fortunately, during the intervening years, it has changed. I love working with my new friends from Russia. I’ve never met them in person, although I’ve spoken to them on the phone a couple of times and we email back and forth regularly. The political world changed, and technology changed, both factors that allow this current situation to work. But I had to change as well, to lose those indoctrinated values: us = good; them = bad. Of course, the movies and television news shows have found new villains to replace the Russians for a new generation of kids; there’s never a shortage of people to be afraid of.

Meanwhile, I really just wanted to show off and talk about this kick-ass Queen song. I guess I’ve done that, in a winding, roundabout way. And I hope you listened to the song from the video above, but it’s such a great song, that’s it’s worth a second listen. So, below is an outstanding live performance of “Hammer to Fall” from Queen’s landmark 1986 concert at London’s Wembley Stadium. Enjoy!

Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins


4 thoughts on “Growing Up Under the Mushroom Cloud, Waiting for the Hammer to Fall

    1. bkwins Post author

      There’s probably no need. Since I put this on the Internet, I’m sure the NSA, CIA, and any other Thought Police already have a file going on me. 🙂


  1. c2london

    So my only quibble is that those of us who grew up in the sixties also lived with the threat of annihilation. When a plane went overhead, many of us hit the ground, cowering, assuming it was going to drop a bomb. (You know, this probably happened in the 40s as well.) It was hard living in an area that didn’t have that many planes flying overhead. I think when we moved to St. Louis and lived under the flight path of many planes landing and taking off at the airport, I had to get over that practice.

    I lived in an IBM town, and it was rumored that that plant was a secondary target, so we thought we were doomed even if that was the same source of livelihood for many of us. Our families built fallout shelters and then we had to have the discussion about would we kill the neighbors who would be trying to crowd into our cinderblock room with the wooden bunk beds, cans of food, and more than likely, no privacy for personal needs. Nights were punctuated with dreams of being in the fallout shelter and having to hold up the bomb that had fallen on our house since of course if it didn’t hit the crowd, it didn’t explode.

    And then there was the Cuban Missile Crisis and then Kennedy was assassinated and then we grew up.


    1. bkwins Post author

      You’re right, of course. Anyone who grew up post-WWII and before the end of the Cold War dealt with these issues. Of course there were periods of more or less tension–probably none greater than the Cuban Missile Crisis. And you talk about bomb shelters, which wasn’t really a big thing when I was growing up (maybe they’d figured out that was just a slow death, or postponement, instead of an instantaneous death).

      My point is that kids growing up after the Cold War, although they have plenty to worry about, can’t really understand what that experience was like for those of us who went through it.



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