The first screenplay I wrote that fostered in me the delusive hope that I might one day bring myself to the attention of the league1 was titled Freaks like Us. The movie climaxes when boy gets girl against the backdrop of spaced-out chaos, the result of our hero having dosed the campus dining hall bug-juice supply with tincture of ’shroom juice and so unsuspectingly tripping out the ROTC, who are celebrating their graduation with some raucous let’s-away-to-the Nam-and-kill-us-some-gooks enthusiasm.
You can then imagine my surprise when people fed me back, telling me that this ending was unsettling, mean-spirited, evil (evil?), and nihilistic.
And here I thought it was just a laugh riot.
But these were harsh critiques and I felt it incumbent on me to reflect . . .
In “The Prophet” (1967), an episode of Dragnet from its second iteration, Prof. Sgt. Webb presents a clipped bullet-point history of LSD: Hoffman, hallucinations, and this pensée on potency: A single pound of the preparation could turn every person in Los Angeles County into a total psychotic. The population of the county: seven million people.2
Before the numbers 9 and 11 took on their own special significance, when the worst thing that could happen was to hallucinate raga music as the entire world morphs into an animated tie-dyed shirt — the fear that a bent but brilliant chemist (or sleeper cell of commie spies) could dose the water supply of their city gripped Amurricans in a full nelson of terror: one blue-sky morning they might wake up, brush their teeth, rinse their mouths, drink their coffee and their OJ, and in so doing unwittingly consume enough of the colorless, tasteless psychopharmaceutical to send them all on a journey to the center of their minds. Once there, some would surely panic, while others would stare at their translucent skin, watch the blood course through their veins, or stare into the sun until they went blind. A different subset of stoned suburbanites might throw off their cares and their clothes, worm-dance in the streets, and orgy in the bushes.
None would ever be the same again.
I now saw the dilemma clearly. This act of dosing the water supply could be seen as pure narcoterorism. How could I justify this unsettling, mean-spirited, evil (evil?), antisocial, perhaps even misanthropic, nihilistic deed.
God gave Noah the rainbow sign.
Said no more water, but the fire next time.
— “Sowing on the Mountain”
Four months after Truman nuked Nagasaki, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published the doomsday clock to illustrate how close we were to the midnight of destruction. It was initially set for seven minutes to Armageddon. Then, one year, nine months, and one day after I was yanked from the womb, the Russkis successfully tested their first nuke and the doomsday clock was reset — three minutes to the eschaton. In 1953 it lost another minute and we remained at two minutes to the end of days until my bar mitzvah.
This slo-mo anticipation of apocalypse gave rise to the delusional survival strategy branded as “duck and cover” by the slick dudes at Civil Defense HQ. The eponymous animated agitprop that first introduced D&C was must-see A&V for anyone growing up in the atomic dark ages. We would be assembled in the auditorium without warning (a sneak attack, so to speak), there to be shown the nine-minute-plus PSA. The star of the show was a turtle named Bert, who never got hurt, [because] he knew just what to do—he ducked and covered… He did what we all must learn to do, you and you and you and you.
Since an atomic flash can happen anytime, we must get ready for it just as we are ready for many other dangers that are around us all the time. The avuncular narrator further explains that the A-bomb could hurt you in different ways. It could knock you down hard or throw you against a tree or a wall. It is such a big explosion, it can smash in buildings and knock signboards over and break windows all over town. [But] if you duck and cover… you’ll be much safer. Clearly, it was up to us as children to save ourselves.
In Kiss Me Deadly,3 the femme fatale’s fascination with the contents of the box that is the movie’s radioactive McGuffin prompts Dr. Soberin, the intellectual villain, to wax mythopoeic and compare her to Pandora, who, Robert Graves explains, was as foolish, mischievous, and idle as she was beautiful—the first of a long line of such women. When Pandora opened the box, out flew all the Spites that might plague mankind: such as Old Age, Labour, Sickness, Insanity, Vice, and Passion. Out these flew in a cloud [and] attacked the race of mortals. The last thing to emerge was Delusive Hope, who, through her lies, discouraged a general suicide.
Duck and Cover offered delusive hope to those of us coming of age in the fucked fifties. It made us believe it might just be possible to survive the inevitable conflagration.
That all changed for me on May 27, 1956. That night, on the Ed Sullivan Show, sandwiched between Señor Wences and Kate Smith, Old Iron Jaw spoke to his audience of 37 million: Just last week you read about the H-bomb being dropped. Now two great English writers, two very imaginative writers—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—but two English writers, Joan and Peter Foldes, wrote a thing which they called ‘A Short Vision’ in which they wondered what might happen to the animal population of the world if an H-bomb were dropped … and I’d like you to see it. It is grim, but I think we can all stand to realize that in war there is no winner.
The seed was sleeping, the womb was washing the dinner dishes, and Uncle Igor had made it clear it was a fantasy — there was no reason to be alarmed. Since I was cat curious about what the nuke might look like, instead of averting my eyes, as I might have had I been warned that what I was about to see was Gorgonish in nature, I focused my peepers on the twelve-inch screen of my mahogany DuMont console TV.
As I remember it, there was theremin music, a big bay window, a kid (me) looking out the window; there was an explosion, a blinding flash, and then the kid’s face melted off. In the end he was a skeleton… and I was never the same.4
One day this would really happen. I just knew it.
We were all doomed.
There was no hope.
And hopelessness results in despair and nihilism. It produces a world without meaning. Freedom from meaning leads to freedom from stricture. And so, counterintuitively, hopelessness begets liberation — a restoration of free will if you believe the hell-is-other-people crowd.
How does this work? you might reasonably ask.
Hopelessness takes meaning, in the sense of purpose, out of the equation. A world without meaning is a world without god and is, therefore, a world where no provable, universal, categorical standard of right and wrong exists. In that world you — whoever the fuck you might be — are the final arbiter of the thou shalts and the thou shalt nots; desire, need, and whatever your innate sense of justice (if you even have one of those) determines how you act. Or as the Bard put it — to thine own blah-de-blah-de-blah-blah.
And in that world, dosing an unsuspecting group of douchenozzle weekend warriors with acid can, under certain circumstances, not only be justifiable, it might even be the right, the motherfuckin’ obligatory thing to do.
And so I say, Fuck the naysayers, let the chaos commence.
1 See The Blood of Heroes (1989) written and directed by David Webb Peoples (and discussed in detail in The Mysterious Codex of Hollywood and Vine_). Peoples shared a credit on Blade Runner and wrote Unforgiven (1992), Clint’s magisterial, elegiac western.
2 If one kilo produces five to ten million hits, yet one pound is enough to render seven million people starkers, the shit’s not only dynamite, it’s magical. LSD is so potent it can even fuck up the immutable laws of math. (If a train full of acidheads journeys eastward at the speed of light while a cattle car full of psychos
moves westward at ramming speed, when will the world end?)
3 The great Robert Aldrich cautionary tale, penned by A. I. Bezzerides, a hard-boiled pulpist who transformed whatever the fuck Spillane had jotted down into a 50s myth, a meditation on greed and nuclear numbitude, featuring as hero Mike Hammer, an amoral, keyhole-peeping, antiheroic private dick, whose near-death experience at the hands of the deep-voiced, pretentious villain, Dr. Soberin, sets him off on a quest for the great whats-it, a quest that climaxes with the gut-shot dick, propped up by his honey-trap amanuensis and bang bud Velda, standing in the surf, buffeted by the roiling Pacific, as they watch the sleepy seaside burg of Malibu go up in a sanitized Hollywood version of a mushroom cloud.
4 For most of my life I was convinced that this had been an hallucination, that the TV powers that be couldn’t possibly have allowed Igor to traumatize not just me, but the whole gigantic audience that tuned in every Sunday night to watch Sullivan’s cathode-ray-tube version of vaudevillle, but it really did get screened, and even though it didn’t happen exactly as I remember (there was no me stand-in, no melting face), at the end of the cartoon, all life on earth is extinguished in a mushroom cloud. Yup, really, you can look it up.