Coming to Grips with Mortality

A few months ago…

…an F3 tornado ripped through my place of work toward the end of my workday.  Though we were spared any loss of life or life-threatening injuries,  the company made it clear that we all had access to the company chaplains and counselors, and suggested that we managers keep an eye out for signs of traumatic stress in those under our charge.

With two manufacturing plants destroyed and hundreds of personal vehicles totaled, I expected there might be some financial stress, but really, except for a handful who were treated and released at the local hospital, we had all come through physically fine. This seemed clearly miraculous in view of the devastation wrought by the storm.

A good month later, during a monthly one-on-one conference session with one in my group, I was surprised that this person had actually written out a pretty textbook description of post-traumatic-stress symptoms he had been dealing with.  So much for my powers of observation, I had been completely missing it, even though I thought I was paying attention.

I reiterated the availability of counselors in an email and copied one of them in on the conversation.  This younger fellow had not followed through with the counselor a week later, which was his prerogative,  but it still got me to thinking further.

The company recognized the possibility of these traumatic issues, but I felt no effect whatever.  Why was that?  Was it something resulting from military training and the six years I served in the US NAVY? Somehow, that just didn’t seem like the reason.  Was I simply in denial?

When did I first have to deal with my own mortality?  It dawned on me as I considered, that I was pretty young.

Most my age will remember the cold-war drills at school, the patently ridiculous duck-and-cover practice.  These things affected kids all across the country with angst about a nuclear war we were ill-prepared to even imagine. The news media amplified the worries.  Every county courthouse had signs pointing to the fallout shelter in the basement.

As I thought more carefully, though, I remembered that in my particular part of the country, because it was sparsely populated, the US government decided to locate their first widely-deployed Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) system, based on the Atlas missile.  Many worried that these installations made our otherwise-remote area a high value target. Perhaps they did.  But over the course of a very few years, it became clear that we were in more danger from mishaps with our own missiles than from those of the other Cold-War participants.



As common as the school drills across the nation were for my generation, in my particular locale, none could miss the arms race and the often open silo blast doors that could be seen on the 70 mile drive from Portales to Roswell NM along highway 70.  The emergency response to the explosions was hard to miss also. The explosions were covered in the local newspapers without giving much real information.  As I recall the gist of my parents talk at the dinner table, the military would only confirm what everyone obviously already new from observation and reports from those civilians nearest to the damaged silos.

Holey Work

When My dad started working on the family fallout shelter, that was hard to miss too.  He used our farm tractor and front-end loader as deep as it was useful.  He talked to a contractor friend about borrowing a backhoe, but the impetus of the Cuban missile  crisis was short-lived and there was still harvesting to do.  The hole next to our well house gaped unmolested  in the arid Eastern New Mexico prairie for the next 20 months.

Boys seem to have a penchant for constructing hideouts and forts.  My brother and I had a habit of making them in the ground by digging a hole  and covering it with salvaged boards.  This was probably not the safest activity for us, though the holes were seldom very deep.  It really annoyed my dad, who had to remember where these pitfalls were if he walked around our ranch after dark.

When the fourth missile exploded in its silo in Frederick Oklahoma, putting my brother and I to work in the bomb shelter pit probably seemed to my dad like a natural solution to the random-hole problem.  We were clearly experienced excavators. 

We dutifully labored under the June sun in the fifteen foot square pit. I wore a white-painted army helmet liner to keep the sun off of my head. The hole was already three feet deep when we started.  The top soil was thin, probably less than a foot. Below was only caliche rock.  It would yield only to a pickaxe, the only useful tool available to us. Given enough effort, a shovelful could be loosed to be thrown laboriously out of the hole. We proved wholly inadequate to the task.

I give this level of detail to take us back to my original point about coming to grips with one’s mortality.  We could not work with shovel and pick in the  slowly deepening depression without the realization that it was like digging your own grave.  A chasm where one would only be forced to huddle if the world was poisoned above. The information about the half-life of nuclear material makes it clear even to ten year old boys that coming back out of a finished shelter would not ever be sunshine and roses. And we could not even finish the hole for it.

No Different, Really

I had to recognize that like my team mate at work.  I had to come to grips with the possibility of my own demise and had to deal with it emotionally. It’s just that my recognition came gradually at the age of ten and his came suddenly a little later in life.  I also have to remember that I always have the comfort described in Psalm 23:4 which others may not have found.



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Awestruck son of the Sovereign of the universe, from whom all rights and responsibilities of men derive.

10 thoughts on “Coming to Grips with Mortality”

  1. Great post, it’s amazing to think there is an entire generation that went to bed in the shadow of a mushroom cloud (waiting for the hammer to fall ;-). In the UK growing up in the 80’s I saw both of these films during class:

    How to Survive a Nuclear War – Public Information Film – what to do with dead family members kind of sticks with you.

    Threads (1984) – docu-drama. The comments on the video pretty much sum up most peoples reaction to this at the time.

    Could you imagine the fallout (pun intended) if they showed one of these films in a school today.

    It’s fair to say I spent quite a few nights pondering my own mortality at the time. There was a year or so where the general feeling wasn’t IF but WHEN. During that time I probably played out every nightmarish death of both myself and my family. Did it scar me, traumatise me and shape my life? No it forced me to develop coping strategies for the worst that life could throw at me. Children are far more adaptable than we give them credit.

    When you’ve died a thousand times in your imagination, I think you are going to process a near death experience somewhat differently to someone who maybe has been shielded from much of life’s horrors.

    That said I wouldn’t wish my experience on anyone, but I tend to believe there is challenge at the moment that academic discussions of coping strategies are not a replacement for practical experience. Anyway I hope your colleague gets the help they need, it’s not a fun experience at whatever age you have to undergo it.


  2. I started to write a comment and then it was gone. If I accidentally hit post comment you might have received it. I was going to say that if I’d seen a video telling me how to dispose of a dead family member, I probably would have freaked out. I didn’t watch the second video. Very interesting and it reminds me of my past, but we didn’t get too worried and we didn’t have a bomb shelter. Thanks for writing.

    Liked by 2 people

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