When picnics go wrong.

My iPod has gone missing. Hear today, gone tomorrow. That means I’ve been forced to make my trudges without a soundtrack, accompanied only by my breathing, the rhythmic thump of my shoes on the pavement, and the ambient sounds of the morning.

There was a time when I took a bus on a roundtrip journey across the country. This was just before the dawn of the Walkman, so I had nothing to listen to on the long, long ride. Instead I listened to songs in my head and, as I recall, I could hear some of them almost note for note. At least it seemed that way to me at the time. I may have to try that again sometime if I don’t find the iPod.

Today as I was climbing up a hill I stopped to listen to a strange sound I would not have heard if I had been listening to music. It was a long drawn-out shriek, a distant noise that had an almost shimmering quality to it. It was like a sound you’d hear in a 1950s science fiction movie, one where people would stop to listen and mysterious light would radiate from behind a distant hill. The sound also made me think of the opening line of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow: “A screaming comes from across the sky.”*

Then I remembered a news story I had read the other day. They were testing the new warning sirens for Three Mile Island.

You remember Three Mile Island. It was the nuclear plant outside Harrisburg that almost became a real-life China Syndrome when it suffered a near-meltdown back in 1979. I was attending school in California 2,700 miles away at the time but I made another epic bus trip back east not too long after the incident and my Greyhound drove right past the then-familiar cooling towers. Little did I suspect that one day I would be living nearby. Since we now reside within Three Mile Island’s evacuation zone, every fall on the first day of school my kids would bring home a Three Miles Island form. We were supposed to fill it out and have selected friends/neighbors sign it so they would have permission to pick up our children from school in case of a nuclear emergency. At first my wife and I took the forms very seriously, taking them around to neighbors and exchanging signatures. Then we started just forging signatures. Finally, I don’t know if we even returned the form at all. Who was being dumber—us, for shrugging off this potential calamity, or the school system for thinking that things will remain calm enough during a meltdown for teachers to make sure all the kids leave with the right adults?

The sirens got me thinking of all the black-and-white science fiction movies I watched as a kid. Every Friday afternoon the TV station from Portland, Maine, broadcast a horror or science fiction movie, and I managed to see a lot of them, even though my mother told me they would give me nightmares. Many of them included scenes with wailing sirens in the background and army men jumping in and out of trucks as they dealt (always futilely) with the latest menace. Radiation caused many of those menaces. Some scenes from these movies remain stuck in my memory as a single image or two—for instance, when an alien, lying beneath the car that has just run over it, extends long, spiked fingernails and punctures the tires as the car’s occupants get out to investigate. In another, huge rocky spires rise from the desert floor and threaten a town until the waters released from a dam knock them over. (I later discovered this to be something called The Monolith Monsters.) I remember seeing a grotesquely disfigured giant on a rampage (The Amazing Colossal Man) and giant ants that atomic testing created in the desert (Them!). In fact, part of the eerie quality of Them! was the strange, unidentifiable sound the ants made from their nests beneath the desert sands.

A good movie for Mother’s Day.

My favorite, though, was Gorgo, about a huge sea creature fishermen captured off the Irish coast of and put in a London circus. And then its mother comes looking for it . .  . I loved that movie and started obsessively making plastic Gorgos out of snap-together plastic squares I had, and used them to destroy Lego cities. Years later I saw the movie again and remained entertained, although this time I noticed that the special effects were so bad you could see through the double-exposed building debris that crashed down on panicky Londoners. I was also pleasantly surprised to discover that one of the actors is William Sylvester, who later played Heywood Floyd in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Well, the sirens today were only a test. I returned home, grateful that I wasn’t glowing or growing, and pleased to see that no giant ants had invaded my backyard.

*Yes, I admit that is a pretentious literary reference. So sue me.

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