Archive for Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Apocalypse on the Kaw: Memoir explores Lawrence’s history of violence and the nuclear paranoia of ‘The Day After’

Author and Lawrence native Steven Church.

Author and Lawrence native Steven Church.

March 2, 2010


"The Day After"

"The Day After" (1 of 6), scenes from Lawrence, before the bomb

Steven Church&squot;s new book, "The Day After the Day After" (Soft Skull Press).

Steven Church's new book, "The Day After the Day After" (Soft Skull Press).

When Steven Church sat down to write his memoir about growing up in Kansas, like many Lawrence children of the '80s, he recalled fond childhood memories of mushroom clouds, irradiated ghouls and the total collapse of human civilization.

Church funneled that wistful nostalgia for nuclear holocaust into "The Day After the Day After" (Soft Skull Press), his new book chronicling Armageddon and pop culture in Kansas. He uses the much ballyhooed 1983 television movie "The Day After," the nuclear strike drama that was filmed in and around Lawrence, as a post-apocalyptic backdrop for his exploration of Kansas catastrophes from Quantrill's Raid to the Greensburg tornado.

"Initially the book started by me trying to write about this movie, which I and many people in my generation who grew up in the '70s and '80s remember very vividly," says Church, Kansas University grad and author of "The Guinness Book of Me" and "Theoretical Killings." "Or they remember the hype surrounding it, maybe even more than the movie itself. It becomes a focal point for some of the questions I'm trying to ask about the meaning of apocalypse and the meaning of Kansas and Lawrence, which is seen as kind of a symbolic landscape. The movie 'The Day After,' the more I wrote about it and the more I discovered about it, was sort of just one more apocalyptic story in the history of Lawrence and Kansas."

Church makes a compelling case that Kansas, far from the idyllic image cemented in the public consciousness by "The Wizard of Oz," is a hotbed of death and disaster. Whether it's Bleeding Kansas border massacres in the 1860s or KU campus bombings during the Days of Rage in the 1960s-'70s, violence lurks behind the squeaky clean façade of the Sunflower State.

"For those of us who've lived there, we know Kansas isn't the picture of innocence everybody assumes it is," says Church, who now lives in California. "Kind of like how Lawrence isn't really flat. There're hills everywhere! I went to school on a mountain! So it has this odd reputation. I've always been really interested in the movie and pop culture portrayals of Kansas. References to Kansas have become a kind of standard line in action movies. Somebody at some point always goes, 'You're not in Kansas anymore.' It's become a cliché. What does it even mean? Obviously people have this investment in the meaning of Kansas."

Cultural and political event

That fantasy of Kansas as heartland ideal seems to make it an appealing setting for the end of days.

"If you're going to tell a story about the end of the world, you need a world that's the picture of simplicity and innocence and Midwestern purity or whatever," Church says. "We know Lawrence isn't really like that. It has an underbelly."

Regardless of how the city was portrayed, images of Lawrence's annihilation in "The Day After" certainly struck a nerve. "The morning after the movie was broadcast, I awoke to the astonishing fact that 100 million people had watched this movie," recalls Nicholas Meyer, director of "The Day After," which remains the most watched television movie of all time.

"It will hold that record because there are now too many channels for that to ever happen again. Half the United States sat and watched this movie on a November night in 1983. It had a gigantic impact. It changed the mind of the president of the United States about the notion of a winnable nuclear war. I didn't understand its impact at the time, but then I read Reagan's memoirs where he talked about seeing 'The Day After.' After he saw the movie, he went Reykjavik and signed the intermediate range missile treaty with Gorbachev to the fury of his conservative backers and adherents."

Lawrence had become, at least for the fall of 1983, the Cold War paranoia capital of the world.

"Ted Koppel was interested, reporters from The New York Times, Time, Newsweek, BBC and so on - those were just some of the ranks of journalists in Lawrence," remembers Chuck Berg, professor of film and media studies at KU, who also scored a cameo in "The Day After" as a hideously burned mutant.

"I probably did five or six phone interviews with people literally from all over the world. I remember talking to someone in Germany, someone in London, and someone in Tokyo. They all wanted to know something about the film. We were living in the midst of the Cold War in the '80s. There was concern about mutually assured destruction. Going back to Truman, there was a whole lineage of nuclear holocaust possibilities. Novels, movies and stories having to do with the Cold War and nuclear destruction were just part of the zeitgeist of the period. Many, many people around the world viewed 'The Day After' as an important cultural and political event."

Survivor's guilt

Even in the face of international media furor, Lawrencians took it all in stride. After all, how often does your city get blown up on prime time?

"The crew would be running around looking for a barn they could burn down or a couple of guys in their sixties who have overalls that could play farmers," says Berg. "There was a palpable kind of excitement. You'd be driving along and a block would be cordoned off because they would be shooting a scene, but no one minded. We all thought it was neat. Hollywood came to the Kaw."

And Hollywood left no survivors. "I guess the thing that was disturbing about 'The Day After' for those of us who lived in Lawrence was that apocalypse up to that point had been an abstraction," Church says. "The movie made it very personal. I was watching friends of mine get vaporized."

"The Day After" was just another chapter in Lawrence's legacy of apocalypse, one which came to a close with the end of the Cold War. But don't worry about Church - he's brimming with enough existential dread to write another book.

"Unfortunately, I think apocalyptic anxiety just shifts," he says. "I have kids now, and as I suggest in the book, it changes. Your world gets smaller when you have kids. You focus on their life and their world, but the stakes get bigger. Apocalypse for me now is the fear of something happening to my kids. Me? Whatever. I've lived through one apocalypse, even if it was fake, so I can live through another one."


bearded_gnome 8 years, 1 month ago

Apocalpyse on the Kaw:

---OMG! headline and all!

Yo! editor, please edit!!!!!

David Roberts 8 years, 1 month ago

What about the TV series Jericho? Even though the story isn't set in Lawrence, there are frequent references to the nuclear bomb that took out Lawrence. And a small bit of the series was filmed here too, right? It seems that Kansas/Lawrence/KU represent a sort of American ideal that is a target for attack in the TEOTWAWKI genre.

ivalueamerica 8 years, 1 month ago


You have finally lost it.

It must be so very difficult for you to have a black president.

Keith 8 years, 1 month ago

From the volume of his posting today, I think Barry is Merrill's evil twin. Or vice versa.

Cait McKnelly 8 years, 1 month ago

Back to the subject.... After reading this article I highly doubt I will ever read this man's book. Self centered, contemplative navel viewing is not my literary style. I've lived through a lot of history; the Kennedy assassination, the civil rights movement, the moon landing, the Vietnam War, etc. Do I have feelings and perceptions about those events? Yes. But at no point have I ever felt the urge to whop it out there on the table and publicly dissect it. There are a lot better and far more articulate historians that have already done so. Sorry, but if I want a book to put me to sleep I'll struggle though another chapter of Winston Churchill's memoirs. He makes a good bed partner.

Brandon Devlin 8 years, 1 month ago

I remember watching the movie in my 8th grade Social Studies class, while living on an Army base in Cold War West Germany and being freaked out. Then I remember going home and my Dad telling us that we were moving to Ft. Leavenworth. And then finding out that it was only about 30 minutes away from Lawrence. Good times. . .

Now the movie just seems so "silly."

K_Verses_The_World 8 years, 1 month ago

Death and Destruction lie open before the LORD how much more the hearts of men!

Proverbs 15:11

mom_of_three 8 years, 1 month ago

I am just curious if he started Bleeding Kansas border massacres in the 1860's as the article says or the 1850's. If he started in the 1860's, then most of the violence was over.

Stephanie Harris 8 years, 1 month ago

I went to high school with Steve and I've read his first book. He's a great guy and a very witty writer. Entertaining read.... nice to see a story on this hometown author.

eanthony 8 years, 1 month ago

I also went to school with Steve, grade school through high school, and was in The Day After as the character Jolene Dahlberg. I think that Steve's book will be a fascinating read and am glad that this topic is being discussed as people today still ask me about the experience of filming a movie like this in a place like Kansas. I live in New York City now and several people over the years have asked me about the movie... Even though the acting was bad (I have no complaints about that comment) it did impact a lot of people; and though the movie is dated and contrived at times, I recently learned from a friend who is a well known scholar of American presidential history from Columbia University that Regan saw the film and was moved by it.

Godot 8 years, 1 month ago

For heaven's sake, it was a campy movie! It was a joke! We had fun, we laughed, we grossed each other out! my gawd.

Godot 8 years, 1 month ago

Campus bombings during the "days of rage?" Excuse me? Can LJW elucidate on this topic?

Godot 8 years, 1 month ago

I do not remember any bombings, unless this so-called author has some proof that the burning of the student union was caused by a bomb. And the only "rage" was focused and fomented by the small circle of the SDS, Weathermen and Black Panthers. The rest of us were just surprised and happy to see that classes were held outside or simply cancelled, thanks to threat s by aforementioned terrorists.

Said author is projecting his own fantasy when he says there was "rage" in the 60's and 70's. The emphasis, as I recall, was more on love, peace, lovemaking and drug taking.

Get over yourself, whoever you are (or wish to be).

Paul R Getto 8 years, 1 month ago

"Said author is projecting his own fantasy when he says there was "rage" in the 60's and 70's. The emphasis, as I recall, was more on love, peace, lovemaking and drug taking." === Godot: Perhaps, but there was a bit of rage when the cops killed Rick and Nick.

"In July 16, 1970, black Lawrence resident Rick Dowdell, 19, was killed while fleeing Lawrence police. Riots unfolded and white KU student Nick Rice, 18, was killed amid the chaos. Meanwhile, the paper came out with the headline WANTED FOR MURDER, aimed at the policeman who shot Dowdell."

job4mike6 8 years, 1 month ago

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty was signed by Reagan and Gorbachev in Washington DC--not Iceland. Lawrence was not blown up in the movie--rather it suffered fallout. A large portion of Missouri was blown up by the nuclear attacks depicted in the film.

Douglas Redding 8 years, 1 month ago

Man, I remember the hype for this movie. Man, did it suck, rotten eggses, even. I must be close to the author's age. Huh. The only fun thing to come of that movie was the loca abuela who called my boss at Liberty Hall's video-store a few years ago, saying, "We should send 20 copies to the heads of India & Pakistan." Yeah, that would teach 'em.

puddleglum 8 years, 1 month ago

the movie has bad acting and worse special effects.

but the content is da bomb!

well, that came out weird. nuclear holocaust was feared every day back then, by most people. seems so ridiculous now. I always wondered how the war would come out.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.