A decade ago, when his old high school was shutting its doors, teacher Jim Correale grabbed an old-fashioned “Fallout Shelter” sign from the school’s library, a memento he’d eventually hang from a wall in his East Boston home.
Until recently, it served as little more than a relic — a black-and-yellow reminder of a tenser, long-ago time.
“Now,” Correale jokes, “it might be important signage for the present.”
As the public showdown between President Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un has quickly ramped up in recent days — with both sides contributing to the tension — the topic of nuclear war has seeped into American life.
Google searches for “How to survive a nuclear attack” saw a sizable jump following Trump’s “fire and fury” comments this week. Text message chains between friends have become littered with talk about the world’s potential demise, while print and TV news have been increasingly focused on the escalating nuclear threats. (Sample headline: “Trump warns US ‘locked and loaded’ as North Korea readies missiles.”)
But even as officials in Guam released pamphlets this week informing residents how to prepare for a potential nuclear strike, Bostonians aren’t exactly tightening their gas masks just yet.
Much of the response in recent days, in fact, has been a kind of gallows humor — friends joking of combining happy hour with duck-and-cover drills, and tongue-in-cheek Twitter chatter imagining a post-apocalyptic society.
“Dammit,” read one tweet, “I had September in the ‘When Will We Be Practicing Nuclear Attack Drills With Trump as President’ pool.”
Added another user: “What are @dominos delivery terms during Nuclear Attack?”
At his Boston office, meanwhile, psychiatrist and psychotherapist David Dybdal hasn’t noticed a jump in patient anxiety surrounding North Korea.
Unlike Sept. 11 or Trump’s victory in the 2016 election — events that, according to therapists, led to considerable angst amongst patients across the country — the threat of nuclear war has failed at this point to develop into an immediate, genuine concern.
“It doesn’t feel like the Cuban Missile Crisis that happened back in the 1960s,” Dybdal says, referencing the 13-day stretch in which the United States and Soviet Union came unsettlingly close to nuclear war. “Although we might be just as close to having a nuclear war as we were then.”
The reason for this collective remove?
One theory is that Trump’s stream of fiery rhetoric has left Americans inured to the disturbing headlines.
To explain, Dybdal uses the analogy of a frog in a pot of water. If the temperature of the water climbs gradually, the frog will remain in it, adjusting until it is sadly, inevitably, too late.
Humankind, for the record, is the frog in this analogy.
“Part of it is, we are exhausted in our capacity to mount a response — any kind of response — to a new threat,” says Dybdal, citing the various maladies currently facing Americans. “When you’re always running from a bear, seeing a lion isn’t going to make you any more scared.”
Steve Koczela, president of the MassINC Polling Group, has another theory.
“It’s a risk that people aren’t used to discussing,” he says of the nuclear threat. “There’s no framework that people have to talk about certain things. With climate change, people are used to it. This issue is newer, so I think people are figuring out how to deal with it, and how to talk about it.”
That doesn’t mean, of course, that it’s not on people’s minds.
In Stoughton, Jonathan Bowen hasn’t concerned himself much with the chatter about the prospect of nuclear war. He lived through the Reagan years, he says, and he writes off the recent threats as little more than political bluster.
Still, when his cellphone burst to life a few nights ago with the shrill ring of an Amber Alert, he couldn’t help wondering — just for a moment — if this was it.
“That sound is definitely reminiscent of some sort of nuclear sirens,” says Bowen, 44. “Are we all going down?”
At his office recently, Wayland’s Paul David Mena got to talking with another colleague about the tense days of the Cold War era.
“He reminded me of having to take cover under desks in the event of a sudden attack,” says Mena, a software engineer. “We joked about it, but there may come a time when we’re not laughing.”
If Americans have learned anything during the first seven months of the Trump presidency, after all, it’s that things can change at the speed of a tweet.
For the moment, though, most people seem happy to leave the underground shelters and food stockpiles to the doomsday preppers.
As Correale points out, “I was at the supermarket yesterday, and it didn’t seem like the toilet paper was low or anything.”Dugan Arnett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @duganarnett.