Saturday, Sept. 26. The day a middle-aged bureaucrat broke the rules and saved civilization. It was over 20 years before the world began honoring Stanislav Petrov’s contribution to world peace. In the absence of responsive superiors or confirming sources, he correctly judged a computer glitch as a “false positive” report of incoming American friendlies. Although he violated protocol — using his best judgment over that of a machine and a rule-book — Petrov was never punished. If followed, the protocol he violated would have ticked off a chain of events leading to mutually assured destruction in global thermonuclear war.
It’s been thirty-two years. It’s been thirty-two seconds. It’s happening now, in the blink of the eye that is existence, underground. A malfunctioning warning system. An expert with good intuition. A decision about whether or not to follow the rules.
All the ticking nuclear bomb storylines in pop culture have it wrong. Time does not exist in a nuclear bunker. Hours pass that might be minutes, or days. Day may turn into night, for all you know — no sunlight reaches through the layers of concrete and steel. No outside air, nor water. The stuff of life that could become stuff of death, in the event of the worst. One of the Netherlands’ last two emergency communications nuclear bunkers — of an original seventeen — the Leuke Linde playground bunker in Arnhem remains operational today.
The decommissioning of the other fifteen reflects relative global stability in the post-Cold War period. Whether it was kept for historical value, or as a safety, it’s lucky that this particular bunker stands. It’s probably the most colorful, luxurious, and well-kept bunker in Western Europe. The German place-name Arnheim comes from Heim, home. The bunker was designed to fit into the place as an unassuming part of an unassuming home — constructed and painted look to like it was part of a surrounding children’s playground and outdoor theater.
The emergency network and the telephone exchange in the bunker still work. But on the anniversary of one of the days when civilization as we know it nearly came to a mutually assured end, no one had to use them. Good thing. Survivors of a nuclear blast would have had to live and work in the bunker, leaving only to perform emergency telecommunications repair missions — and then almost certainly die there of radiation poisoning (if nothing else). Bunkers like this are functional tombs for the altruists left standing.
In the nearby woods, on a decommissioned German military base, I walk in fields of light and flowers — rejoining time, warming body and mind from the bunker’s deep chill. Arnhem’s sanctuaries of woods and steel assert the power of trust. In the woods — trust in nature’s resilience, the greening of our bodies and minds, our ability to recalibrate given very basic conditions. In the bunker — trust in civilization’s stubborn insistence that, one way or another, we will persist.
For all this grand importance and weight, I’m most grateful for the little things when I get back to my temporary home in a friend’s Amsterdam AirBNB, where I’m finishing a book. Dishes made of ceramic and glass — breakable things not built to withstand blast. The flickering lights of boats in canals, bobbing through the darkness. A balcony shrub — rosemary for remembrance — that needs to be watered.