I grew up in the shadow of Three Mile Island. Our little house was less than five miles away from the infamous nuclear power plant. The emergency evacuation system was tested every Saturday at noon, jarring nerves and inhibiting one’s ability to hear the television clearly. Special radioactive emergency drills were held regularly in school. Oddly, the integral part of these drills involved sitting under one’s desk. For many years, I assumed that those school desks contained lead or some other protective shield. Meanwhile, the tornado drills at least evacuated us to the inner hallway of the building (where we sat with our heads between our knees).
At the time of the notorious “Three Mile Island Accident” in 1980, I was a patient at the Children’s Hospital in Hershey, PA (home of the chocolate company), where I was already being exposed to radiation and toxic chemicals on a daily basis. As a result, I have no terrifying memories of the accident.
Nonetheless, my most common nightmare as a child centered around nuclear disaster. It always involved trying to run away from the radiation, which manifested itself as a neon green toxic gas. Frequently I was also trying to save my pets, with mixed degrees of success. Inevitably, men in big white space suits arrived and locked my family in our house…doomed to a lifetime of radioactivity. Sometimes I actually found myself running and running until I lost consciousness under a tree. At this moment, I would force myself to wake up.
Of course, like any child growing up in the last day’s of the cold war, I also had disturbing dreams about nuclear war. These were fueled by viewing the film The Day After, a particularly heart-warming (well, kinda heart-warming) view of the days following a nuclear attack. I am fairly certain there was a romantic subplot. Sometimes I dreamed that I lived in an actual missile silo, which was bombed while I was sleeping or eating macaroni and cheese or playing with Barbies. Other times, the nuclear attack occurred while I was on the playground at recess. Every child and teacher was vaporized into dust, except for me. My post-apocalyptic dreams were further intensified by reading Z for Zachariah. Most dreams included drinking from a river filled with dead fish. And of course, creepy blood-thirsty radioactive zombies were hiding behind every abandoned farmhouse.
I also went through a brief phase of earthquake dreams, when I was in 2nd or 3rd grade. An actual earthquake occurred around that time in Central PA. I remember that I was sitting alone in my grandma’s “family room” watching Ripley’s Believe It or Not (my favorite show). I was rocking back and forth on my groovy red plastic 70s chair. My grandmother had warned me for months that this kind of daredevilry would lead to cracking my head open. At the same time the tremors began, I did in fact fall backwards, hitting my head on the corner of the quasi-rustic coffee table (the decor had a bit of a pioneer/cowboy theme). And so my earthquake nightmares began. These were further fueled by news programs predicting an inevitable San Andreas disaster.
Another (now hilarious) recurring nightmare of my childhood and adolescence: I find myself locked in a McDonald’s (specifically, the location on route 30 in York, PA) in the middle of the night. Suddenly Ronald McDonald and the Fry Guys are chasing me around, promising certain doom. Grimace wants to help me, but alas, he is just a foolish rube. Mayor McCheese reveals a secret exit hidden behind a hand dryer in the restroom, but the Hamburglar blocks my access. At one point, I am nearly thrown into a fryer. I am pelted with burning hot apple pies. It sounds funny now, but I usually had to force myself awake to prevent a certain death from fright. I frequently vomited upon waking. Perhaps this is where my distaste for fast food (even Wawa sandwiches) began.
In my adult life, my nightmares center around either tornadoes (oh, the metaphorical implications) and terrible car accidents. Most of my dreams are more sad, less scary. For example, last week I dreamed that I was dating some sort of amazing fellow. Then I discovered he was engaged to another woman with several children. He thought we could all hang out together (ewww…polygamy). Part of this plan involved having dinner with her parents. At the restaurant, I ran out to a payphone (do these still exist?) and dialed up my ex-boyfriend. This took several tries, because the phone was rotary (terrible). When his voicemail picked up (of course), the greeting said, “Hi, if this is Amanda, I just want you to know that I am now someone’s boyfriend. The lucky lady is from Berlin, which makes her both exotic and clearly intellectual. Please leave a message after the tone.” Argh. No more coffee and cigarettes after 4 pm!