‘How to Win an Unwinnable War’ by Austin Bunn


From Duck and Cover, 1952

From The Atlantic:

The catalog comes in a sharp white envelope, Please forward written in his father’s cursive on the outside. Sam paws the return label. Governor’s School for the Gifted and Talented, it reads. The governor has noticed him.

“Tell me it’s free,” Mom says. “Free would be nice.”

But Sam would do summer school even if he had to drain his savings account or extend his paper route. He likes school—the sweet octane of highlighters, the systems of reward—with a pure-heartedness most seventh-graders reserve for self-abuse. He skims the courses, Euclidean Geometry, Beginning Japanese, and stops at a “late addition.” How to Win a Nuclear War.

Suddenly, Sam knows exactly how he’ll spend the summer.

Tucked in his closet is a “go bag” with Band-Aids, sunblock, shin pads, and the cinnamon granola bars no one wants. As far as he is concerned, nuclear holocaust is the only thing worth thinking about. Back in the winter, when Mom left his father and they moved into the apartment, she promised Sam a gift, a reward for coming. He asked for a plastic barrel to store fresh water. She bought him a plant instead, a fern now browning on the front stoop. According to Sam’s estimates, Princeton, New Jersey, sits just outside the kill zone of Manhattan. He has a chance of surviving. He and his mom have a distinct chance, and the idea that he could save people—and show them everything—orients him like a polestar. The year is 1987.

“Seriously?,” Mom asks, setting down her book, a hardcover for nursing school. The book fascinates Sam, the photographs of gashes and lesions and people with cowed, empty looks, like no matter how pink or black the wound, no matter how dire, they still might yawn. “This is your summer we’re talking about.”

“But summer school doesn’t cost anything, it’s zero dollars,” Sam says. He digs around in the box of Fig Newtons tucked next to her on the chair. One is left. That is their rule now, living together as a “team.” Leave one behind.

“Promise me that when you find out how to win,” she says, signing her permission, “you’ll tell the governor. Tell everybody. Even if I’m not around.”

She will always be around. That is the whole point of winning.

“Now,” Mom says, “get us some more cookies.”

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