[boom boom boom boom]
There is an odd little tradition in the northern East Coast. The day before Halloween – or, more accurately, the night – is considered to be a general-free-for-all where one is “allowed” to toilet paper and egg houses… or each other. It’s called “Mischief Night” in parts of the region, but in my town, we always referred to it as “Cabbage Night”.
I’m assuming that the nomenclature derived from flinging rotten cabbage and not from gastrointestinal abuses on each other. That would be “Pull-My-Finger Night.”
Now, my parents weren’t from New England and they had no clue about Cabbage Night. And trying to instill a feeling of law-abidingness in us, they forbid my brother and me to join our friends who went out on Cabbage Night.
Which pretty much guaranteed that our house was going to be targeted. Ever notice how Mexico never participated in a policy of “Mutually Assured Destruction”? If you have no weapons, you are no threat, and everyone can aim at you without fear of reprisal.
Somehow, this never occurred to my parents.
Each year, on October 30th, about 20 minutes after sundown, my father would dress up in a black sweater, black pants, and a black watchman’s cap and guard his fortress from the marauding hordes (e.g. my classmates). We lived in a wooded town with trees everywhere, surrounding all the properties. They made for great mini-groves in which to hide and my father got pretty good playing ninja among them.
When my friends were younger, it was relatively easy to scare the crap out of them (quite literally in the case of Billy, but that’s another story) simply by popping out from behind a tree. Of course, back then the “weapons” were pretty simple: fingers to push on doorbells and then run away. However, by making it a challenge for those young ringers to get to the door, my father only invited further aggression in following years.
And that’s about the time when my friends graduated from doorbell pushing to egg throwing. Bigger weapons for bigger kids who have bigger arms.
My father escalated also. He brought out a garden hose with a high pressure nozzle. It’s no joke to get soaked by an icy spray on a cold, late October evening in New England and that hose widened the perimeter of defense considerably. Score for my father.
This year, Cabbage Night is particularly special with a 50th anniversary of the greatest weapon of them all. On October 30, 1961, the Soviet Union triggered the largest bomb ever built by humans: the Tsar Bomba. (According to my research, its nickname, Big Ivan, was not derived from what Mrs. Khrushchev playfully called Nikita’s member.)
Now nuclear weapons are kinda huge with explosive power to begin with. The very first nuclear bomb dropped in war – the Hiroshima “Little Boy” bomb – exploded with the energy of 13,000 to 18,000 tons of TNT. How much is that?
Hell if I know! But it has to be a lot because the bomb wiped out nearly 5 square miles of land.
Of course, if the US has a bomb this big, the Soviet Union would rightly feel it needed something even bigger with which to defend itself. And, of course, then the US needs something bigger still. And back and forth it went for years, and the bombs just kept getting bigger and bigger. Consider this a grownup version of the doorbell-ringing-leads-to-scaring-ringers-leads-to-egging-leads-to-icy-water type of escalation.
So it seems entirely appropriate that on Cabbage Night, 50 years ago, the Soviet literally went nuclear. Not just nuclear. Mega-nuclear. To the tune of 50 megatons of TNT, or about the equivalent of 3300 Hiroshima bombs.
How much is that? Hell if I know! But take a look:
The mushroom cloud rose 40 miles in the air. The blast obliterated everything in a 34 mile radius – an area equivalent to twice the size of the state of Rhode Island. The seismic shock to the Earth below was strong enough to travel 3 times around the Earth itself.
It would be the equivalent of my ninja-dad tossing the hose aside in favor of being able to make it rain and sleet and hail on demand. (On the occasions when rain was forecast for Cabbage Night, the whooping from ninja-dad could only compete with the sounds my brother and I would make later in the season on hearing snow-days announced. Seems it takes a hard rain to prevent humans from lobbing things at each other.)
The Soviets knew how to run a good Cabbage Night – probably because they knew what to do with a good cabbage. My father won his Cabbage Night battle with ice water, the Soviets won theirs with fire. Nothing ever escalated beyond the Soviet bomb.
Fortunately for us.
It’s with some irony, then, that the last of the US’s large nuclear weapons were dismantled only last week. These B-53 bombs, known affectionately as “bunker busting,” were originally put into commission the year after the Tsar Bomba was detonated and were “only” 600 times as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb.
Phew. At least you’d need several of these to blow up Rhode Island. I feel safer already.
Of course, we never really stopped escalating. You didn’t think the United States would dismantle their bunker busters without having something to replace them, did you? In fact, we do: these new bunker busters are called “thermobaric bombs.” You can think of them a little like nuclear weapons without the mess (e.g. radioactivity). We first used them in 2002 in Afghanistan…
…and so would it surprise you that in 2007, the Russians exploded the world’s largest thermobaric bomb? Uh-oh.
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