If you quit a good job and travel the world, you will briefly become the toast of your social circle. Like all fame, this is fun and debilitating.
People walk up and ask questions, most of which are completely unrelated to what you’re doing or why, and are instead about how you can afford it. This is understandable, but sometimes you’d wish they’d just listen, because if you drop out of capitalism and run for your life, you learn a few things, most of which have nothing to do with money.
For instance, you learn that Florentines frown on adding more than a single drop of milk to a thimble of espresso. That, according to convention, you should be so full from lunch that there isn’t any room left in your stomach for a second drop of milk. That you’ll have time to make room because the jokes about the Italian train schedules are true.
But you also learn other things, weird things.
That a long exposure photograph of an Australian fireworks display is preferable to long exposure to an Australian woman, which can be disastrous. That perhaps the only thing more depressing than traveling 14,000 miles for an unsuccessful third date is learning that nobody cares. That this is liberating in its own way.
That there are people, kind and outwardly reasonable and nestled in non-American places, who, provoked by nothing besides your accent, will profess their approval for the 45th President of the good old USA — and that this will terrify and dismay in a non-partisan, distinctly human, way. That you will make jokes about burning your undergraduate and graduate diplomas just to cope. That both scraps of paper contain the phrase “political science.”
You will learn that nihilism is a trap door. That there are ideas and books and images which will simply break people, leave them shattered on the floor.
That “less is more” is pithy but “less but better” is a reason to live — sometimes.
That you have to deftly hook your fingers around the belt loop of someone who is thinking about jumping off a bridge. That she will be a magnanimous German who has been seized by intoxicants and the depressing dusk of a completed public holiday. That she will be leaning on a bridge over the Spree, staring at the water, recounting an old attempt. That you will jump right the fuck after her, boots and all, but that it must be cold and therefore easier to tether her now. That your grip shouldn’t be tight, shouldn’t even be noticeable.
That the only truth in this world is that it keeps coming, and it keeps coming, and it keeps coming, ’til the day it stops.
That for all the intervention and intrusion of American foreign policy, most Americans don’t travel outside these United States. That if they have, it was probably eleven years ago and to a tourist destination that intentionally suppresses its culture and opinions to attract American dollars. That if they will travel outside these United States, it will probably be once they’re old and easily annoyed by the inconveniences of non-America. That this doesn’t apply to all Americans, that international travel is a privilege of the rich, but also that it’s easier to bomb distant places, to send poor teenagers to die on faraway hills.
And you learn that the intercontinental ballistic missile silos in Montana and Wyoming and North Dakota are intended to “soak up” a lot of inbound Russian nukes. That each of the 399 LGM-30G Minuteman III missiles parked in this wide open space holds three separate W78 thermonuclear warheads, which can target different dots on a soon-to-be-completely-fucked map. That these warheads are drastically less powerful than the Soviet Tsar Bomba, which required an 800 kilogram parachute to slow it down during its descent from a Tupolev Tu-95 bomber which, in turn, had to be completely gutted just to take off with the 27,000 kg bomb half-erupting from its fuselage like the Xenomorph in Alien. That the Tu-95 crew was judged, planned, expected to have a 50/50 shot at survival, but who ultimately lived by escaping to a distance of 45 km before the detonation, which is equivalent to about 28 miles in this meterphobic country, and which seems to be a rather safe distance for anything that can actually be escaped on a planetary scale until you learn that the explosion cracked window panes 900 km away as the ensuing atmospheric disturbance orbited the earth thrice.
That even though the Tsar Bomba was a uselessly destructive device (nukes can be too big), its thermonuclear design is shared with the American W78 warhead.
That the W78 is colloquially referred to as an H-bomb, but is in fact three separate bombs that are unironically Russian nesting-dolled together (conventional bomb then fission bomb then fusion bomb), and that the three W78 warheads that ride on a Minuteman III are “deployed” solely at the discretion of one person, who does so via a briefcase called “The Football,” which is literally chained to another human who follows them around 24/7 and which contains, among some papers with various strike options and instructions that you’d really hope they wouldn’t just skim, a little card known as “The Biscuit.”
That “The Biscuit” is contained within an opaque plastic casing which must be snapped in half before its authenticating Gold Codes can be transmitted according to a very specific protocol to some totally normal people in bunkers in MT, ND, and WY, who then unlock safes and check their codes against the sequence they’ve just received, and assuming it’s bingo and not just a really high-stakes joke, they simultaneously turn their separate keys into an extremely 1974 console.
That the locks are set apart at an inhuman distance and 100% of the two person crew is armed with Beretta 9mm pistols in case 50% decides to have some unilateral fun at the office.
That this whole process, from Biscuit snap to atmospheric re-entry of W78s at 7 km per second, could transpire in less than 40 minutes and is pretty much unstoppable after perhaps 2 minutes because satellites would detect the Minutemen during their boost phase and the Russians would probably not be very receptive to the email subject line “URGENT: PLEASE DISREGARD”.
That even if a launch is accidental or premature, basic game theory demands that the other side retaliate with Everything while they still have the chance.
That this doomsday machine with the hair trigger is running 24/7/365 and perversely (and debatably) responsible for the absence of large-scale industrial warfare since August, 1945. That these Minutemen are but part of a nuclear “triad” that also includes bombers and submarines, which is really more of a diad considering that bombers are rather slow compared to the 15,500 mph re-entry speed of a W78 realizing its life’s potential.
That the really Do You Feel Lucky, Punk? part of the equation are the US of A’s fourteen Ohio-class ballistic missile subs, a.k.a. boomers, that dart around the oceans in near-total silence and whose individual armament is more than enough for a serious second strike, meaning that even if the Russians get fantastically lucky and catch the US asleep at the wheel — even if they destroy every missile silo and bomber base and thirteen of the fourteen boomers — there will still be nuclear hell to pay.
That there are “dead man” triggers in place for just this sort of thing. That the Soviets developed Systema Perimtr, a top-secret network of seismographs and other sensors, that will trigger a retaliatory strike even if the state’s been decapitated in a first strike. That Perimtr is still maintained by today’s Russian Federation.
That we’re talking about dead men using computers and Geiger counters to kill from beyond the grave. That this is an insurance policy. That, weirdly, it makes a lot of sense.
And if you quit your job and spend your time chasing Australians and reading about nukes, you’ll find that the craziest parts aren’t the pistoled missile crews or the military’s obsession with absurd sobriquets, or even that the man who just might snap The Biscuit once used the phrase “a very against-police judge” in a televised Presidential debate.
No, you’ll find the craziest part is that you’re still thinking about the woman on the bridge and hoping that she’s happy.