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Mike Kerrigan: Mutual assured destruction, and other pleasing childhood summer memories

Mike photographed with his younger brother Jack.


Mike Kerrigan: Mutual assured destruction, and other pleasing childhood summer memories


Many children who came of age in the 80s did so conspicuously afraid of nuclear war. The United States and Soviet arsenals cast a long shadow as the Cold War raged. To trepid adolescents, it seemed only a matter of time before these two toughest kids on the block squared off once and for all.

Though these were our early-teen years, neither my younger brother Jack nor I particularly dreaded a nuclear holocaust. It wasn’t that we felt geographically safe, growing up just outside Washington, D.C. On the way to Mass each Sunday our family drove past a decommissioned Nike Missile site. This tended to focus the mind on one’s mortality.

We weren’t scared because each of us intuitively grasped the concept of mutual assured destruction, and the deterrence principle behind it. Our education came not at the foot of canny game theorist parents. The learning occurred over the summer of 1984 at, of all places, the car wash.


Dad loved kicking off weekends then by having Jack, then 11, or me, 13, wash his car. On special occasions, when our customary slapdash efforts wouldn’t be good enough, he would have it done professionally.

When this happened, whoever had been relieved from sponge-duty would ride with the old man to the car wash. It wasn’t just to see the brushes lap over the car like some giant feline tongue-bath, although that was fun.

The draw came at the end when the attendant asked which scent of “Little Trees” air-freshener was desired. My answer never varied: “All of them.” I said this because I knew Jack recently had done the same, and I needed to replenish my stockpile. You see, we’d grown fond of hiding the pungent trees in each other’s bedroom.

It started out innocently. I’d leave a tree on my brother’s dresser in the morning, hidden in plain sight. I wouldn’t fully remove it from its plastic, for doing so was sadistically sufficient to refresh Madison Square Garden. In the beginning, this was a gentleman’s game.

Later on, Jack would scour his bedroom to rid it of its now powerful piña colada scent. Failure to find the tree before sundown promised a night of chemically-induced dreams worthy of Tim Burton.

After he found the tree Jack raised the bar, removing more plastic than I had, and more cagily choosing a hiding place. By the time I found the black-cherry nose-bomb he’d stashed my disoriented mind, were it a song, would have been “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane.

The hiding places grew in deviousness as summer progressed. We brothers grew surly with one another, behavior attributable to our fitful nights of sleep. When I fired all my guns at once – six trees, all fully unsheathed and thumbtacked to the wall and airspace behind his headboard – we knew it had to stop.


The game as it had been played was unwinnable. The threat of overwhelming olfactory force each held over the other kept us both in check. The moment we realized this, we stood down.

Later that summer the war film “Red Dawn” was released, just as we brothers stepped back from the brink. Jack and I adored the movie; we still do. But when the bad guys attacked America using conventional rather than nuclear weapons, we just smiled knowingly.



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