Sometimes things happen that burn themselves indelibly onto the memory. We remember clearly where we were at the time and what exactly we were doing. We put down whatever we have in our hands. We stop in our tracks. We are struck dumb. Words are inadequate. We are sharply reminded of our own insignificance and vulnerability. Our perception of the world is changed forever. Most of these events are small, private happenings, bringing personal grief or happiness. The great public events affect thousands or even millions of people, shifting the ground under our feet, in either a real or a metaphorical way. We all remember what we were doing when we heard that President Kennedy had been shot.
We can vividly imagine the terror of the people of Pompeii, from the pathetic plaster casts of those suffocated by the eruption of the volcano. They were going about their daily business, conversing, laughing or grumbling, sitting at their work or drawing together to share a meal. They were taken in an instant. The seismic waves from Krakatoa were felt in The Pool of London. The sun was darkened. The explosion of the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, still haunt our consciousness. “I am become Death, Destroyer of Worlds.” (Oppenheimer.) Is it any wonder that catastrophists and doomsayers dominate popular culture? There is a market for dystopia. Special effects create endless versions of Armageddon to frighten the lives out of us and make us apprehensive for the future and for our childrens’ and grandchildrens’ futures. Apprehension breeds extremism and thereby violence.
The first time I saw a jet plane, I felt fear. I was wheeling my baby brother in a pram, at the top of Toker Hill. (He maintains that it is Tochar Hill. He has grown up. He corrects me.) Nobody uses a pram nowadays, except vegetable vendors in street markets. A pram could contain several siblings and all the family groceries. The handle was very cold, for children old enough to walk, but compelled to hold on. I let go of my hold once and promptly got lost. That’s another primal fear.
On top of the hill I heard a terrible noise. Was it a bull, roaring as he charged towards us? Was it blasting in the quarry? It was definitely not a train or a lorry. It wasn’t a steam threshing machine, rumbling along a country road. The noise seemed to crack the sky. I saw a gleaming triangle, a delta wing, as I learned later. It was silver. I had no idea what it was. I feared for my little brother. There was nowhere to hide. It turned away from us and then banked, a graceful isosceles, darting away over the town and away,away, beyond Rockabill lighthouse. The noise crackled and reverberated behind it, long after it disappeared from sight. We are familiar with the old black and white films of refugees fleeing from strafing aircraft, along unprotected dykes and straggling roads. They push their children and their hopes of safety and a better life, in prams and handcarts. They walk in fear, looking up at the sky. Everyone is a legitimate target for blitzkrieg.
I saw two F.16 fighter jets last week, in almost the same place, a most unusual sight in Skerries. My son and I got out of the car to watch them. They circled a couple of times, displaying their weaponry. If they saw us at all, we were two insignificant specks far below, devoid of humanity or individual importance. We were conscious of the fact that a finger on a button could have evaporated us in an instant. They had come to perform a fly-past for a college football game in Croke Park. When we got home, the news on the radio reported Ukrainian jets hitting rebel positions around Mariupol. Fire from the sky was a reality for some people on that sunny Saturday afternoon.
On April 27th 1937, aircraft of Hitler’s Condor Legion, bombed the Basque town of Guernica. There was a horse fair taking place on that day. Picasso’s painting captures the terror, for those of us who were not there, or were not even born at the time. Today Americans remember all those who died in the Twin Towers and elsewhere on September the 11th 2001. You too remember where you were at that time and when you first saw those indelible images of twisted steel, amid towering clouds of smoke and dust. Our perception of the world changed on that day.
My daughter, Sarah, made this video. Take a few minutes to listen to it and to look at Picasso’s images as they change.
ILUNTASUNA, in Euskara, the language of the Basque people, means DARKNESS.
The Guernica Oak Tree, in the middle of the town, is perpetuated from its own acorns. The current replacement sapling is being held elsewhere, until the soil is able to heal.