Generation of Noah
by William Tenn
That was the day Plunkett heard his wife screaming guardedly to their youngest boy.
He let the door of the laying house slam behind him, forgetful of the nervously feeding hens. She had, he realized, cupped her hands over her mouth so that only the boy would hear.
“Saul! You, Saul! Come back, come right back this instant. Do you want your father to catch you out there on the road? Saul!”
The last shriek was higher and clearer, as if she had despaired of attracting the boy's attention without at the same time warning the man.
Gently, rapidly, Plunkett shh'd his way through the bustling and hungry hens to the side door. He came out facing the brooder run and broke into a heavy, unathletic trot.
He heard the other children clatter out of the feed house. Good! They have the responsibility after Ann and me, Plunkett told himself. Let them watch and learn again.
“Saul!” his wife's voice shrilled unhappily. “Saul, your father's coming!”
Ann came out of the front door and paused. “Elliot,” she called at his back as he leaped over the flush well-cover. “Please, I don't feel well.”
A difficult pregnancy, of course, and in her sixth month. But that had nothing to do with Saul. Saul knew better.
At the last frozen furrow of the truck garden Plunkett gave himself a moment to gather the necessary air for his lungs. Years ago, when Von Rundstedt's Tigers roared through the Bulge, he would have been able to dig a foxhole after such a run. Now, he was badly winded. Just showed you: such a short distance from the far end of the middle chicken house to the far end of the vegetable garden—merely crossing four acres—and he was winded. And consider the practice he'd had.
He could just about see the boy idly lifting a stick to throw for the dog's pleasure. Saul was in the further ditch, well past the white line his father had painted across the road.
“Elliot,” his wife began again. “He's only six years old. He—”
Plunkett drew his jaws apart and let breath out in a bellyful of sound. “Saul! Saul Plunkett!” he bellowed. “Start running!”
He knew his voice had carried. He clicked the button on his stopwatch and threw his right arm up, pumping his clenched fist.
The boy had heard the yell. He turned, and, at the sight of the moving arm that meant the stopwatch had started, he dropped the stick. But, for the fearful moment, he was too startled to move.
Eight seconds. He lifted his lids slightly. Saul had begun to run. But he hadn't picked up speed, and Rusty skipping playfully between his legs threw him off his stride.
Ann had crossed the garden laboriously and stood at his side, alternately staring over his jutting elbow at the watch and smiling hesitantly sidewise at his face. She shouldn't have come out in her thin housedress in November. But it was good for Ann, too. Plunkett kept his eyes stolidly on the unemotional second hand.
One minute forty.
He could hear the dog's joyful barks coming closer, but as yet there was no echo of sneakers slapping the highway. Two minutes. He wouldn't make it.
The old bitter thoughts came crowding back to Plunkett. A father timing his six-year-old son's speed with the best watch he could afford. This, then, was the scientific way to raise children in Earth's most enlightened era. Well, it was scientific…in keeping with the latest discoveries…
Two and a half minutes. Rusty's barks didn't sound so very far off. Plunkett could hear the desperate pad-pad-pad of the boy's feet. He might make it at that. If only he could!
“Hurry, Saul,” his mother breathed. “You can make it.”
Plunkett looked up in time to see his son pound past, his jeans already darkened with perspiration. “Why doesn't he breathe like I told him?” he muttered. “He'll be out of breath in no time.”
Halfway to the house, a furrow caught at Saul's toes. As he sprawled, Ann gasped. “You can't count that, Elliot. He tripped.”
“Of course he tripped. He should count on tripping.”
“Get up, Saulie,” Herbie, his older brother, screamed from the garage where he stood with Josephine Dawkins, one pail of eggs between them. “Get up and run! This corner here! You can make it!”
The boy heaved to his feet, and threw his body forward again. Plunkett could hear him sobbing. He reached the cellar steps—and literally plunged down.
Plunkett pressed the stopwatch and the second hand halted. Three minutes thirteen seconds.
He held the watch up for his wife to see. “Thirteen seconds, Ann.”
Her face wrinkled.
He walked to the house. Saul crawled back up the steps, fragments of unrecovered breath rattling in his chest. He kept his eyes on his father.
“Come here, Saul. Come right here. Look at the watch. Now, what do you see?”
The boy stared intently at the watch. His lips began twisting; startled tears writhed down his stained face. “More—more than three m-minutes, poppa?”
“More than three minutes, Saul. Now, Saul—don't cry, son; it isn't any use—Saul, what would have happened when you got to the steps?”
A small voice, pitifully trying to cover its cracks: “The big doors would be shut.”
“The big doors would be shut. You would be locked outside. Then—what would have happened to you? Stop crying. Answer me!”
“Then, when the bombs fell, I'd—I'd have no place to hide. I'd burn like the head of a match. An'—an' the only thing left of me would be a dark spot on the ground, shaped like my shadow. An'—an'—”
“And the radioactive dust,” his father helped with the catechism.
“Elliot—” Ann sobbed behind him. “I don't—”
“Please, Ann! And the radioactive dust, son?”
“An' if it was ra-di-o-ac-tive dust 'stead of atom bombs, my skin would come right off my body, an' my lungs would burn up inside me—please, poppa, I won't do it again!”
“And your eyes? What would happen to your eyes?”
A chubby brown fist dug into one of the eyes. “An' my eyes would fall out, an' my teeth would fall out, and I'd feel such terrible terrible pain—”
“All over and inside you. That's what would happen if you got to the cellar too late when the alarm went off, if you got locked out. At the end of three minutes, we pull the levers, and no matter who's outside—no matter who—all four corner doors swing shut and the cellar will be sealed. You understand that, Saul?”
The two Dawkins children were listening with white faces and dry lips. Their parents had brought them from the city and begged Elliot Plunkett, as he remembered old friends, to give their children the same protection as his. Well, they were getting it. This was the way to get it.
“Yes, I understand it, poppa. I won't ever do it again. Never again.”
“I hope you won't. Now start for the barn, Saul. Go ahead.” Plunkett slid his heavy leather belt from its loops.
“Elliot! Don't you think he understands the horrible thing? A beating won't make it any clearer.”
He paused behind the weeping boy trudging to the barn. “It won't make it any clearer, but it will teach him the lesson another way. All seven of us are going to be in that cellar three minutes after the alarm, if I have to wear this strap clear down to the buckle!”
When Plunkett later clumped into the kitchen with his heavy farm boots, he stopped and sighed.
Ann was feeding Dinah. With her eyes on the baby, she asked, “No supper for him, Elliot?”
“No supper.” He sighed again. “It does take it out of a man.”
“Especially you. Not many men would become a farmer at thirty-five. Not many men would sink every last penny into an underground fort and powerhouse, just for insurance. But you're right.”
“I only wish,” he said restlessly, “that I could work out some way of getting Nancy's heifer into the cellar. And if eggs stay high one more month, I can build the tunnel to the generator. Then there's the well. Only one well, even if it's enclosed—”
“And when we came out here seven years ago—” She rose to him at last and rubbed her lips gently against his thick blue shirt. “We only had a piece of ground. Now, we have three chicken houses, a thousand broilers, and I can't keep track of how many layers and breeders.”
She stopped as his body tightened and he gripped her shoulders.
“Ann, Ann! If you think like that, you'll act like that! How can I expect the children to—Ann, what we have—all we have—is a five-room cellar, concrete-lined, which we can seal in a few seconds, an enclosed well from a fairly deep underground stream, a windmill generator for power and a sunken oil-burner-driven generator for emergencies. We have supplies to carry us through, Geiger counters to detect radiation and lead-lined suits to move about in—afterwards. I've told you again and again that these things are our lifeboat, and the farm is just a sinking ship.”
“Of course, darling.” Plunkett's teeth ground together, then parted helplessly as his wife went back to feeding the baby.
“You're perfectly right. Swallow, now, Dinah. Why, that last bulletin from the Survivors Club would make anybody think.”
He had been quoting from the October Survivor and Ann had recognized it. Well? At least they were doing something—seeking out nooks and feverishly building crannies—pooling their various ingenuities in an attempt to haul themselves and their families through the military years of the Atomic Age.
The familiar green cover of the mimeographed magazine was very noticeable on the kitchen table. He flipped the sheets to the thumb-smudged article on page five and shook his head.
“Imagine!” he said loudly. “The poor fools agreeing with the government again on the safety factor. Six minutes! How can they—an organization like the Survivors Club making that their official opinion! Why freeze, freeze alone…”
“They're ridiculous,” Ann murmured, scraping the bottom of the bowl.
“All right, we have automatic detectors. But human beings still have to look at the radar scope, or we'd be diving underground every time there's a meteor shower.”
He strode along a huge table, beating a fist rhythmically into one hand. “They won't be so sure, at first. Who wants to risk his rank by giving the nationwide signal that makes everyone in the country pull ground over his head, that makes our own projectile sites set to buzz? Finally, they are certain: they freeze for a moment. Meanwhile, the rockets are zooming down—how fast, we don't know. The men unfreeze, they trip each other up, they tangle frantically. Then they press the button, then the nationwide signal starts our radio alarms.”
Plunkett turned to his wife, spread earnest, quivering arms. “And then, Ann, we freeze when we hear it! At last, we start for the cellar. Who knows, who can dare to say, how much has been cut off the margin of safety by that time? No, if they claim that six minutes is the safety factor, we'll give half of it to the alarm system. Three minutes for us.”
“One more spoonful,” Ann urged Dinah. “Just one more. Down it goes!”
Josephine Dawkins and Herbie were cleaning the feed trolley in the shed at the near end of the chicken house.
“All done, pop,” the boy grinned at his father. “And the eggs taken care of. When does Mr. Whiting pick 'em up?”
“Nine o'clock. Did you finish feeding the hens in the last house?”
“I said all done, didn't I?” Herbie asked with adolescent impatience. “When I say a thing, I mean it.”
“Good. You kids better get at your books. Hey, stop that! Education will be very important, afterwards. You never know what will be useful. And maybe only your mother and I to teach you.”
“Gee,” Herbie nodded at Josephine. “Think of that.”
She pulled at her jumper where it was very tight over newly swelling breasts and patted her blonde braided hair. “What about my mother and father, Mr. Plunkett? Won't they be—be—”
“Naw!” Herbie laughed the loud, country laugh he'd been practicing lately. “They're dead-enders. They won't pull through. They live in the city, don't they? They'll just be some—”
“—some foam on a mushroom-shaped cloud,” he finished, utterly entranced by the image. “Gosh, I'm sorry,” he said, as he looked from his angry father to the quivering girl. He went on in a studiously reasonable voice. “But it's the truth, anyway. That's why they sent you and Lester here. I guess I'll marry you—afterwards. And you ought to get in the habit of calling him pop. Because that's the way it'll be.”
Josephine squeezed her eyes shut, kicked the shed door open, and ran out. “I hate you, Herbie Plunkett,” she wept. “You're a beast!”
Herbie grimaced at his father—women, women, women!—and ran after her. “Hey, Jo! Listen!”
The trouble was, Plunkett thought worriedly as he carried the emergency bulbs for the hydroponic garden into the cellar—the trouble was that Herbie had learned through constant reiteration the one thing: survival came before all else, and amenities were merely amenities.
Strength and self-sufficiency—Plunkett had worked out the virtues his children needed years ago, sitting in air-conditioned offices and totting corporation balances with one eye always on the calendar.
“Still,” Plunkett muttered, “still—Herbie shouldn't—” He shook his head.
He inspected the incubators near the long steaming tables of the hydroponic garden. A tray about ready to hatch. They'd have to start assembling eggs to replace it in the morning. He paused in the third room, filled a gap in the bookshelves.
“Hope Josephine steadies the boy in his schoolwork. If he fails that next exam, they'll make me send him to town regularly. Now there's an aspect of survival I can hit Herbie with.”
He realized he'd been talking to himself, a habit he'd been combating futilely for more than a month. Stuffy talk, too. He was becoming like those people who left tracts on trolley cars.
“Have to start watching myself,” he commented. “Dammit, again!”
The telephone clattered upstairs. He heard Ann walk across to it, that serene, unhurried walk all pregnant women seem to have.
“Elliot! Nat Medarie.”
“Tell him I'm coming, Ann.” He swung the vault-like door carefully shut behind him, looked at it for a moment, and started up the high stone steps.
“Hello, Nat. What's new?”
“Hi, Plunk. Just got a postcard from Fitzgerald. Remember him? The abandoned silver mine in Montana? Yeah. He says we've got to go on the basis that lithium bombs will be used.”
Plunkett leaned against the wall with his elbow. He cradled the receiver on his right shoulder so he could light a cigarette. “Fitzgerald can be wrong sometimes.”
“Uhm. I don't know. But you know what a lithium bomb means, don't you?”
“It means,” Plunkett said, staring through the wall of the house and into a boiling Earth, “that a chain reaction maybe set off in the atmosphere if enough of them are used. Maybe if only one—”
“Oh, can it,” Medarie interrupted. “That gets us nowhere. That way nobody gets through, and we might as well start shuttling from church to bar-room like my brother-in-law in Chicago is doing right now. Fred, I used to say to him—No, listen, Plunk: it means I was right. You didn't dig deep enough.”
“Deep enough! I'm as far down as I want to go. If I don't have enough layers of lead and concrete to shield me—well, if they can crack my shell, then you won't be able to walk on the surface before you die of thirst, Nat. No—I sunk my dough in power supply. Once that fails, you'll find yourself putting the used air back into your empty oxygen tanks by hand!”
The other man chuckled. “All right. I hope I see you around.”
“And I hope I see…” Plunkett twisted around to face the front window as an old station wagon bumped over the ruts in his driveway. “Say, Nat, what do you know? Charlie Whiting just drove up. Isn't this Sunday?”
“Yeah. He hit my place early, too. Some sort of political meeting in town and he wants to make it. It's not enough that the diplomats and generals are practically glaring into each other's eyebrows this time. A couple of local philosophers are impatient with the slow pace at which their extinction is approaching, and they're getting together to see if they can't hurry it up some.”
“Don't be bitter,” Plunkett smiled.
“Here's praying at you. Regards to Ann, Plunk.”
Plunkett cradled the receiver and ambled downstairs. Outside, he watched Charlie Whiting pull the door of the station wagon open on its one desperate hinge.
“Eggs stowed, Mr. Plunkett,” Charlie said. “Receipt signed. Here. You'll get a check Wednesday.”
“Thanks, Charlie. Hey, you kids get back to your books. Go on, Herbie. You're having an English quiz tonight. Eggs still going up, Charlie?”
“Up she goes.” The old man slid onto the crackled leather seat and pulled the door shut deftly. He bent his arm on the open window. “Heh. And every time she does I make a little more off you survivor fellas who are too scairt to carry 'em into town yourself.”
“Well, you're entitled to it,” Plunkett said, uncomfortably. “What about this meeting in town?”
“Bunch of folks goin' to discuss the conference. I say we pull out. I say we walk right out of the dern thing. This country never won a conference yet. A million conferences the last few years and everyone knows what's gonna happen sooner or later. Heh. They're just wastin' time. Hit 'em first, I say.”
“Maybe we will. Maybe they will. Or—maybe, Charlie, a couple of different nations will get what looks like a good idea at the same time.”
Charlie Whiting shoved his foot down and ground the starter. “You don't make sense. If we hit 'em first how can they do the same to us? Hit 'em first—hard enough—and they'll never recover in time to hit us back. That's what I say. But you survivor fellas—” He shook his white head angrily as the car shot away.
“Hey!” he yelled, turning into the road. “Hey, look!”
Plunkett looked over his shoulder. Charlie Whiting was gesturing at him with his left hand, the forefinger pointing out and the thumb up straight.
“Look, Mr. Plunkett,” the old man called. “Boom! Boom! Boom!” He cackled hysterically and writhed over the steering wheel.
Rusty scuttled around the side of the house and after him, yipping frantically in ancient canine tradition.
Plunkett watched the receding car until it swept around the curve two miles away. He stared at the small dog returning proudly.
Poor Whiting. Poor everybody, for that matter, who had a normal distrust of crackpots.
How could you permit a greedy old codger like Whiting to buy your produce, just so you and your family wouldn't have to risk trips into town?
Well, it was a matter of having decided years ago that the world was too full of people who were convinced that they were faster on the draw than anyone else—and the other fellow was bluffing anyway. People who believed that two small boys could pile up snowballs across the street from each other and go home without having used them, people who discussed the merits of concrete fences as opposed to wire guardrails while their automobiles skidded over the cliff. People who were righteous. People who were apathetic.
It was the last group, Plunkett remembered, who had made him stop buttonholing his fellows at last. You got tired of standing around in a hair shirt and pointing ominously at the heavens. You got to the point where you wished the human race well, but you wanted to pull you and yours out of the way of its tantrums. Survival for the individual and his family, you thought—
Plunkett pressed the stud on his stopwatch. Funny. There was no practice alarm scheduled for today. All the kids were out of the house, except Saul—and he wouldn't dare to leave his room, let alone tamper with the alarm. Unless, perhaps, Ann—
He walked inside the kitchen. Ann was running toward the door, carrying Dinah. Her face was oddly unfamiliar. “Saulie!” she screamed. “Saulie! Hurry up, Saulie!”
“I'm coming, momma,” the boy yelled as he clattered down the stairs. “I'm coming as fast as I can! I'll make it!”
Plunkett understood. He put a heavy hand on the wall, under the dinner-plate clock.
He watched his wife struggle down the steps into the cellar. Saul ran past him and out of the door, arms flailing. “I'll make it, poppa! I'll make it!”
Plunkett felt his stomach move. He swallowed with great care. “Don't hurry, son,” he whispered. “It's only judgment day.”
He straightened out and looked at his watch, noticing that his hand on the wall had left its moist outline behind. One minute, twelve seconds. Not bad. Not bad at all. He'd figured on three.
He started to shake himself and began a shudder that he couldn't control. What was the matter? He knew what he had to do. He had to unpack the portable lathe that was still in the barn.
“Elliot!” his wife called.
He found himself sliding down the steps on feet that somehow wouldn't lift when he wanted them to. He stumbled through the open cellar door. Frightened faces dotted the room in an unrecognizable jumble.
“We all here?” he croaked.
“All here, poppa,” Saul said from his position near the aeration machinery. “Lester and Herbie are in the far room, by the other switch. Why is Josephine crying? Lester isn't crying. I'm not crying, either.”
Plunkett nodded vaguely at the slim, sobbing girl and put his hand on the lever protruding from the concrete wall. He glanced at his watch again. Two minutes, ten seconds. Not bad.
“Mr. Plunkett!” Lester Dawkins sped in from the corridor. “Mr. Plunkett! Herbie ran out of the other door to get Rusty. I told him—”
Two minutes, twenty seconds, Plunkett realized as he leaped to the top of the steps. Herbie was running across the vegetable garden, snapping his fingers behind him to lure Rusty on. When he saw his father, his mouth stiffened with shock. He broke stride for a moment, and the dog charged joyously between his legs. Herbie fell.
Plunkett stepped forward. Two minutes, forty seconds. Herbie jerked himself to his feet, put his head down—and ran.
Was that dim thump a distant explosion? There—another one! Like a giant belching. Who had started it? And did it matter—now?
Three minutes. Rusty scampered down the cellar steps, his head back, his tail flickering from side to side. Herbie panted up. Plunkett grabbed him by the collar and jumped.
And as he jumped he saw—far to the south—the umbrellas opening their agony upon the land. Rows upon swirling rows of them…
He tossed the boy ahead when he landed. Three minutes, five seconds. He threw the switch, and, without waiting for the door to close and seal, darted into the corridor. That took care of two doors; the other switch controlled the remaining entrances. He reached it. He pulled it. He looked at his watch. Three minutes, twenty seconds. “The bombs,” blubbered Josephine. “The bombs!”
Ann was scrabbling Herbie to her in the main room, feeling his arms, caressing his hair, pulling him in for a wild hug and crying out yet again. “Herbie! Herbie! Herbie!”
“I know you're gonna lick me, pop. I—I just want you to know that I think you ought to.”
“I'm not going to lick you, son.”
“You're not? But gee, I deserve a licking. I deserve the worst—”
“You may,” Plunkett said, gasping at the wall of clicking Geigers. “You may deserve a beating,” he yelled, so loudly that they all whirled to face him, “but I won't punish you, not only for now, but forever! And as I with you,” he screamed, “so you with yours! Understand?”
“Yes,” they replied in a weeping, ragged chorus. “We understand!”
“Swear! Swear that you and your children and your children's children will never punish another human being—no matter what the provocation.”
“We swear!” they bawled at him. “We swear!”
Then they all sat down.
For a long time (until I wrote “The Custodian”), “Generation of Noah” was my favorite among my stories. But the science-fiction magazines didn't want it: too hortatory. The general fiction magazines all said something on the order of “too fantastic.” Six years after publication, it was rejected by a movie producer who was interested in filming some of my work (“far too prosaic for today's audiences”).
Fred Pohl, the agent who finally sold the piece, liked it almost as much as I did. But he begged me and begged me to change what he called “the Greek chorus ending.” And I kept telling him that the goddam Greek chorus ending was why I had written the story in the first place. He would walk away from me muttering, “That's no excuse at all.”
So from the white-bearded standpoint of eighty years of age, let me remind the reader:
In 1947 when I wrote “Generation of Noah,” the Federation of Atomic Scientists kept trying to tell everyone how much they apologized for having helped to develop our nuclear weaponry. And a lot of them got investigated as un-American for making such noises. (After all, the military kept saying, the atomic bomb was a weapon just like any other weapon. A bigger bang for the buck, some general shrugged.)
By 1957, six years after the story was published, we knew full well that the Soviet Union not only had nuclear weapons too, but might even have better means of delivering them than we. Everyone had heard of the atomic bomb drills in the schools where the children learned that at a given signal they were to jump off their benches and lie down under their desks with their hands locked behind their heads to protect vital parts. I knew people—I swear this!—who said that in the event of an atomic attack one should above all close the windows and pull down the window shades. That would reduce the amount of radiation reaching you.
And, of course, this was the tail-end of the period where every new home built had a bomb shelter in the basement, a tiny room surrounded by well-plastered walls and maybe, if the contractor was an especially responsible type, by some walls of brick. You go now into homes built in this period and you find that those bomb shelters are being used as fruit cellars or wine vaults or, most likely, extra storage space.
Well, the bipolar Cold War has given way to the sunshine of monopolar power, and all that is behind us now.
John Campbell wrote a number of editorials in Astounding Science Fiction of the 1940s that were remarkably strong and good and gave him a free pass to be forgotten as the chief publicist of Dianetics and the Hieronymus Machine. I remember one where he talked of the atomic bomb as The Great Equalizer.
He pointed out that when the Colt six-gun reached the West, it had a tremendous effect on the relationships between small, weak men and the big, strong men who formerly had been able to bully them at will. Billy the Kid and others now had their equalizer. And from Los Alamos on, Campbell said, small countries that were unable to afford big navies and big artilleries and big air forces now could have weapons that would equalize the difference between them and the great powers of the Earth. All they had to do was find the right messenger with a suitcase to deliver them.
War is by no means gone from our planet, as a glance at almost any continent will unmistakably show. And if war ever comes our way again…
There is Lenin's dictum as enunciated in State and Revolution: “No ruling class in history ever laid down power of its own free will.” Which makes me think of Hitler, 1945, in that last bunker in the ruins of Berlin. An aide comes to him and says, “Mein Fuhrer, we have just now perfected a weapon that will vaporize the enemy, city by city, patch of countryside by patch of countryside. But—”
“But what?” yells red-eyed Hitler.
“If we use it, we just may set off a reaction that will destroy the entire planet. What should we do?”
And Hitler, hearing the Russian guns going off in one direction, and knowing that the Americans, British, and French are scant miles off in the other direction—what do you think Adolf Hitler would say to do?
No, until we as a species grow a couple of moral inches, or until we have daughter colonies on planets outside Earth, until then—
I will keep my Greek chorus ending.
Written 1947 / Published 1951