We called it an air raid drill. I have a distinct memory of walking down Works past the car lot, the Masonic Lodge with its concave roof, the brick apartments, the Rexal Drug store, and the First National Bank, listening to the ominous sound of the air raid siren squealing away incessantly as I walked 10 steps, ran 10 steps on my way home. It was early afternoon and this air raid drill was getting us out of school early. I had to walk down Works because Burkitt, the street I lived on a block to the south, was a busier intersection with three streets combining at one street light, Main, Coffeen and Burkitt. Crossing Main was bad enough as far as my Mom was concerned. Main Street was four lanes with lights and walk signals. I walked down Burkitt a lot anyway, but my Mom didn’t know. How was she going to watch me? The sun went behind a cloud and made it even more brooding. “eeeeeee-aaah, eeeeeeeee-aaah.” It was the only city-wide organized drill that I remember.
These drills were planned out months in advance to prepare for possible attacks from the Russians. We didn’t call them Soviets in our house, they were still the Russians. Still the same people that our revered General Patton had refused to drink a toast with in post war Europe. “I’m not going to drink with any Russian son-of-a-bitch,” he is claimed to have said. That’s how we felt about the Russians in our house. We hated when they won any medals at the Olympics. We had to beat the Russians. CCCP emblazoned on their uniforms. I had no idea what CCCP stood for, but I guessed it was Russian for USSR. Anyway, after the Cuban missile showdown in October 1962, this preparation stepped up in our elementary school.
I saw the Federal Civil Defense movie “Duck and Cover” for the first time in the fifth grade in 1963. The black and white film made in 1951, with its little jingle and turtle mascot.
Diddle Dum Dum
Diddle Dum Dum
Diddle Dum Dum
There was a turtle by the name of Bert.
When danger threatened him he never got hurt.
He knew just what to do.
He’d duck and cover.
Duck and cover.
The first thing I noticed in the black and white film, besides a cartoon turtle that was going to avoid nuclear burns by hiding in his shell, was the desks these kids were “safely” tucked under were not the same kind of desks that we had. The way ours were designed there was no way to sit under the desktop like these “protected” students were doing. So we practiced sitting in the aisles after the film was over. I didn’t think this was going to provide much cover. If a bomb landed in the playground, there might be one or two of us that weren’t going to go running around screaming like a bunch of chickens with our heads cut off; those few sitting on the floor calmly with our hands over our heads. If we see a bright flash, we’re running to the window. We want to see what’s going on. But it turns out, this duck and cover drill is really about shredding glass and super-hot wind.
I was in the fifth grade. I wasn’t walking with anyone. I remember that as being part of the drill. You had to walk 10 steps, then run 10 steps and not stop until you were safely home. You weren’t supposed to talk or walk with any of your friends, stop at the Jersey Creamery for an ice cream cone, or wander off to play ball anywhere. Not until the “all clear” was heard from the siren, a similar but distinctly different sound.
My neighbor’s house would have been safer. They had a bomb shelter. A shelter designed and built for just this occurrence. We had a basement which is where I assumed we would assemble in the wake of a nuclear attack. We never practiced that part.
The neighbor’s air raid shelter was built out of cinder block underneath the stairs in their basement. The door was a regular wooden door, and the ceiling was the floor of the house above, so I imagine that kind of defeated the purpose. I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have withstood a direct bomb hit, but then again, how likely was a direct bomb hit on Burkitt Street? I’m pretty sure it would have been a stupendously missed target.
The shelter was filled with surplus Army rations, cots and blankets, five gallon jugs of water and other survival supplies. We also discovered, one bored summer afternoon, the bomb shelter housed the neighbor’s stash of nudie films. He had one of those hand crank viewing, splicing machines for 8mm film, and you could hand crank through a 6” screen of screaming nudity at any speed you wanted, slow motion being the preferred. We would spend hours down in the bomb shelter, safe from Russian attack, cranking through reels of 8mm black and white films of naked women stripping by the backyard swimming pool, scenes that would hardly make an “R” rating in a movie today, but “XXX” to an eleven-year-old boy.
Everyone had one of those 8mm cameras in the 60s. Video cameras made them obsolete. I have my father’s 8mm Kodak in the closet of my office.
Nudie survival films notwithstanding, most people today scoff at the idea of duck and cover. The idea, proposed by Civil Defense shortly after World War II, was an educational effort to teach school children to stop what they were doing, immediately after seeing the flash, and get on the ground face down and cover their exposed skin and back of their head with excess clothing or their hands. In defense of Civil Defense, they felt they needed to come up with something to calm the panic of the Cold War which was nothing more than the probability of complete annihilation by nuclear attack. Essentially complete destruction of the planet. Duck and Cover gave people a hope of survival.
In 1963 the Federal Communications Commission created the “Emergency Broadcast System” which is still in use today to alert us to less cataclysmic disasters like tornados and hurricanes.
So would duck and cover work? Surprising, yes. If you are within 0-3 miles radius of ground zero, the process would have little or no use, but outside that range, providing you didn’t run instead to a window to see what the flash was all about, ducking and covering would allow you to survive immediate injury or death. At that range, the main danger is not radiation, but blast injuries and thermal flash burns to unprotected skin. If you’re standing at the window looking out, within 7 to 10 seconds of the flash the blast wave will cause a glass implosion which will basically shred you and any other curiosity seekers. Of course, there are any number of factors that come into play, but the likelihood of 247 W. Burkitt being ground zero for a Russian missile was almost nil.
Elizo Nomura was in the basement of a reinforced concrete building built as a Kimono shop in 1929, on August 6, 1945. The building remained standing, without windows, following the blast and firestorm from Little Boy when it exploded almost directly overhead. Elizo was unscathed.
And during the 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor explosion, 44 4th grade children were saved from injury by their teacher, Yulia Karbysheva, when she ordered them to hide under their desks when she saw the flash. She didn’t follow her own advice and was seriously injured when the blast blew in the glass and severed a tendon in her arm.
So maybe it’s not all bullshit. But we sure thought it was. Even as a 5th grader, we believed that it wasn’t so much “duck and cover” as “bend over and kiss your ass goodbye.” Thinking back now, we weren’t really that terrified by it, because we were convinced by our parents that it would never happen here. Someone else would be in danger. We were just going through the drills because the Government required them. It wasn’t until later that I learned most of Wyoming, the Dakotas, Utah and Nebraska would have been prime targets for atomic attack because that is where we housed the majority of our ICBMs, Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, with nuclear warheads.
If you look at the map below, each dot represents 10 missiles. My home town was surrounded by approximately 200 ICBMS. WTF. Population centers in the East would not have been first strike targets. Those missile installations in the West would have suffered first wave casualties. And the West was chosen because of the vast public lands available. We did get Interstate Highways out of it though. That was necessary to transport the huge missiles to their silos.
Diddle Dum Dum
Diddle Dum Dum
Diddle Dum Dum
If you’re interested in watching the film we saw in grade school, go here: