Monday, October 29, 2012

October 22, 1962

Bong! Bong!

“Fire drill!” half the Fifth Grade class shouted at once. All 30 leapt to their feet, happy to leave schoolwork behind and rush outside into the fresh autumn air.

“Stay in your seats!” our teacher commanded loudly. “It’s not a fire drill! It’s a civil defense drill.”

To this day, I don’t know if there was any audible difference between a fire alarm and a Civil Defense alarm. Both used the same bells and, at the time, sounded alike to me. It is possible there were distinct patterns to the rings. It is also possible the faculty simply knew when Civil Defense drills were scheduled.

“Red Team, file into the hallway!”

At the beginning of every school year, each student was assigned to a team named after a color. During CD drills, the teams exited the classroom in the order of the colors of the rainbow.

“Orange team, file into the hallway!”

I was a member of the Orange team. We of the Orange team knew we were the best team, of course. Why? Just because. The vice principal stood at one end of the hallway in a commanding pose. I suppose the principal commanded the other wing of the two-wing school.

“Alright, line up against the walls and sit down,” she ordered. “You there! Not against the door! Against the wall! Shift to your left and make room!”

We sat on the floor with our backs against the concrete block walls of the hallway, as we had done on many drills before.

“Yellow team!” I heard our teacher shout inside the classroom.

The process continued until the last members of the purple team were situated in the hall. The interior hallway, we had been told, was the safest place in the event the shock wave from a hydrogen bomb shattered the windows of the classrooms and sent the glass flying. It also gave the best protection against radiation.

“Bend over and shield your eyes!” the vice principal ordered.

This was to protect our eyesight from the blinding flash of the explosion. In every drill, some wit inevitably would add, “and kiss your ass goodbye.” This never failed to cause hilarity among the students, no matter how often we heard it. The laughter was not in appreciation of the real dreadful irony, but for the use of the word “ass.” On this occasion, the jokester was some Eighth Grader named Wettel.

“Mr. Wettel, after the drill, see me in my office!”

Even at age nine (my tenth birthday was a month away) I doubted these drills were of any use. Still, they were more fun than sitting in class doing vocabulary drills or something else equally boring.

This particular bomb drill may or may not have been scheduled because of the fuss about missiles in Cuba. As I recall, drills were monthly events, more or less, so it might have been coincidence. The drill was over in ten short minutes, and we then filed back into our classrooms in reverse rainbow order. The rest of the school day was uneventful, and I boarded the school bus as usual at 3:10 PM.

There aren’t many meals from my childhood to which I can assign a specific date. Even the birthdays and Thanksgivings are mixed up in my mind when I remember them at all. However, for whatever reason, I just happen to remember dinner at home that night was spaghetti and meatballs, heavy on the pepper. Black pepper was a signature of my mom’s cooking. She assumed it compensated for any other shortcoming. In truth, she was not a very good cook, though I didn’t fully realize this until college, when I eagerly gorged on cafeteria food that made most other students blanch. At age nine, however, I was used to her kitchen handiwork and asked for a second helping.

This was years before video games, so after dinner I went outside to play with the dog, a Great Dane named Woody. Sometime before 7 PM, I came back in the house and rejoined the family in the den where we had the TV, a black-and-white steel-cased RCA with a beechwood-grain painted finish. My parents would not splurge on a color set until 1965. It hardly mattered. Nearly all programming was black-and-white. Movies, and only some of those, were the major exceptions.

President Kennedy came on at 7 PM and delivered an address that was widely regarded as masterful at the time, but which sounds stunningly naïve in retrospect. JFK recited a series of Soviet lies regarding nuclear missile sites in Cuba, which U.S. reconnaissance photos proved to be under construction. He roundly condemned the Soviet missile deployment. Then he delivered the punchline:

“To halt this offensive buildup, a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated. All ships of any kind bound for Cuba from whatever nation and port will, if found to contain cargoes of offensive weapons, be turned back. This quarantine will be extended, if needed, to other types of cargo and carriers. We are not at this time, however, denying the necessities of life as the Soviets attempted to do in their Berlin blockade of 1948.”

My mom was appalled. “This could mean war,” she said. My dad simply said, “Huh.” My sister said, “I haven’t graduated from grammar school yet.”

I didn’t believe there was a remote possibility of war, and assumed my mother was being melodramatic. (I might not have known the word, but I knew the concept.) I employed no precocious analytical skills to arrive at this conclusion. I simply had a nine-year-old’s trust in adults. It was inconceivable that they would do anything really stupid over Cuba. I saw no threat to Sharon’s grammar school graduation.

Only years later, when reading accounts of the crisis by participants, did I discover that my mom’s immediate reaction was the right one. The world truly had teetered on war.

My dad was a home builder. Several of the houses he constructed in the late 50s and early 60s sported bomb shelters. The most common type was a simple basement room with concrete walls, floor and ceiling, and with a baffled entrance – radiation does not go around corners. A couple buyers ordered steel doors, however, presumably because people do go around corners and they can be more dangerous than radiation. Present day owners of these houses tend to use the shelters as wine cellars.

I still own a disturbing government pamphlet from the era called The Family Fallout Shelter. The pamphlet contains plans for all types of shelters, some tiny and makeshift, and others roomy and elaborate with self-contained, generators, plumbing, and air filters. The pamphlet maps expected radiation hazards after an attack. Ambient radiation, it says, will drop to safe levels in two weeks, even in targeted metropolitan areas, but individual artifacts in those areas might be dangerous for much longer. Cartoon illustrations show a family of four cheerfully going about daily life in the shelter. Despite 
all this, there was no fallout shelter in our own home in 1962.

The day after the President’s blockade speech, my mother carried bottles of water and cans of food into an alcove of the basement that was the best protected part of the house. She made only a few trips from the kitchen to the basement and then suddenly stopped.

“This is stupid. It’ll never be OK,” she said by way of explanation.

I suppose she meant that surviving thermonuclear war would take more than some jars of water and cases of beans. She had a point.

Khrushchev and Kennedy each took a step back from the brink on October 28, and the Cuban crisis abated.

My mother never again stored emergency supplies of any kind in the basement, but she never brought back up the few things she had put there either. For some reason, it never occurred to me to touch them then or later. They were still there when my parents sold the house 17 years later. Perhaps they are there still.

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