From time to time, at AWildDuck, we offer an observation or op-ed on a topic of human interest. This one is not about current events, the price of gold, law or politics. Nah. It’s just Ellery’s spin with a nod toward levity. This one is fluff…
For most Americans, the cold war ended when the Berlin Wall came down. In just a few months, the USSR dissolved as former republics reasserted independence and the politburo acquiesced peaceably. But for Americans raised in the 1960s, the cold war had effectively ended when an American landed on the moon in 1969. By then, America not only felt that the space race had replaced the arms race, but more importantly, a cold war mentality was no longer baked into their weekly routine.
I attended kindergarten and 1st grade in the early 60s. Schools held air raid drills and homes with cellars rotated canned food from the pantry and discussed radiation safety protocol. Nearly every child in North America practiced weekly safety drills orchestrated by the US Army or the Department of War.
My most vivid memory of a cold war mentality was the annual screening of the army film, Duck and Cover (LINK) and weekly air raid drills at school. Very high poles next to our baseball diamond were topped with 4-way, square-flared horns. Each Tuesday at 10:30, they blared a slowly rising siren. It was distinct from fire and police sirens, because it was a 2 tone, a full octave lower, and it took a full 30 seconds to rise and fall. That siren was a staple of my early childhood. For me, the sound had a very clear meaning: An air raid drill was about to begin. We were to seek cover. And because of its military precision, you could adjust your clocks. At the tone, the time will be 10:30 am, exactly!
In the army film, pupils ducked under wooden school desks. Presumably, this would protect them from nuclear annihilation, a force that sends mushroom clouds into the stratosphere, turns skyscrapers into smoldering ash and levels cities. Somehow, a wooden desk seems like a weak defense, but no one ever addressed the contradiction. But desks aren’t as strong as cinder block walls, and so we would file into the hallway and crouch down by our boots and winter coats. I sure felt a lot more secure about that bomb, knowing that I was protected by a wall — at least if the bomb fell behind me.
All this safety protocol begs the question…Who are we hiding from? Who is flying those planes and why do they want to kill us? For an elementary school pupil of the 1960s, this would be a profoundly naïve question. It’s the Russians and the Chinese, of course! They are communist. They hate our freedoms. They want to put us all into work camps and then steal the gold bricks that line our streets.
I sensed that information was missing from this simple explanation, but with a first grade perspective of geopolitical tension, it sufficed. Note to self: Ask older brother if he was told something more believable. After all, he was in Junior High and he knew about everything that could be known.
But even a first grader has a concept of military strategy. After practicing the drill each Tuesday one year after another, I began to become very frightened about something. Yet, I couldn’t tell anyone. Not the teacher and not even another student. After all, my secret could help the Russians to win a real war and enslave all of us.
It seemed to me that air raid drills were practiced everywhere. And at least in the communities around me, those drills were always on Tuesday at 10:30 am. The more I thought about this regular practice, the more I feared the communists. Eventually, I had trouble focusing on school work or the red-haired girl with pig tails who sat in front of me.
I realized that if the Commies want to bomb the United States, it would be pretty easy to catch the entire country off guard. All they have to do is send their planes on a Tuesday at 10:30 am. Like lambs to the slaughter, the children would practice their drill while the regional Air Force base was at low alert. Of course, the air raid sirens would blare, but no one would take it as a warning. At least, not at Devonshire school in District 68.* We would be blithely practicing our weekly drill. The enemy would face no defenses and all of the children would be sitting ducks. Literally. We would all be in the hallways waiting to be led off to work camps — every one of us.
For all these years, I wondered if the Russians or Chinese ever realized this weak spot in our national defense. Now, 50 years later, I am married to a Chinese American who was raised during the Cultural Revolution. While I was ducking and covering, she was filing into bomb shelters a world apart. (quite a bit safer than a wooden desk or cinder block hallway). She was told that westerners wanted to destroy her way of life.
In the end, history books claim that the west won the cold war (at least our history books see it that way). The Soviet Union has been dismantled and China is better at capitalism than USA, at least at the national level. The years are numbered for the last few communist governments and their leaders know it. China and Venezuela are trade partners, while North Korea and Cuba are isolated. Gradually, the citizens will force a changing of the guard. But what many readers never knew until today, is that I kept my mouth closed about the danger in practicing precisely timed drills. I never told the enemy, nor even my classmates. I saved America from enslavement at work camps. I am the unsung hero.
* In a classic twist of irony, battery of Nike missiles was situated alongside a skating pond at the Devonshire school district administration building. If Skokie IL had been attacked on a Tuesday morning, those missiles would have remained idle!
In addition to saving the world, Ellery Davies is editor of AWildDuck.com
He pontificates about politics, economics, privacy and social phenomena.
He is especially interested in the intersection of technology and law.