“Living with the Bomb” by Gerald Karey (Turkey)

Living with the Bomb

Gerald Karey (Turkey 1965–67)

Duck and Cover
Miss McGinn rapped her desk with a ruler to quiet her sixth graders as a bell sounded throughout the school.

“This is no joke,” she said sternly. “It’s a drill. If this was a real attack, your lives could depend on it.”

We knew the drill. “Duck and Cover.” We scrambled under our desks, crouched down, and covered our heads with our hands. Miss McGinn turned off the lights and hurried to the three tall windows in our classroom to close the shades.

It was something of a lark, getting on the floor under your desk. But after several monthly drills it was boring routine — until I caught a glimpse of Sandra Epstein’s white panties.

At that precise moment, Sandra turned her head and looked at me. She smiled and hiked her dress, revealing even more of her panties.

The next month, I eagerly scrambled under my desk looking expectantly at Sandra. She didn’t look at me, but her dress was hiked up even further, affording me an expansive look at her panties, which were pink.

I didn’t know what to think. Girls’ underpants were a source of endless fascination for my friends and me, although as yet I wasn’t quite sure why. Nor did I know why Sandra was letting me see so much of her panties. We never talked about it; in fact, we pretty much ignored each other. Except during air raid drills.

It was time for another drill and another lingering look at Sandra’s panties, when I became aware of Miss McGinn standing next to my desk in her sensible black shoes. At the end of the school day, she handed me a sealed envelope for my parents.

A few days later they met with Miss McGinn and the principal while I squirmed on a bench outside his office.

After several minutes I was called in and received lectures about how disappointed they were with my shameful behavior, and was told I was endangering the safety of the entire class by not taking the drills seriously.

My punishment was to stay for one hour after school for a week. And my desk was moved to the back corner back of the room away from any girls.

I took air raid drills very seriously after that. We were never attacked, but we were prepared.

We sat at our kitchen table checking the supplies we stored in our basement against the list in the brochure provided by the Federal Civil Defense Administration.

The brochure was titled, “Target You.” It did not mince words.

“You are the target of those who will trample the liberties of free men,” the brochure warned. “You are in the crosshairs of the bombsights the enemy is centering on you.”

The grim warning continued, “Our President has told us that even against the most powerful defense an aggressor in possession of an effective number of atomic bombs could cause hideous damage.”

Evacuation from target areas “is our best assurance of survival,” the brochure said. “But if there is no warning of an attack and insufficient time for an official evacuation, you and your family must protect itself.”

It got our attention. The basement seemed the best place to survive an attack and we accumulated the necessary supplies.

Canned and package food (spaghetti, tuna fish, Spam), for at least three days, check; drinking water (10 gallons), check; a battery operated radio to receive emergency announcements from government and civil defense officials, check; a flash light and extra batteries, check; blankets and extra clothes, check; a garden hose, an indoor spigot and two fire extinguishers, check; and medical supplies (band aids, bandages and tape, alcohol and iodine), check.

We added jigsaw puzzles and board games (Monopoly and Parcheesi), to help pass the time, and fretted whether we had enough of everything.

We removed trash from outside and inside the house that could catch fire. We assigned tasks recommended by the Civil Defense Agency to be done when the air raid sirens sounded: draw the shades or close the blinds in case of broken glass; turn off all appliances and interior gas lines; and unlock all doors — although the point of that wasn’t clear.

We organized an evacuation plan and mapped the quickest routes from anywhere in the house to the basement.

We also knew that the first sign of a sneak attack is a blinding light in the sky, brighter than the sun. In that case we were instructed to get on the ground whereever we were and cover our heads with our hands.

We sat the table, each lost in thought. “I think we’ll be okay,” I said, fooling no one.

Blast Zones
When I was a kid, Civil Defense authorities in New York published a map illustrating the blast zone of an atomic bomb dropped on Columbus Circle in Manhattan, at the intersections of 8th Avenue, Broadway, West 59th Street and Central Park West.

Little wonder a Circle was needed to move traffic in and around that spot.

I didn’t know why the civil defense people thought the Russians would drop a bomb precisely on Columbus Circle, but the fact that they did provided a measure of comfort for me early in the atomic age of anxiety. I lived about as far away from Columbus Circle as you could get and still be within New York City — at the edge of Brooklyn, near the Atlantic Ocean. According to the map my home was just beyond the last concentric orange circle overlaid on the map of the city indicating the zones of death and destruction in the event of an attack.

The smallest circle, illustrated in the darkest orange with a circumference scaled to about one-third of a mile and centered over the intersection, was the immediate vicinity of the blast. Every building within that circle was destroyed and everybody died.

As the the circles expanded in size from ground zero, they were successively lighter in color, indicating less destruction and less death, but still terrible. But the outer circumference of the last circle was no closer than about a half-mile from my house, and there was no indication on the chart that there would be any damage and destruction from the blast where I lived.

Presumably, I would be safe.

Utter fantasy. I knew nothing about radiation poisoning. Or that I was relying on the Russians to drop a bomb precisely on a spot that was a safe distance from where I lived. Or that nothing in my life would ever be the same if a bomb was dropped. And, that circles on a map proved nothing.

When I grew older I understood the existential threat we lived under, but I didn’t worry much about the bomb because there wasn’t any thing I could do about it.

Except for one night during the Cuban missile crisis. It was the only time I remember going to bed wondering if I would be alive in the morning.

In 2014 journalist and blogger Gerald Kare published Unhinged: Reflections, Opinions, Humor, Reminiscences, an Occasional Rant, Reportage – A Random Chronicle of Our Times [Small Batch Books]. His blog can be seen at geraldkarey.blogspot.com.


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  • This may be another time of threat we will look back on.

    An acquaintance in the Native Plant Society here in San Francisco wrote “I’m convinced that modern society is verging on dead.” Jake Sigg’s statement “I’M CONVINCED THAT MODERN SOCIETY IS VERGING ON DEAD” is numbing.
    An observation from a friend from my youth is in a more snarky vein (Arnold Zeitlin). Arnold and I were in the Ghana One Peace Corps Volunteers in 1961. He said I could send it. Edward Mycue


    amidst all the nonsense being written and spoken about what’s behind donald trump’s appeal in the republican primary race (the otherwise sensible magazine, the economist, this week devoted three pages in its books section to divining the entrails of the subject), one factor has been neglected.

    trump is entertaining.
    watching bernie sanders and hillary clinton growl at each other for 90 minutes can be a soporific bore.
    marco rubio and ted cruz may provoke laughter, but more in pity than in pleasure.

    but here comes trump, not only making outrageous remarks that in comparison make a rush limbaugh seem rational, but flogging his trump wine, vodka and steaks.
    imagine trump as president, changing the white house to the trump house, offering $25 tours led by trump trollops and setting up kiosks outside the gates to sell tourists that wine, vodka and beef steaks. they are circumstances that could bring back a raucous version of the TV series, the west wing. this time starring sasha baron cohen.

    despite the large crowds at trump rallies, most people see him on TV. as a result, trump is enjoying the advantages of what we americans have made of television — not a medium of information and education but one of advertising and, most of all, entertainment.

    who has paved the way for trump’s television appeal? archie bunker. as portrayed by carroll o’conner, archie was the unlovable, loose-lipped, bigoted star of the weekly television series, all in the family, produced by ultra-liberal norman lear. as a result of archie’s venom, between 1971-79, all in the family was america’s no. 1 TV show five years in a row. the millions who laughed then now have trump. the significant difference is that archie was fiction, trump is real. archie might say something like this and the audience laughed: “no bum that can’t speak poifect english oughta stay in this country…oughta be de-exported the hell outta here.”

    donald trump, hairdo and all, is archie bunker revived and on steroids on the little screen, and running for president of the united states. and what he says may entertain some but is no laughing matter: “when mexico sends its people, they’re not sending the best. they’re sending people that have lots of problems….they’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. they’re rapists….”

    the remarks of both men are not necessarily parallels in content but in spirit, they are related. as archie once said: “if your spics and spades want their rightful share of the american dream, let them get out there and hustle for it like i done….i didn’t have no million people marchin’ and protestin’ to get me my job” (this is where wife edith adds: “no, his uncle got it for im”)

    here’s more of the old archie bunker on religion: “like the good book says: ‘let him who is without sin be the rolling stone…..the bible….it’s right in the beginning there, in the book of generous.” of course, here is trump: “we’re going to protect christianity….two corinthians, right? two corinthians 3:17, that’s the whole ball game. where the spirit of the lord – right?… “when the students poured into tiananmen square, the chinese government almost blew it. then they were vicious. they were horrible. but they put it down with strength. that shows you the power of strength.”

    as trump went on to say in another context that surely would have earned the approval of archie bunker: “someone crosses you, my advice is ‘get even’. that is not typical advice but it is real life advice. if you do not get even, you are just a schmuck…..i love getting even. i get screwed all the time. i got after people, and you know what? people do not play around with me as much as they do with others.”

    enjoy, be wary and vote carefully, luv all, az
    Arnold Zeitlin, Managing Director
    Editorial Research & Reporting Associates (ERRA)
    13828 Coleman Court, Centreville, Virginia 20120, U.S.A.
    Telephone: 1 703 802 0888
    Visiting Professor
    Guangdong University of Foreign Studies
    Guangzhou, China 510 420
    © Arnold Zeitlin

  • I was an Army brat, living in Germany, during the early days of the Cold War. We did not do “duck and cover”, instead our mothers were “invited” to attend evacuation planning meetings that were listed as “absolutely routine.” The cars always had to have full tanks, a spare gallon of gas in the trunk, and maps with directions on how to get to France. In some commands, children
    were issued dog tags. I did not know at the time why dog tags
    had notches on them, but the fathers, combat veterans knew.

    Whenever there was a “crisis”, the military would be placed on
    full alert, as a strategic response. I found this rather exciting. It was like a WWII movie and I imagined myself like the brave nurse helping a handsome Frank Lovejoy, in “Force of Arms.”

    Ultimately, I tired of the adrenal rush with each new crisis.
    I was in college at the time of the Berlin Wall, and decided
    that was it, no more Frank Lovejoy. I ignored the Cuban
    Missile Crisis until I got a package in the mail from my father,
    still active military. There was no note, just a pint of water
    encased in paraffin and a small candle. That was it. All he
    could do.

    I decided that if the bombs really fell, this time, I would sit
    on the steps, light my candle, drink my sterile water and watch.
    But I also pledged that if war ever really did come later, I would
    have done everything in my power to have prevented it. So I joined
    the Peace Corps. That went well?

  • For all the positive things PCVs accomplished, I don’t think the goal of the Peace Corps was to prevent war. If so, it’s been a spectacular failure. As for a nuclear exchange between the U.S. and Russia, that didn’t happen. But not because of the Peace Corps. However whatever motivated you to join was a good thing.

    • You are right, of course. But, I was looking for what it was I personally could do. My father was active military still and very concerned that in my innocent enthusiasm I would join up with subversive organizations that would compromise his security clearance. Hence, I was admonished not to join anything, not to protest, or sign any petition. That limited my options. It is also the reason I was not a founding member of the “Fair Play for Cuba Committee.”

      During my high school and college courses, we studied the causes of WWII. There was much discussion of the “have nots” and the “have” countries. Economic deprivation was seen as one factor that could predispose people to embrace radical solutions. At the beginning of the Kennedy administration, many independent countries were emerging. escaping from colonial control and looking towards both the East and the West for direction. Marxist operatives were very active in these new emerging countries and if those countries had aligned with the Soviet Union, the chances of another war might have been enhanced. Certainly, Kennedy’s initial thrust with the Peace Corps was to put Americans directly on the ground to compete with the Communists.

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