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.
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.