“Sirens’ Sweet Song” by Gerald Karey

Sirens’ Sweet Song

by Gerald Karey (Turkey 1965-67)

The Sirens, Homer tells us, enchant all who come near.

Anyone who draws to close to their island and hears their singing will never be welcomed home again. The Sirens sit in a green field and warble to death men who try to join them, with the sweetness of their song, Homer says, or words to that effect.

Odysseus sailing home from Troy after the Trojan War orders his crew to put wax in their ears so they cannot hear the Sirens. But he has himself lashed to his ship’s mast, so he may hear them. Their song is irresistible and Odysseus begs to be freed from his bonds so that he may join the Sirens.

His pleas are ignored, or perhaps his crew simply cannot hear, and Odysseus is borne safely past on the waters of the wine-dark sea.


Sirens: “Now I am become Death . . .”

The first atomic bomb was detonated on July 16, 1945, in the Trinity test in New Mexico. J. Robert Oppenheimer remarked later that it brought to mind words from the Bhagavad Gita, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

New York City conducted the first public test of the air raid alert system on March 28, 1951. A radio broadcast of the event over the then municipal station WNYC, begins with the sound of air raid sirens warning of an attack.

The announcer states that it is an official New York City air raid alert drill. He instructs all to take shelter without delay.

The sound of the sirens — sustained warbling, rising and falling and rising again, from hundreds of sirens echoing and re-echoing throughout the city, was chilling. You reflexively scanned the sky looking for the plane carrying the bomb, “the destroyer of worlds.”

New York City Mayor Vincent Impellitteri comes on the radio: “The world being what it is today, we must be prepared,” he says.

When the sirens, sound residents must take “take shelter without delay until an all-clear signal sounds,” the mayor says. He also urges residents to “pitch in” and do their share by volunteering for civil defense duty.

New York’s civil defense chief, Arthur Wallander, from his vantage point at the Astor Hotel in Times Square, reports that activity in the street has virtually ceased. Buses, taxis and cars have pulled to the curb and discharged their passenger and people have moved into designated shelter areas. Those who complied with instructions and were in a sheltered “would have an excellent chance of surviving should a real atomic attack come,” Wallander says.

He also notes that this “complete mobilization of our city serves as a reminder that New York City is determined to protect its people.”

It is also the first and last such drill Wallander planned to call. “These tests cost a lots of money and cause a lot of inconvenience,” he says. “The whole economy of our city is interrupted even if it is only for a short time . . ., but it’s money well expended if only for insurance against the real thing if it ever happens here.”


Sirens: Cries of a City in Pain

Sirens rent the city air: Ambulances, rushing to an accident or carrying the grievously injured or dying; fire engines, no, it’s not a kitten up a tree but a house fire, a building fire, lives are at stake; and police cars, hurrying to a homicide, a shooting, a crime victim.


City sirens. Urgent, incessant, demanding.


Sirens: I Am More Important Than You Are

Saddle up, boys — a dozen black battle wagons, armored up and with thick, bullet-proof glass, motorcycle outriders, light flashing, sirens blaring — the President is on the move. The fate of the world may be at stake. Or perhaps he is going to a movie or a trendy restaurant, or a restaurant about to become trendy.

Traffic is stopped in every direction until the convoy passes, pedestrians are ordered to remain on the sidewalk, police at every intersection with very large guns eye every passerby with suspicion. Do you dare reach into your pocket or lift you arms from your side? You’ve learned not to ask what’s going on or who is about to pass because the police won’t tell you. But it is obviously the president. No one else merits this kind of motorcade.

Finally, it passes with blaring sirens and flashing lights, and life on your corner is allowed to return to normal. Until, of course, the motorcade returns from wherever it was to wherever it is going.

Out-of-town visitors tell folks back home they saw the President. Residents move on, and hurry to make up for lost time.

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