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Mar 27 2011

Duck and Cover

The older I get, the more diverse are the ages of my friends. It provides interesting insight on how rapidly bits of the world are changing.

I was talking to a friend who’s about a decade older than I am. I don’t remember exactly what prompted the subject, but I think the context was a discussion of fear. He said, “When I was a kid, we did ‘duck and cover” drills in school.”

I thought about it for a minute before responding. “We never did drills. I think we knew there was no point. If someone decided to push the button, we were just all going to die. Nothing we could do about it.”

The conversation has sat in the back of my head for a few months, getting fuzzier in its details, percolating. Then I went to the Atomic Testing Museum on our way to touring the Nevada Test Site.

There was a photo of the children in a town near the testing practicing their drills, outside on the ground. There was footage of how manikins fared in test houses built near the blasts. There was a mock-up of a basement blast shelter, complete with a manikin family smiling peacefully.

I wanted to laugh, but it would have been the wrong kind of laughter, and any kind of laughter at all was not what I wanted to be doing with Japanese tourists (no, really) in the museum. So I stopped a little past the diorama and turned to my husband and the friend taking the tour with us. We’re all the same age group for this sort of thing. I told them about the months-old conversation.

They nodded. My husband said, “I checked on a map recently. We’re not too bad off where we are now.”

I looked at him. “If it were just one bomb, one warhead.”

Another nod and a sour face. “Yeah.”

The operable phrase when I was in school was “mutually assured destruction.” Scads of nuclear weapons as a security blanket. I suppose it’s not surprising we found that sort of comfort rather cold. Hey, there’s this guy who calls ketchup a vegetable and names his best hope of defense against a nuclear attack after a fantasy with space trappings and on and on and on. We’re supposed to trust him to understand the full consequences of his actions. Oh. Yay.

The first day of ninth grade social studies class, American government, my teacher announced to the class that it would be run as a democracy. No, he couldn’t tell us how that was going to work because we were going to decide that. No, he couldn’t even tell us the scope of the decisions we’d be making as we voted.

I don’t do pass/fail scenarios with open-ended expectations.

I think he thought it was cute when I turned in my chair to face the wall. A protest! Ooh! Yay, democracy! I don’t think it stayed cute for more than a couple of days, but cute wasn’t my point. If I wasn’t allowed to transfer into the other “advanced” civics class (the school cut us off after one or two people), he could find out how much of a pain democracy could be. Then he, I, and the school could decide what that was worth for a grade.

Very shortly after the year started, all of the ninth-grade classes participated in a nuclear simulation at the same time. Our class split up into nations. Each nation got a set of scenarios: pressure on the borders, powerful foes–internal and external–posed to pounce on any misstep. As a nation, each group decided on their response: pacific, aggressive, or something in between.

Our class blew ourselves up on the first turn. One hour of contemplation, minus however long it took to explain the rules, and we had a nuclear war on our hands.

On the up-side, that was the end of the democracy experiment. A rather grim teacher announced that at the same time he announced we were done with the simulation earlier than anyone else. I have no idea whether it made a difference to me. Most of my political education came from looking up the background on Doonesbury strips and Chad Mitchell Trio songs and testing the claims of politicians and lobbyists.

The one lesson I’ll never forget from that class, however, is how easy it is to convince ourselves that we don’t have any other “real” options. That could be because I’ve never stopped hearing that as a justification for political decisions, particularly for decisions I wouldn’t have made.

I don’t know what difference it made to me or my generation to know it was out of our hands whether we lived or died. It would be easy to claim that the materialism of Generation X stems from nuclear nihilism, but we were too young to set the tone of the 80s. It wasn’t people my age buying DeLoreans, Rolexes, and coke in bulk.

I don’t know that we even had the words to talk about it among ourselves before the situation became less stark. We don’t talk about it now. Talking about our teenage years means talking about social pressures and pop culture. For all I know, it wasn’t that big a deal to anyone else.

Except for that long, quiet trip through a museum and two instant nods. Those tell me I didn’t live through that alone.

4 comments

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  1. 1
    Dan J

    My roommates in the mid-late 80's and I often played a board game called Pente. In a 3-person game, there was a situation we called "mutually assured destruction." If one person B didn't do anything to counter person A's move, person C would allow person A to win in protest against having their move forced.I recall that we often discussed questions about nuclear war, ethics, death, happiness, etc. Were we such an odd bunch? I guess not.

  2. 2
    RPS77

    I remember my parents telling me that as kids they didn't really think the "duck and cover" strategy would protect them very well – it was just something to do as an alternative to panicking. It probably would be helpful to people who lived a number of miles away from the closest blasts, where the greatest immediate threat was flying debris.The weird thing about Reagan is that people saw him as the president most likely to start a nuclear war, but in reality he loathed nuclear weapons and was terrified by the prospect of nuclear war. Some of his aides were convinced he would not launch nuclear weapons even if the USA was attacked first. The whole "Star Wars" thing was misguided because the technology didn't exist to make it work (it still doesn't), but his support of it seems to have come from a desperate desire to have something other than Mutual Assured Destruction to rely on.

  3. 3
    Greg

    The other thing we all "knew" in those days was which bits of landscape in our area were "known" to be primary targets. For me, it was the Watervleit Arsenal to the north, the Selkirk Train Yards and the Power Plant to the south, and the State Office Campuses, one to the east and one to the west. We was surrounded! People of my generation and background experienced the flash. If you know what that is, then you know what that is. It was actually pretty horrible.

  4. 4
    Ross

    It WAS a BIG deal.
    I still remember, first day of first grade, I was in line to tour the boiler room when the older kids explained it.
    The sirens we heard every month were air raid sirens being tested. When the day came, the sirens would be the last sound we heard. Yes, the grown-ups were preparing to destroy the world, we would have no more warning than that terrible wail and the exhaust trails of our missiles.
    The older kids explained the “duck and cover” films were teaching us to kiss our butts goodbye. The point of their story; no matter how successful we became, it would be blown up in a flash of light. The was no reason needed, nor any escape.
    This was in a plains state, were the cows still graze near the silo doors. We knew the world would end when those doors opened.
    It amazes me that we are just now starting to remember the terror of it and discuss it. I believe the “new terror” of a “post 2001 America” pales in comparison. Atmospheric testing killed more people than terrorist attacks have.

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