Once upon a time in the 1950s, there was a Cold War. Two countries, the United States and Russia, had nuclear bombs. There was a threat that these nuclear bombs could be used by either country to annihilate the other. Here in the United States we had a Civil Defense program that was charged with the protection of our citizens from military attack. While this program was in place during both world wars it was mostly used for air raid drills at that time. But in the 1950s with the threat of nuclear attack Civil Defense became more widely known. Things finally escalated with the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961.
Our parents took the threat of nuclear attack seriously – after all, look at the results from Hiroshima. So it came as no surprise to us children of the ‘50s when our schools took part in planned drills. These drills were designed to keep us safe from nuclear attack. This is how I remember our drills in St. Michael’s school:
At the sound of the bell, each class fell into a double line. Our teacher then escorted us down the long flights of stairs until we reached the basement of the school. Since the basement was underground this was deemed the safest place to be. Civil Defense regulations required that we stay away from windows since any nuclear attack would be heralded by a bright, white light that could blind us. (Little did we children know that if we witnessed that bright white light we would not only be blind we’d be dead.)
In silence we scurried down the stairs and were directed to places against the side walls of the long basement. We were then instructed to turn so that we were facing the walls and put our hands up over our heads, presumably to protect us from falling debris. When all eight grades of us were finally in place, our teachers would take a head count to be sure no one was missing. After what seemed a long time but which was actually only a few minutes we were told that the drill was over. We then formed two lines and marched back to our classrooms.
There were variations on this drill based on the different schools – some schools directed the students to their individual grade coat rooms where the children were told to sit or kneel on the floor and cover their heads; other schools had the students crouch under their desks where they would be covered by the desk itself – hence the name Duck and Cover.
Back then many people also built bomb shelters in their homes. These could be prefabricated and purchased or, for those who couldn’t afford a concrete room, built by the homeowner out of stacked sand bags. I remember The Evening Sentinel in those days often ran ads where you could order plans to build a bomb shelter. Bomb shelters were usually built in the basement where it was assumed they would be underground. They were stocked with canned foods, gallons of drinking water, flashlights, batteries, sleeping bags or quilts, and anything and everything else a family would need to survive after a nuclear attack. Families would hold drills so that everyone was ready in the event that those rooms would be needed.
We lived under that threat of nuclear war for over thirty years. In spite of that we led our normal lives, grew up, and thankfully many of us watched in fascination in November 1989 when the Berlin Wall was finally attacked by people, on both sides, who wielded hammers and chisels and began opening up places along the length of the wall. Officially, the Cold War was over. Civil Defense drills were a thing of the past; residential bomb shelters could now be used for any number of things – storage pantries, root cellars, or panic rooms. Come to think of it, I’m sure one of those bomb shelters would make a terrific wine cellar.