I deliberately keep this blog apolitical, and this post is not meant to be political. Yet recent events have made me remember the Cold War era and have made me as uneasy about the possibility of nuclear war as I have been since I was a child.
I was a child of the atomic age. Growing up in Richland, Washington, which had been part of the Manhattan Project during World War II, I was aware of the possibility of nuclear war at a very young age. My father worked at the Hanford Engineering Works, doing research on the impact of plutonium on metals. From the time we returned to Richland when I was in the first grade, I knew Richland would be a target if the Russians ever attacked (at the time, we only worried about the Russians).
“Take cover” drill in Brooklyn in 1962, photo by Walter Albertin, from Library of Congress
In the spring of 1963, which I now realize was shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis, though I didn’t make the connection as a second grader, we had a drill. We’d done the duck and cover drills in the past, hiding under our desks, as if that would keep us safe from the bomb.
But this drill was different. We had to get from our school to our homes, or some other safe location, within a short period of time. I can’t recall how long we had, but it was no longer than twenty minutes from the time the siren sounded.
I lived three miles from my school. My mother drove me to and from school each day, unless she’d made other arrangements. We could not rely on vehicles for this drill. We had to get to our safe location on our own feet.
My mother made arrangements for me to walk to the home of one of her friends. This family lived not too far from my school. If I walked quickly, I could make it in fifteen or twenty minutes—within whatever the time allotted was.
My mother and I practiced. She walked with me one day from my school to her friend’s house.
On the day of the drill, I couldn’t eat because I was so nervous. I worried whether I could make the walk in time. What if I got lost? What if the friend wasn’t home? What if I misplaced the card the friend had to complete and sign verifying my arrival time? What if war really came and I never saw my parents again?
The siren sounded, startling me, even though I knew it was coming. Together with all my classmates, we scrambled to gather our belongings and head out the door. I recall wide eyes and silence as we did so, though the silence might have been because the nuns demanded it, rather than everyone’s fear of the drill.
I marched down the street as fast as I could, fast enough to get a stitch in my side. That made me slow a bit to catch my breath, but I was on a downhill stretch by then.
I made it on time. As I recall, I had a couple of minutes to spare. And I got to play with the friend’s kids until my mother could pick me up.
Despite the fear, there was some pride in Richland about our connection with atomic bombs. A decade after our drill, I attended Columbia High School in Richland, home of the Richland Bombers. Our mascot was a nuclear bomb. There are those who will tell you the mascot was a bomber plane, but the image in the middle of the high school commons was of a mushroom cloud.
Richland Bombers logo
By the time I was in high school, in the early 1970s, the threat of nuclear war seemed more distant than it had when I was smaller. And even later, in the 1980s, nuclear war seemed unlikely.
Now, with more and less stable nations having atomic weapons, with Russia’s recent aggressions in former satellites, with continuing unrest in the Middle East, with Fidel Castro’s death in Cuba, with the President-elect seeming less inclined to support international alliances, I recall the fear I had as a child.
I hope our school children in the next few years don’t find themselves racing down streets to “safe” locations, to places that would be of no use in shielding them from nuclear attack.
What do you remember of the Cold War era?