The Duck & Cover Club, Alice Deal JHS Chapter
If I go to my nth high school reunion this summer (see earlier simple quadratic equation to learn my age), there are going to be human beings there (I suspect all female) who will squeal, "Those were the best times of my life!" (Think: cheerleaders.)
Is that scary or what? Either they were abducted by pirates and sold into the Sultan's hareem the year after they graduated, or else something was happening to them in high school which sure wasn't happening to me. Maybe sex -- AIDS hadn't been invented yet, but neither had birth control pills. Well, they're as old as I am, so maybe the Sultan finally let them out of the seraglio in time to make it to their nth high school reunion.
But last post I mentioned that I went to the Washington DC public schools and was a charter member of The Duck & Cover Club. Perhaps you are way youther than I am, and I am way geezer than you are, and I am talking about stuff sooooo 1960 that you're a little hazy about the details, or maybe weren't even born yet.
How long ago are we talking? Well, fasten your seatbelts: We bought recorded music in the form of vinyl analog discs, the big long ones revolved at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute, the small short ones at 45 revolutions per minute. You could see the metal needle that followed the groove and electromechanically turned the wiggles into the music.
If you want to touch and examine some of these amazing artifacts, tag sale season is just now starting in the northern hemisphere, lots of us geezers didn't make it through the winter, their heirs no longer own phonograph turntables, so they're getting rid of the Led Zeppelin and Perry Como vinyl records. (While you're at the tag sale, don't forget to buy me all the old slide rules.)
Here's the ScoopBack in them times, there used to be this Real Big Geopolitical Entity called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. It was The Other Superpower. Its English acronym was the USSR. In its own Cyrillic alphabet it called itself CCCP (pronounced Es Es Es Air), that's what they used to stencil on its bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles, like we stenciled USA on ours.
A lot, maybe most Americans, just called it Russia, and that's what it had been before 1917, when the Commies overthrew the Tsar and took him and his family for a long ride into the country and snuffed him and the Tsarina and the Tsareyevitch and a lot of potential heirs and heiresses.
The capital of the USSR was Moscow, and the center of its streamlined decision-making apparatus was a government compound called the Kremlin. Their combined version of our FBI and CIA was the KGB, or the NKVD, and you didn't want to mess with them; they had a streamlined criminal-justice system, too. Vladimir Putin, who now runs Russia, used to run the KGB. (President Bush I used to run the CIA.)
For what it's worth, in its heyday under Lenin and Stalin, the USSR snuffed a very equivalent number of people to the ones Nazi Germany snuffed, and the USSR's Gulag system was every bit as big and nasty as the Nazi concentration camps. It's not worth debating here which Axis was more Evil -- suffice it to say you wouldn't have wanted to be Officially Designated Unpopular under either regime, you would have been equally unhappy, uncomfortable, hungry, vanished, or equally dead. If you were Jewish and managed to escape from Nazi Germany, it was a mistake to flee to the Soviet Union, that was pretty much always the wrong direction.
But for us little boys and girls at Ben Murch Elementary, Alice Deal Junior High School and finally Woodrow Wilson High in Washington DC, history, ideology, economics and politics weren't important. The only things that were important was that the USA and the USSR
1. were very pissed off at and scared to death of one another
2. both had thermonuclear bombs
3. both had missiles, bombers and nuclear submarines to deliver their thermonuclear bombs to the other superpower's cities.
By the time we were in junior high school, the standard American intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM -- everybody knew that acronym) with a thermonuclear bomb in its nose (actually several of them) was the Minuteman. Its stats were more or less public, as were the shape and size of the Earth, and the latitudes and longitudes of and Great Circle distances between places like Fargo, North Dakota, Washington DC, and Moscow, either the one in Idaho or the one in Russia. The Minuteman was typically stored in hardened concrete silos in the northern states of the American West, because this region was closest, via the North Pole, to the Soviet Union. They were solid fueled, so they were always ready to launch at the press of a button.
Practical Algebra and Trigonometry
We studied Algebra by the end of junior high and took Trig in high school. Everything that follows doesn't need a home computer, or even a scientific calculator, neither of which existed yet. If you were a total nerd and really wanted to work this out precisely, the most high-tek gizmo you needed was a slide rule, but you didn't even need one of those. Every trig textbook had a crude table of trigonometric functions and a crude logarithm table in the back, and you could get crude but sufficiently accurate answers with pencil and paper. The World Almanac or the Information Please Almanac had tables of latitudes and longitudes of the world's biggest cities, and tables of air distances between them.
The Minuteman went into service in 1962. A Minuteman flies a bit faster than 15,000 (statute) miles per hour and has a range of 6,300 miles. The airline flying distance between Fargo, North Dakota and Moscow, Russia is 4,885 miles.
If we keep the argument just this crude, then the flight time from launch to kaboom is 19 minutes 33 seconds.
But actually it takes considerably longer. An ICBM doesn't fly two or three miles above the Earth like an airplane. The Minuteman has a maximum altitude of 700 miles, and the whole path probably resembles a steep parabola high into space. Perhaps a more realistic flight time from angry button push to city vaporization is the better part of one hour.
I'm sure we liked to flatter ourselves that our ICBMs were faster and more accurate than the USSR's, and the nukes in our Minuteman's nose packed more whollop, and I don't mind patriotically signing off on those assumptions. But what we just computed about sending a Minuteman from North Dakota to Moscow -- that's roughly the same story for a Soviet ICBM dispatched from the USSR, over the Arctic Ocean, to the playground of Alice Deal Junior High School in Washington DC.
And accuracy doesn't matter very much in a thermonuclear ICBM competition. If the Evil Godless Commies were aiming for Washington DC, but their k-Mart gyros screwed up and they only hit Baltimore or Richmond -- well, that still would have been very lousy picnic weather in DC that week.
I'm not exactly sure what one pound of TNT will do, but I am sure that I'd like to be very far away when it went off -- just guessing, I'd like to be in a ditch about a football field away.
Here is a very information-packed nostalgia site about the nuclear weapons that the Strategic Air Command used to carry in their inventory. TNT (trinitrotoluene) is the conventional explosive that's used to measure the destructive power of conventional, fission and fusion bombs. By my junior high years, SAC was prepared to lob fusion bombs on the Godless Commies measured in megatons -- millions of tons of TNT. One model, suitable for dropping from a bomber like the B1 Stealth, is the Mk-53, with a yield of 9,000,000 tons of TNT. Even though there's no SAC anymore, there are still fifty Mk-53 hydrogen bombs ready to rock n roll in the USA's inventory.
The SAC site is a little less public about missile warhead yields, but you seen one hydrogen bomb, you pretty much seen 'em all. Think: megatons.
So far, the only nuclear weapons that have been used against fellow human beings are Little Boy, the uranium bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and Fat Man, the plutonium bomb dropped on Nagasaki in August 1945. Little Boy had a yield of 12,500 tons of TNT, and Fat Man had a yield of 22,000 tons of TNT.
These TNT comparisons are concerned only with immediate blast effects, and don't take into account the major qualitative difference between nuclear and conventional explosives: ionizing radiation, immediate, lingering, and drifting. In "On the Beach" (1959), nobody dies from blast effects; all the architecture is unharmed and quite beautiful all the way to the title that says "The End"; the superpowers don't waste their missiles on out-of-the-way Australia.
Well -- I hate to reveal surprise endings, so rent the video with Ava Gardner and Fred Astaire.
END PART 1
Okay, now I have errands to run. Actually, I'm quite excited -- I'm cooking Hashed Brown Potatoes, or Home Fries, whatever you call them, for about twenty people for tonight's dinner at our town's winter homeless shelter. They're delicious! Let me know if you want the recipe!
But I have lots more to say about The Duck & Cover Club of Alice Deal Junior High School. All I've written about so far is Cold War Doom & Gloom -- what a bummer!
But there WAS something us elementary school kids could do to protect ourselves from a falling hydrogen bomb! And we did it very often! We practiced! And I remember how! I can still do it! And I'll tell you youngsters how!