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06 April 2005

Duck & Cover Club, and Atomic Mutant Party

Well, okay, finally I'm getting around to the Duck & Cover Club. From 1957 to 1959 I was a student at Ben Murch Elementary School in Northwest Washington DC, a big stone and brick two-story ur-Leggo sort of edifice, probably built around 1930. Nothing fancy, nothing modern, entirely orthogonal and rectangular, not a curved surface or line in the whole joint. A very military-style building for us Little Boy and Girl Soldiers, probably about 400 of us. It was a very solid and efficient processing plant for teaching us everything from fingerpainting to the multiplication table. Like Madeleine and her friends in Paris, we went from place to place in two orderly straight lines.

From Murch, it's about a 12-minute car ride to the US Capitol building or the White House, about 20 minutes to the Pentagon. The more we learned that we lived in a very special place -- the capital city of the United States of America -- and the more we learned about the fierce struggle between the USA and its allies, and the Soviet Union and its allies, the more it began to dawn on us that if the Cold War ever got Hot, we were living on the bullseye of the premier target of an H-bomb missile and bomber war.

It wasn't as if anyone was trying to keep all this a secret from us. The Cold War was an extraordinarily expensive kind of war, and in a democracy, it needed massive public and voter support so that people would be willing to pay for it and keep military hardware at the top of the democracy's national priorities (rather than education or health or nutrition).

So there was a constant stream of television news and images about ICBMs, B52 bombers, nuclear missile-launching atomic submarines, and H-bomb testing. At that time, the testing was above-ground, in the Pacific and in the Nevada desert, and it was filmed and broadcast on the nightly news. Kids saw plenty of it.

At age 11, did we truly understand what an H-bomb was and what it would do to us on the Murch playground if it landed on the US Capitol or the Pentagon or the White House?

You better believe it. The kids of South Park get lots of the little details wrong, and adults think that's funny. But kids know the Big Picture roughly as well as most adults do; kids love to watch television. They know What's Out There that can kill them, or rip their arms off, or give them cancer. That's every kid's job, to have some good idea of what's out there that can kill them.

At Murch, we might not have been able to give a good scientific account of nuclear fusion, but we knew how big those mushroom clouds were, and we could see the movies of trees and ships and houses and buildings and water towers and dummies being blasted all to hell when the mushroom cloud went off.

Twice a year a special alarm bell went off in Ben Murch Elementary. It was our Civil Defense drill in case of nuclear attack.

The teacher told us to stand up and walk out of the classroom and into the big hallway. Then the teacher told us to line up and face the wall. Then we were told to get down on our elbows and knees, still facing the wall. Then we were told to put our heads down on the floor, and put our arms over our heads. We were supposed to pack ourselves tight next to the next kids, butt-to-butt. Then we just waited in that position for about five minutes. No talking.

Then the alarm stopped and we were told to get up and go back into the classroom.

I remember my teachers being very agitated, very short-tempered with any of us who dawdled or made noise, as if they were being judged on how quickly, quietly and orderly their classes could get into Apocalypse Position. We were given a very brief, curt explanation that this was what we were supposed to do in case of a nuclear attack. (A fire drill was very different, and we practiced that much more often.)

It was perfectly clear to me what the object of the drill was. It was so all our little charred corpses would be easy to recover when they came sifting through the debris of Ben Murch Elementary School a few days later.

Usually in old archival documentaries I see schoolkids being instructed to duck under their desks in their classrooms and cover their heads with their arms. Sometimes they sing the "Duck and Cover" song. In this link, you can see a short government cartoon with a catchy jingle for kids starring a turtle in a thick shell who knows just what to do in case of atomic attack.

It seems obvious that any government facing this kind of threat should spend all it can spend and do all it can do to protect all its civilian citizens, starting with the kids, from a bomb or missile attack. Britain went all-out during World War II to build public shelters and make everyone take cover in them when enemy bombers or rockets were spotted heading for the cities. Later, when the Allies started to attack German cities, the Germans did the same.

But the Cold War evolved a little differently. At the same time both superpowers were threatening one another with pushbutton thermonuclear annihilation, from launch to detonation in less than one hour, their diplomats and scientists were also desperately negotiating limits and nuances and fine print and quirks and loopholes to the nuclear standoff and the "brinksmanship."

The first negotiated agreement was for both superpower enemies to move all nuclear bomb testing underground, into caves, so the tested A-bombs and H-bombs would no longer dump tons of radioactive material into the atmosphere which everyone had to breathe. (The bomb product isotope strontium 90 -- something never in the natural environment -- was particularly feared for its cancer-causing and long-lasting effects. I think that once ingested, it accumulates in bones.)

If there was a nuclear war, how could anybody tell who won? Well, it was going to be a matter of counting survivors. Which superpower would have more citizens still left who were healthy enough to carry on the nation's industrial and agricultural activities? That would be the winner.

And one way to insure your side would have more survivors would be to start now, before the war, to build a vast nationwide network of very effective civilian bomb shelters. You could take this Victory Census, both sides could get a pretty good idea of which side would win, before the war ever began.

That scared the crap out of both sides. If Side A succeeded in building effective shelter space for 50 million more civilians than Side B, and they knew they were winning the Shelter Race, their strategy hawks would start calling for a First Strike -- they knew in advance they'd "win," so let's press the button now, and get it over with.

So in treaties the USA and the USSR negotiated and signed, both sides promised NOT to build shelters for civilians and schoolkids. The idea was that the political leaders of both sides knew their civilians would always be vulnerable, so they'd all be Crispy Critters in case of war. There was no big national shelter network, so neither superpower would think it could "win."

So back at Ben Murch, our safety was provided by our pudgy little arms wrapped over our heads while we knelt down on our knees in the school hallway. That, by international treaty, was as safe and protected as we were going to get.

By the late 1960s, parodies of Civil Defense posters began appearing that instructed you on what to do



During the Cold War, this was how the adults and parents of the world went about protecting the children of the world.

At higher strategic levels, both sides were evolving a strategy called MAD -- Mutually Assured Destruction. The hundreds of thermonuclear missiles could hit the enemy's cities in less than an hour, everybody was fucked, immediately or within weeks or months. So there was no strategic advantage to a sneak attack: If one side pushed its button, there'd be plenty of radar and satellite warning to give the other side time to push its button.

Variations of these strategies, some designed unilaterally, some agreed to by both enemies, went on for decades. As Nephew Kwak mentioned, a great deal of the Fanciest Strategic Thinking was computed using the rules of the newest brilliant mathematical tool, Game Theory, invented by John von Neumann, and by John Nash, whose sad story was told in the movie "A Beautiful Mind." The first public introduction to this very brilliant and powerful mathematical tool was "The Compleat Analyst," published by the RAND Corporation, the nation's most prestigious private Think Tank.

Meanwhile, around the mid-50s, private American homeowners began buying their own backyard family fallout shelters. (That wasn't forbidden by international treaty.) I knew somebody in our neighborhood who built one. It was a prefab job sort of like a gas station's underground gasoline tank, lowered into a big hole which a backhoe dug in a corner of the backyard. They stocked it with canned water and canned food (Spam undoubtedly), enough for Mom, Dad, Junior and Sis for maybe a month. Charcoal filters scrubbed the air coming in through the air intake pipe. It had a chemical toilet and lots of toilet paper, and they had an emergency battery-powered radio, and maybe a cheap Geiger counter to measure the radiation levels up above. "The Twilight Zone" had a famous episode about a family using guns to keep their neighbors from getting into their shelter.

Most people in the neighborhood thought the family was weird. But we didn't exactly think they were crazy or stupid. If we thought they were crazy or throwing their money away, we knew we'd change our minds very quickly after the mushroom clouds started popping up around the city. We knew we'd wish we had a fallout shelter in our backyard.

This was all before Prozac, all before schools had psycholgical counselors to help kids with their fears and dreads and anxieties and worries. Kid fear of being blown to radioactive smithereens was not recognized or acknowledged during the Cold War in and around Washington DC.

Your best bet, adult or child, was to ignore as much of it as you could, and just assume that somehow, the smartest men in America had bubbled up to the top defense and diplomatic and political leadership positions, and they knew how to handle this whole nuclear defense thing.

Of course it would also be nice to assume that
somehow, the smartest men in Russia had bubbled up to the top defense and diplomatic and political leadership positions, and they knew how to handle their end of this whole nuclear defense thing. That was a little harder to do, because we were always hearing our national leaders accusing the Soviet leaders of being sneaky lying atheist Communist untrustworthy bestial maniacs who had promised: "We will bury you."

In 1973, after I got out of the Army, I went back to a community college in the DC suburbs to study geek stuff. I didn't like something the student government was doing, so when the next election came around, I ran for Student Senator. I invented a political party, the Atomic Mutant Party. I figured I was born just about the same time atomic weapons were invented, so I was probably an Atomic Mutant, and it was time for us Atomic Mutants to introduce our own viewpoints to the world. The voters thought that made sense in sufficient numbers, and I was elected by a hefty margin.


Blogger pat's pub said...

Nice One, Bob !
reminds me of the early and mid-80s when I was a Teen in a small rural community in Switzerland and had to learn that there is (still) a bomb shelter just below the local kindergarden and that there is an underground emergency tunnel system below us just in case..

Just in case you haven't seen this flic, I would like to recommend the documentary "The Atomic Cafe", containing old propaganda films from tha late 50s with Bert the Turtle, efficient ways to find out if your daughter is a communist (she 's refusing to go to church) and what to do when the bomb hits ("don't worry about your hair falling out, it will soon grow back again")etc. this kind of propaganda my be quite outdated now, but propaganda still works with the same basic mechanisms nowdays as it did back then. Keep that in midn the nextime you turn on the news on TV.

Blogger §J§ said...

Well, way back in '83 (when I was born), the only thing that came close to that frail terror balance, that constant shadow of grotesque death, was the release of the single "I Just Can't Get Enough" by Depeche Mode and worse: its video. (they got better, eventually).
By the age of 12, other horrific stuff poped up; things like Ace of Base or Vanilla Ice dancing and bouncing aroung with the Mutant Ninja Turtles.

I know, I know, that wouldn't harm you physically or threaten your life (would it?) but think of this:
there were no panflets telling you how to protect yourself in case of attack... we were alone.

"go ninja, go ninja, go!"

still ringing in my ears...

By the way, great space you got here. Very, very nice.

(not Abba, please...)


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