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Dan Schwartz: Soviets got the bomb and we got the fallout

The early ’60s were kind of strange. There was the Cuban Missile Crisis and the fear that we were about to be vaporized and/or invaded by a whole shipload of Russians. Public service ads and TV programs taught us how to dig or otherwise construct nuclear fallout shelters. In animated commercials, nuclear fallout was portrayed as little white circles floating from sky to ground.

In first grade, we were subjected to an incredible number of air raid drills. For some of them, we were instructed to crouch under our little desks. I had my doubts. I recall risking the frequently threatened extreme penalties for anyone who dared whisper to a classmate during an air raid drill. I’d risk it. “I’ve seen pictures of the atomic bomb, and I don’t think these rickety little desks are going to save us.”

Evidently someone thought such whispering would tip off the Soviets about our exact location in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Elementary School in Kenmore. Heck, all the enemy had to do was walk through the halls and look through the glass windows in our doors to find us all “hiding” under our little desks.

Other drills consisted of lining us up three deep against hall walls, but never against doors, windows, drinking fountains or fire extinguishers. We were required to keep our fingers intertwined behind our necks. Woe be to he or she who lined up directly under one of the sirens or bells. The sirens would painfully pierce our pre-rock concert ears, and we couldn’t even cover them because we had to keep our little fingers intertwined behind our little necks.

Often we were not even told if it was a drill or the real thing. Some kids would wet their pants in worry. We’d stand in the dark, pressed against a wall or a row of other kids, for what seemed to be a geologic era while the teachers patrolled what was left of the center of the hall. They’d smack their pointers or yardsticks against their palms, on guard against any talking that might betray our position to Khrushchev & Co.

During one such drill, our class was a little late getting back from the cafetorium, so we got the favored, least claustrophobic position in the row farthest away from the wall. As our teacher walked slowly behind me, I figured it was my big chance to strike a blow for sanity. I knew we weren’t allowed to speak to each other during these drills, but no one ever said we couldn’t speak to our teachers. My little arms had begun to hurt, so I asked: “Why do we have to keep our hands behind our necks?”

The teacher, not the bomb, detonated. She spun me around and screamed, “Which would you rather have blown off, your arms or your head?”

I figured she lost the debate right there. Surprisingly nonplussed I replied, “If I lost both my arms I’d probably bleed to death in a matter of seconds.”

At this point, the sore loser painfully grabbed me by one of my chicken-wing little arms and dragged me down to the principal’s office, with my good school pants intermittently dusting the linoleum along the way.

From the principal I received an hour-long lecture. Its exact wording has unfortunately been lost to time, but I do remember he told me that my talking during our air raid drills was helping the Russian war effort. That, and why I shouldn’t be a communist.