Lost and Found and Lost
These days we think we know better. We realize there is no place to hide from a nuclear holocaust. I use the word ‘holocaust,’ meaning ‘burnt offerings,’ because that would be our role in a conflagration of nuclear missile-head strikes. We would be martyrs with no future generations left to appreciate our performance.
When I was in grade school, I assumed adults in my life had confidence we could survive a nuclear war. Strategies promoted by Civil Defense would preserve a significant remnant of humanity. We as a species would carry on and maintain the flame dedicated to the memory of martyrs killed in such a war. Of course, my family and I would be among the living.
As an adult, I have lost my naiveté. In its place, I have found rosy cynicism, ‘rosy,’ because not all nations are eager to self-destruct, which provides a minimum of comfort, and ‘cynicism,’ because much of what claims to be policy is bluster. I want to find relief from fear-mongers who trade in ignorance and anxiety.
Nevertheless, persistent little fears, insinuating like hookworms into my life, have found me. Not that we were unafraid in the nineteen-fifties. In school, the staff had us practice air raid drills. The premise was scary, but I looked forward to the drills. They interrupted lessons. Often, we would leave the classroom, ostensibly to escape anticipated flying window glass, and thus we’d have a break from routine.
We experienced two kinds of drills. One, I assume, served in the event of a surprise attack. It was called, ‘Duck and Cover.’ At our teacher’s signal, which I cannot recall, we huddled under our desks. Picture them arranged in stern rows, thirty-six wooden desks attached to a splintery wood floor. Under my desk, embellished with ancient scratches, names, and airplanes carved into its surface, were marbleized wads of chewing gum. The floor was dirty and my skirt would catch on the floor boards. I would kneel under the desk, my arms crossed over the back of my lowered head, chin resting on my knees. After a few minutes, the PA system would sound an all-clear. I’d pull myself up, brush off my clothes, and take my seat. No chit-chat allowed.
The second kind of drill at first intimidated me and some of my classmates, although we could depend on a small group of boys who used the occasion to joke, pass gas, and trip girls. My teacher was so serious; maybe we weren’t pretending after all.
The school principal’s voice would announce an internal evacuation over the P.A. system. We were to follow our teachers in a single-file line through the school corridors to our pre-assigned shelter area.
Giggling and poking each other’s fifth-grade bodies, we formed a line and shuffled into the school’s grimy tan and grey-green hallways. We walked downstairs two flights and leaned against a row of lockers.
“Down,” barked Mrs. Brown, my teacher. “Duck and cover. No talking.” I slid to the floor, my shoes’ rubber heels squeaking against a locker as I sank. Crouched, knees drawn up to my chest, I breathed into my lap.
How I wanted to peek. I didn’t. Mrs. Brown sent me to the principal’s office earlier in the school year for a petty infraction. I didn’t want to experience that humiliation again.
We waited. The giggling stopped. Now every breath was audible, every cold-in-the nose, snorting, sighing, whimpering, asthmatic breath. In silence punctuated by coughs and wheezing, I thought, maybe Russian planes really were heading to Chicago to drop a bomb on us.
Mrs. Brown walked by in her heavy, sensible, thick-heeled shoes. Click-clack, click-clack. I thought, wouldn’t she be ducking and covering, too, if a bomb was about to fall on us?
I peeked. She was laughing and chatting with two other teachers. I relaxed. We were going to be ok—at least, that’s what I believed then.
More news sources available to me than I can count on my fingers provide a confounding and long list of contemporary threats. To face them, I no longer can summon my fifth-grader naiveté. The media might be exaggerating the seriousness of current confrontations between nation leaders with access to nuclear weapons, but I can’t dismiss the threats as easily as I did in my childhood. These days, I mourn losing the comforting lie of Duck and Cover, but I do ‘know better’ now. I know that working for peace and understanding is smarter than hiding under a desk.