Some of my old friends – and I do mean old – and I got to talking about the Cold War the other day.
This discussion was prompted by the Tom Hanks movie “Bridge of Spies” about the lawyer who negotiated the exchange of Soviet spy Rudolph Abel and American pilot Gary Powers in 1962.
I was 6 years old in 1962 and mostly concerned about how the Cincinnati Reds and Dayton Flyers would do that year. But even at that age, the fear of a nuclear attack was a big part of my life. I guess young people today have difficulty imagining how serious everyone was back then about the possibility of having the Russians drop the Big One on our heads.
I can remember going through atom bomb drills at St. Patrick Elementary School. My classroom was in the basement, which gave me the advantage over all those older kids upstairs who surely would have no chance of survival when the bad guys dropped the bomb. Some of them weren’t very nice to me on the playground, so I figured it served them right.
We would do the drill on a regular basis. It involved us crawling under our desks and covering our heads with our hands. I was only 6 years old, but even at that tender age my natural cynicism showed up. It seemed absurd to me that crawling under my desk would save me from a nuclear bomb. I guess the idea was if one went off a long ways away and the shock knocked the building down, my little wooden desk with the tiny little metal legs would keep me from getting my tiny little body flattened by all the rubble and older kids who would fall on top of me. I wasn’t convinced this would help.
We were supposed to cover our heads because naturally the windows would break and glass would fly all over the place. Presumably, it was wiser to protect your head than your backside, which was sticking up in the air and making a great, big target for any airborne shards.
The drill seemed useless to me because grown-ups were always saying things like, “If there’s a war, the first place the Russians will hit is Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, and we’re so close we’ll all get flattened. We won’t stand a chance. Vaporized in an instant.” This is just what a 6-year-old likes to hear.
One of our neighbors was so concerned he put a bomb shelter in his basement. When I asked my parents about this, they said our normal basement was good enough, and besides Wright-Patterson Air Force Base was just down the road and … well, you know.
My parents were concerned about snow, however. There were stories in the newspaper and on our black and white TV that said the Russians and those other godless Communists, the Chinese, and even those nutty French were always setting off nuclear explosions in the atmosphere, just so they could say they did it. These explosions released radioactivity into the air and winds carried it around the world, eventually bringing it to the sky above Troy, Ohio. Then, when it snowed, the radioactivity would be trapped in the snowflakes. If we ate the snow we would glow in the dark and probably die a painful death.
I never ate any snow when my mother was looking , but when she wasn’t around I ate the snow just to show those Russians I wasn’t afraid of them. Then at night I would pull the covers up over my head and look to see if I was glowing anywhere. It never happened. I was a little disappointed, actually.
There was another side to the nuclear threat that people don’t usually talk about. When you walk around thinking the commies could nuke you at any second, you figured you might as well get a little enjoyment out of life. Climb that big tree? Jump off the bridge into the creek? Stay outside after dark? Eat an extra fistful of snow? Well, why not? You ought to live a little bit before your life gets snuffed out. It sure beats cowering around under your desk.
It’s hard to convey the constant tension that goes with expecting a nuclear attack at any moment. Recently, I had the opportunity to talk to some high school government classes about political campaigns, and when we got to John F. Kennedy we started talking about the Cold War. So I did an experiment. I made them all do the atomic bomb drill.
That’s right, I had a class full of high school seniors crawl under their desks and put their hands over their heads. Their basic reaction was the same as mine was more than 50 years ago: How is this going to help? They looked at me like I was out of my mind or maybe from some other planet.
No, I said, it’s probably just because I ate too much snow when I was young.
In the end, I survived the Cold War with only a minor life-long case of neurosis. But I still keep the area under my desk at home clean. You never know …
David Lindeman is a Troy resident and former editor at the Troy Daily News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.