How I Lived To Today

When I was in grade school, we had these things called “Civil Defense” drills.

The stated purpose of these drills was to prepare us in case of an attack by another country.

The implicit purpose, as we all knew, was to prepare ourselves in the event of a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union.

I don’t blame the school for conducting the drills.  It was, after all, the mid-1970’s, a mere decade or so removed from the Cuban Missile Crisis that almost ended the world.

Looking back on it, though, I do question the wisdom of the steps we took to prepare ourselves for a nuclear blast 1,000 times the size of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  After all, one would think that when all the big brains of the defense department and the educational system got together on a plan for protecting millions of children from nuclear radiation, the plan would be something more than this:

Hide under your desk.

And oh yeah, cover your head with your hands.

Because as everyone knows, nuclear radiation cannot penetrate the space under a third-grader’s desk.  And even if it could, your hands are there, and it can’t get through your hands.

Granted, my buddies under their desks could penetrate the space by punching me in the side and throwing pencils at me as I was crouched down.  But not the nuclear missile.

Or maybe we were just hiding from Soviet pilots who were looking out the windows of their jets and saying “Nyet.  No keeds there.”  Of course, that wouldn’t have worked in my case, because my buddy Emilio was throwing crap at me.

Either way, the plan was a grand success, as I have lived to write this.

Thank God for good planning.

54 thoughts on “How I Lived To Today

  1. Um, it’s to protect against broken glass and debris coming through the windows. If you’re in the primary strike radius, you’re just boned; and radiation will get you no matter what; it’s to make sure people aren’t broken-boned and so can walk/run out of the radiation cloud.

  2. Yeah, it was all a scam. So were the “fallout shelters.” Nobody would have survived anyway.

    What are you doing writing about this anyway? Aren’t you supposed to be giving the checkout lady at Safeway a hard time?

  3. I used to work in a prison and instead of allowing us to remain inside our windowless offices within the building in case of a tornado, we were directed to go into the front hallway area that featured an entire section of windows. Brains in government, they’re pretty wise…

  4. hey, back in the 70’s our desks and all the paint were made of lead so who knows…maybe it would have worked. Indiana Jones survived because of a lead lined fridge. Every survival decision I make starts with ‘ What would Indy do? ‘

  5. I remember these drills, but in our school we had two drills. The first one was just as you described it and for the second one we had to go down a long ramp near the cafeteria that led into the basement. Really dim red light bulbs lighted the ramp. In the basement were stockpiles of canned goods, blankets and flashlights. If the Russians had attacked, at least we’d be full, warm and able to see the decimation caused by the bombs.

  6. We had to go in to the hallway, face the wall, and crouch down the same way. Back then the rumor was it wasn’t for protection but for easier identification of our poor little bodies in the aftermath.

  7. My dad was a kid in Miami during the Cuban Missile Crisis. They ran these same drills, and to make it even better one of the teachers instructed the kids to cover themselves with a white sheet, because it would block the radiation. I’m not making this up.

    Maybe she thought the radiation would see these white sheet-covered kids, mistake them for ghosts, become afraid, and flee. I really don’t know.

  8. Uh . . . Mr. Pastis . . . I was also in grade school in the mid 70’s, and also in CA, which I’m guessing is where you went to school. And while we had fire drills and earthquake drills, those duck and cover drills had already been a thing of the long long past.

    Unless you went to Retro Elementary. Maybe you’re having a flashback from old films you saw?? Are you remembering these drills in B&W? If so, that may be a big clue for you. ’cause your timeline on this is wayyyyyy off.

  9. I was a kid in the 50’s so we were REALLY freakin’ paranoid. Our instructions came in the form of a filmstrip illustrating some of the horrors of atomic war. The final instruction was to “crawl under your desk, cover head with hands, bend way over and kiss your ass goodbye!”

  10. If you live west of the Rocky Mountains, they still do them, but now they’re called “earthquake drills.” Seems even sillier when you consider how much more predictable nuclear war would have been over an earthquake. At least when the missiles start flying you have a few minutes (to maybe even a few hours) warning. No such luck with earthquakes…

  11. I take onwe thing back from my previus post. During Earthquake drills, we got under the desk and protected ourselves from (as a previous poster stated) flying debris. But none of that had anything remotely to do with nuclear attack. Not in the 70’s in California, at least.

  12. when I was in gradeschool in the 80’s they told us we would have less than 15 minutes to live after the bombs were launched, so no drills.

  13. In the book Hiroshima by John Hersey circa 1946, there was a person working in the hospital in the middle of the city who survived because s/he bent down right at point of explosion yet the patient on the bed was killed from the blast.

  14. Living in the midwest, ours were tornado drills and we took a book with us to put over our heads as we crouched down. Too bad the books weren’t made of lead….

  15. Man that brings back memories, I grew up along the shores of Lake Michigan with a nuclear power plant 15 miles north and a nuclear power plant 15 miles south of us. I remember the drills, we’d all file orderly out into the hallway get down on our hands and knees face to the wall and put our biggest book on our heads. Think it was my 3rd grade teacher who explained to us that because of where we were the Soviets would probably hit the nuke plants with a first strike in order to poison the fresh water supply of Lake Michigan, just what every third grader needs to hear kinda put worrying about a math test in perspective.

  16. See, in the midwest, we call those tornado drills. Is possible to have good Russian tornado, da?

  17. I used to work at a baked goods factory that had about 300 people. It had two bathrooms for each sex. Each bathroom could probably, at the very most, hold 5 people. We were told in case of a tornado, seek shelter in the bathroom as the 5,000 square foot facility was built like crap with a tin roof. So about 280 people were SOL in case of a tornado. Then two F4 tornados hit last summer in the evening and realizing their wonderful engineering was going to get people killed, they had to send us all home about 10 minutes before it hit. Probably one of the scariest experiances of my life, driving home with green/yellow/black clouds coming straight for you. Storm ended up doing over $30 million to our small city.

  18. Traveler – we used to hear that North Dakota would be one of the first areas hit in the United States in case the Soviets decided to launch at us. The reason? Because we had more missile silos than anywhere else in the world. True fact. Just what every gradeschooler in the late 70’s/early 80’s wanted to hear. So along with the tornado drills (go the nearest wall w/o windows, face it, put hands between knees and pray that God takes in before the devil knows you are dead) and fire drills, we had to worry about the Ruskies trying to kill us.

  19. Oh, I remember those drills. We went to a DOD school in Brussels, and aside from our weekly swish of fluoride, we were subjected to a yearly movie of a singing critter telling us to “Stop, drop and coveeerr”. I grew up with an icy dread of dying by thermo-nuclear war–imagining being vaporized by the blast. I still to this day get the chills when I see that mushroom cloud in images.

    Thanks DOD school system… Thanks so much.

  20. Hm, I think I’d like a bomb shelter of my very own.

    313, who knew there was a legitimate reason behind the crazy? But that totally makes sense.

  21. If they ended in the 70’s, no one informed my school. We were still doing these drills till at least 1989… In high school there was a bomb threat. They of course evacuated the school and had us line up against it outside. Maybe we were supposed to keep the school from falling if it did blow up.

  22. The US military propagated these types of nuclear death prevention techniques. While I was a youngster in basic training we learned in Field Manual 3-21 that: “Cover and shielding offer the best protection from the immediate effects of a nuclear attack. This includes cover in fighting positions, culverts, and ditches.”

    My buddies and I used to joke that we should carry a culvert with us whenever we were facing a possible nuclear strike. “no worries, sir, I got my culvert with me on this mission!”

  23. A jaunty song about it including the training videos of ‘duck and cover’and a clip of Reagan…

    Christmas at Ground Zero, Weird Al

    Wasn’t so hilarious back when we thought it was all just one button push away.

  24. Good planning. Yep. That’s why the world is in such a great state. Have to appreciate the planning.

  25. You are actually protecting yourself from blast damage in the event that ground zero is fairly distant. After all, elementary schools are rarely specific targets. But at a distance from the blast zone where everything is destroyed, there would be significant casualties from flying glass, so yes, your little third grade desk would provide some protection. I did all of this stuff too, but it was actually during and immediately after the Missile Crisis, and my the plutonium production facility 30 miles out of town was definitely a target, so it was probably a good precautionary measure on the school’s part.

  26. How coincidental – just today in class we talked about the “duck and cover” drills during the Cold War and watched this hilarious video:

  27. Yup, remember those days. Worst was at a school that the cafeteria was in the basement (built to be a bomb shelter) and thinking that we might actually be trapped there with each other, the few teachers and TEX the one-eyed janitor (and no mom and dad). AHHHH! Even as a kid we knew the duck and cover was hopeless. Thought the commies were outside at night too (thought it, yet knew they weren’t at the same time…odd).

  28. Actually, this is interesting in that those drills really were actually nothing but theater. According to the precepts of Mutual Assured Destruction (a real-life military strategy that the US and Soviets were following), a nation preparing its citizens for surviving a full-scale nuclear attack is tantamount to that nation getting ready to launch a first-strike attack on its opposition.

    Therefore, the opposition would then need to launch first to save its own citizens. As a result, if the US government *had* made a real effort to protect Americans from nuclear attack, it could have resulted in a full-scale nuclear war started by the Soviets.

    Is any of this actually sane, mind you? No, no I don’t think it is.

  29. Yes, Libby. It is possible to have Russian tornadoes. There was an episode of WKRP in Cincinnati about a tornado warning. The only emergency procedure Les Nesman had was in case of an attack by the Russians. So he went on the air and used the same procedure and substited the word tornado in place of Russians. “This is what you do in case of attack by enemy tornadoes…” Oh that was funny.

  30. Growing up in Miami, I don’t remember the duck and cover exercises beyond the 50s. I think they stopped them, at least in my school, when they realized little girls in skirts crouched under desks were accidentally flashing their panties and the boys couldn’t stop giggling over it.

  31. Generations growing up like this could explain the high sales of Prozac and Xanax now…

  32. When in fact it was probably more of a hazard to eat school lunch, according to recent studies from guys like Emilio.

  33. We used to go into the bathrooms and hide in there. The lucky kids got to hide under the sinks.
    Growing up as a military brat during the Cold War, we knew better….

  34. There are still several places around North Dakota that have the old signs “FALLOUT SHELTER” on them. The local bar has one and it was designated a fallout shelter because…..? Still not sure why but in case of nuclear winter, we could all drink ourselves into oblivion.

  35. Better than You – watched your link and it was funny. However, weird thing was, we have a “Civil Air Defense Siren” that gets tested every week on Wendesday at 11:00 am MT. It just went off while watching this video. Funny and yet, not “HAHA” funny.

  36. Yes. If you don’t duck, you’ll just slam right into the wall. If you do, you’ll just harmlessly go right through the wall.

  37. Too many people today believe these drills were to protect you against an all-out every missile attack.

    But in reality, especially at the time, bombs would have been dropped from Soviet bombers, and in a very real way these drills and fallout shelters would have saved thousands of lives in the case of a single bomb being dropped, especially if the shelter were in a suburban location and the bomb was dropped on downtown.

    Sadly, the availability of stocked fallout shelters could also save many today in the case of the detonation of a dirty bomb or small “suitcase” nuclear device.

    Think of if a single device were detonated in San Francisco. If you’re in Union Square, tough luck.

    If you’re in Oakland, Marin County or Brisbane, even as far out as Palo Alto or Santa Rosa, the availability of a fallout shelter could save your life.

    Unfortunately, today unless you’re one of the few prepared to shelter in place, all you’ll be able to do is watch the mushroom cloud and suffer the ravages of fallout.

    Sorry to bring some reality to the normal laughter surrounding the issue.

  38. oh no! it’s a nuclear bomb! Everyone . . . hide under your desks. hahahahahaha! a confusing question of the intelligence of whoever made those drills. I started cracking up half-way through the post, because I knew what was coming! 🙂

  39. We just learned about this in school. My teacher actually did this drill with us, where he would yell “FLASH”, and we would hide under our desks. Sadly, we have gotten bigger, and did not fit.

  40. …to identify the bodies for the survivors? “Oh, there’s a blob under Billy’s desk, that must be Billy.” In the 80’s when I grew-up, they just gave up on the whole thing, presumably since there wouldn’t be any survivors. Or smoking blobs so much as radioactive dust.

  41. Ah, the real reason was to duck and cover and kiss your ass good-bye.

    No, actually as someone said the real reason was for protection against falling or flying debris. For me it was tornado drills. Either we’d do exactly the same thing or if there was a ditch (or at least a real low point on the school grounds as we were told if you’re outside you’re supposed to get down below the normal ground level) then we’d have to get down in it and crouch as low as possible with our hands over our heads. Unless it was raining or the ground too wet for the teachers to take us out exen to play then it was under the desk as if there were no ditch. Really fun to get down in a damp ditch and then have to spend the rest of the day with wet patches on your corduroys (I was always wear corduroys whenever we had to do the drill outside and usually in jeans when it was inside, by the time I wore jeans all the time and never wore corduroys anymore I was no longer in a place where we had to do tornado drills)

  42. I think it was just to make you feel protected which oviosly did’t help anyone.We do this in school for intruder drills.

  43. I wish I had been there for the duck and cover drills. Today, the thing to worry about is hydrogen bombs.

  44. Hydrogen bombs have existed since 1951, with the first test coming in 1952. Before the nuclear blast drills.

  45. I always covered the back of my neck rather than my head because that’s where people on TV always got hit with a wrench.

  46. I like how, in the video up there, they compare fire to nuclear bombs. “Fire can be dangerous if someone is careless, but we have good fire departments to put it out.”

    Ok, then, but do we have a good Thermonuclear Department?

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