ec. 1, 1950: Third-graders at Clifford Street School kneel at desks and cover their faces and eyes
with their arms during a civil defense drill. Photo credit: Paul Calvert, Los Angeles Times

When danger threatened him, he never got hurt. He knew just what to do.
—Bert the Turtle

 In 1950, Mayor William O’Dwyer announced a plan to protect New York City school children, not from active shooters, but from the atomic bomb. The plan—which continued for a decade—included the use of the basements of school buildings as air raid and/or fall-out shelters. Teachers handed out a booklet: “STAY CALM,” it said in big red letters. And it showed a picture of a little boy and a little girl smiling and staying calm. A year later, the Federal Civil Defense Administration released a cartoon, a record album, and a book featuring Bert the Turtle, who ducked as soon as he saw a “flash of light” and then covered his head and neck with his arms, either against a wall or under a table. At least once a week at noon, an air raid siren would go off. This was the signal for students to slide under their desks and “duck and cover.”  Sometimes, there were “sneak attack drills.” “Drop,” the teacher would say, and students had to drop under their desks.

Dog tags were given out in the second week of October each year. “Just in time for Halloween,” our teacher said, cheerily. “You can dress up as soldiers.” Modeled after military dog tags, they were made of lightweight aluminum, stamped with each child’s name, address, and phone number. With their long chains, they dangled right down to our belly buttons.

What fun! In the event of a catastrophe, we could be easily identified, just like on a battlefield. Or could we? Wouldn’t the aluminum be incinerated?

Bert the Turtle: Duck and Cover (1952)

I rushed home in a panic on those sneak attack drill days, which my parents, who were Holocaust refugees, said reminded them of war. My mother, a psychiatrist, went to speak to the principal. “These drills are not good for the children,” she said. “America is at peace. Let the children live in peace.”

Like all parents everywhere, and throughout time, a committee was formed. A minister’s wife, Mrs. W.H. Melish, mother of two, formed the Parents’ Committee to Safeguard Children From War Tension in the School. “Dear Parent,” she wrote in a letter circulated widely and subsequently published in the New York Times. “Were you shocked when your children came home and reported that they had A-bomb air raid drills? Is your child one of those who is waking up in terror because of these drills?”

The newspaper of record then went on to report Mrs. Melish’s address in Brooklyn, insuring harassment by irate citizens. Some accused her of being a communist.

I am sure the principal was polite when my mother was escorted into her office, but her admonitions, based on her professional assessment, went unheeded. The nonsensical, pointless drills were mandated by the government, a government that had unleashed an atomic bomb on a civilian population—the first and only time so far—and knew full well what it could do: evaporate us. No wonder so many suburban families were building bomb shelters in their back yards. Magical thinking, we’d say today.

These memories came back to me recently when Putin threatened the use of tactical nuclear weapons. Well, just tactical, the pundits reassure us. This is not another Cold War, it is something else, perhaps worse: a geopolitical realignment. More damage is being done to Ukraine by the continuous pummeling of infrastructure with “conventional” weapons, so why worry about nukes? But the missiles cannot see the children down there, and even if they did, what would it matter? The war continues regardless, with no end in sight.

Because so many Ukrainians have evacuated and are living in exile, it’s easy to forget that many remain, including children, who are forced into air raid shelters when a siren sounds, often in the middle of the school day. They sing, or continue with their lessons, they move quietly in well-disciplined lines, and sometimes they cry, the reporters on the ground tell us. They may emerge from their shelters unscathed, or they may not, as in Mariupol. Or their wounds may remain invisible for years to come. Their fathers are mostly soldiers now and will return with their own wounds, or in body bags. Their mothers are sustaining life away from the front lines as best they can until they, too, have to take shelter.

Grown-ups usually have well-intentioned plans, but they can’t always protect their children. Survival in a war zone is day-to-day. Even in schools in a safe-enough country, such as the United States, there is a war mentality. With lockdown drills and school shootings, our schools have become war zones. The absolute safety of our children during the school day is an illusion.

A-bomb construction: DET-3, 1353nd Photo Group/National Security Archive

There was a fallout shelter where my friend Diane lived. A yellow and black radiation sign was tacked to the front of her building. One day we persuaded the building superintendent to let us see it. Though these shelters had been de-commissioned, many were still intact. This one contained dark gray metal cans without labels, jars of peanut butter, dried fruit, jugs of spring water, tinned candies, tinned cigarettes, cots and blankets, candles, a table and chairs, a radio, a gasoline lantern, a gasoline stove, and a large medicine kit filled with Band-Aids and iodine.

Diane wanted to stay and play, but I said no. I was scared. The shelter was a tomb.

“You kids,” the superintendent said affectionately as he escorted us back upstairs. “Get outside into the sunshine. Jump rope or something.”

So that’s what we did.

Carol Bergman

Carol was an Adjunct Associate Professor of writing at NYU, College of Applied Liberal Arts from 1997–2020.  She is one of the founding faculty at Gotham Writers Workshop. “Objects of Desire,” appearing in Lilith and Whetstone Literary Review was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in nonfiction. Another Day in Paradise: International Humanitarian Workers Tell Their Stories, with a foreword by John Le Carré, was nominated for the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize. Her articles, essays, short stories, reviews, and interviews have appeared in numerous publications all over the world. Resident of London for a decade, she was a regular contributor to the Times Educational Supplement. She and her journalist husband returned to the United States so that their London-born daughter could experience an American childhood. But that’s another story.

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