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A civil defense educational video on school preparedness for nuclear war in the 1950s.


I attended grammar school in Northern New Jersey during the early 1960s when the Cold War was in full bloom, with Nikita Khrushchev pounding his shoe on the desk at the United Nations and threatening to bury us all.

Teachers and schoolchildren, today, live in fear of random attacks by madmen with automatic weapons. Today’s threat is intensely personal – the shooter, often acting alone, stalks the halls and brutally murders innocents, one by one, at close range. The threat in the 1950s and 1960s was entirely anonymous – intercontinental ballistic missiles bearing nuclear warheads would launch from an ocean away and descend from the sky, killing millions.

Some elementary schools now have armed guards or run lockdown drills, in which the lights are turned off, classrooms are locked, and students hunker down in the dark, hoping the door doesn’t open. We were afraid, just as schoolchildren today may be, as we, too, prepared for the unthinkable.

When I was a boy, there was always a calendar on the door in our kitchen, annotated with upcoming birthdays and anniversaries and phone numbers scribbled in the margins. Shortly after the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, on the basement side of that door, Mom tacked up a poster that prominently featured the Civil Defense logo (the red letters, CD, against a white triangle, superimposed over a blue circle). The logo was designed to look stable and reassuring, but it made me uneasy.

The poster displayed a graphic representation of three different sirens, and what we were supposed to do if we heard them. Each sound extended from left to right across the poster, and flowed from a brass-colored bullhorn. The first was a straight blue line. This was the usual emergency siren used for fires that everyone called the 12 o’clock whistle, or the lunch whistle, because the town tested it weekdays at noon. On the morning of a big snowstorm this siren might also signal that schools were closed for the day, so it was usually a happy sound.

The poster said this siren was to put us on alert, which to me, meant listening for the more ominous sirens. The next, directly below the lunch whistle, was a blue repeating sine wave snaking across the poster, as if the flat siren sound had become agitated and could no longer be confined to the horizontal. This undulating siren indicated an attack was likely, and if you heard it, you were supposed to gather your family, make sure you had food, water and medical supplies in your shelter, and prepare to take cover.

The third siren was identical to the second but the sine waves were higher frequency, and had an urgent overlay of red dashes cutting through their center. The look of that sound scared me, as did the text warning that this meant an attack was “imminent,” and you should immediately go to your fallout shelter or another safe place (wherever that might be) and await further instructions.

I looked at the poster, and wished they would blow the dreaded second and third sirens just once, for practice, so that we could know exactly what to listen for. I would trace the blue waves with my finger and stare at the broken red line and try to associate sounds with those colors and shapes. What if the imminent-attack siren sounded, and I failed to recognize it?

We had atomic attack drills in school, too. The teachers would line us up in the hallway outside our classrooms, facing the wall opposite the windows. They had us stand with our arms folded against the cool stone, faces pressed to forearms, eyes closed, just like nap time on our desks in kindergarten. They also made a point of telling us we had to hide our eyes so we wouldn’t be blinded by the flash of the nuclear bomb, supposedly “brighter than a thousand suns.” I complied but wondered: if it’s close enough for the light to blind us, why won’t it blow us to pieces?

I also knew the wall we were leaning on was on the east side of the building, directly facing New York City. I recalled grainy black and white film clips of atomic tests in which wooden houses miles from ground zero shuddered in the sudden gust from the blast, spontaneously exploded into flames, then disintegrated into a whirlwind of debris.

Wouldn’t that be us? The walls of the school would dissolve under my arms in front of me and all of us would be irradiated, each a cartoon character holding a live wire, flickering back and forth between a whole body and a blinking x-ray image. Then we would incinerate in place, and like Wile E. Coyote after chasing Road Runner off a cliff, we would be suspended for a millisecond before plummeting to the ground as individual piles of dust.

What were they planning to do after that – send us home for nuclear winter recess? “See you next millennium when the radiation clears up!” I guess it wasn’t such a bad idea to give us something to do while waiting to die, but even in third grade I sensed it was hopeless. Herding my whole family into our basement to live on crackers, canned sardines and tomato juice was also preposterous, and I knew that too.

On the other hand, being in third grade, I didn’t dwell on the fine details. I assumed my parents and the government had a rational plan for carrying on after a nuclear holocaust. I just had to cradle my head in my arms and squinch my eyes and study the siren poster so I’d know when Armageddon was upon us. The rest would take care of itself.