I am of that generation of Americans — Russians, too, I think — who grew up squatting under our school desks to practice how to survive a nuclear blast. “Duck and cover” was an actual jingle about Bert the Turtle, a cartoon character in a black and white civil defense film that was considered antique even by the time it was threaded up in our classroom. We’d squish ourselves below our desks, chortle, giggle, and wiggle our backsides.
I remember the yellow and black Civil Defense FALLOUT SHELTER sign over the stairs leading down to our school basement, where, I suppose, we were supposed to sit in the dark and eat canned goods until … Well, that part wasn’t clear. I think we knew even before we were out of 8th grade, when we read John Hersey’s Hiroshima that there was no reliable way to really survive a nuclear attack on our city. So we made grisly, nervous jokes.
We made jokes, as children do, because the reality was impossible to hold in our minds; or just too harrowing. Over the years, a lot of us who grew up with those drills have confided to each other that we also had nightmares about what might happen if the sirens howled, we scrambled below our desks and into basements, and mushroom clouds engulfed the sky. Would we really survive? Would we even want to?
The old Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev is often quoted as saying, “The survivors would envy the dead.” And President John F. Kennedy, his adversary during the Cold War said in a speech after the Cuban missile crisis, “The deadly poisons produced by a nuclear exchange would be carried by wind and water and soil and seed to the far corners of the globe and to generations yet unborn.”
The generation that has grown up after the Cold War has had lots of other reasons for nightmares: airplanes striking down skyscrapers, bombs on buses, subways, and in concerts, and shootings in schools, theaters, and houses of worship. Nuclear weapons have remained a threat in our times, and even expanded as India, Pakistan, and now North Korea each developed their own arsenals.
But there was a feeling that the possibility of a nuclear exchange had become more remote as the world had been sobered by the close calls of the Cold War, and wanted children to grow up without such incendiary nightmares. I hope there’s not now another generation of children, growing up in America and Asia, cringing under their school desks.