Friday, January 24, 2014

Fallout Girl - Memoir - #FridayFlash

     Some of you are old enough to remember the Cold War.  Maybe you even experienced "duck and cover" drills in school;  the idea was to crawl under your desk and cover your head when the warning bell went off.  Surely they knew that it would provide zero protection from radiation, although it might keep debris from falling on our heads if the building was close enough to be rocked by a shock wave.  I suppose that doing something felt better than just sitting and doing nothing.
     It's hard to convey the anxiety that the US felt at the time.  The Cuban missile crisis, Khrushchev pointing his finger and saying "We will crush you,", the construction of the Berlin wall - the spectre of a nuclear apocalypse haunted not only our government but our families.  The fallout shelter sign posted above indicated that the building upon which it hung had a basement or secure area specially designed to protect occupants from radioactive debris or fallout.  Underground mass-transit and subway tunnels could serve as bomb and fallout shelters in the event of an attack as well.  Families with enough income built their own shelters, and some of them were quite elaborate.  There was one underneath a house in my neighborhood which had a generator, air purification system and food for maybe 7 or 8 people for a few months.  (As a kid, of course, I always wondered the most about toilet facilities.)  I also speculated on how they would decide who to let in. How do you tell Grandpa Joe or Cousin Valerie that there's no room? Would you hold a lottery?  Make a list of who gave you the best Christmas gifts, who smelled weird, and who ate more than their share at holiday dinners? And what about the dog and the hamster?
     My parents are very practical people.  Dad figured 2 scenarios:  either there would be very little radiation in our area, in which case we could stay in the basement for a little while, or there would be a ton of radiation, in which case it would take more than a lifetime for it to be safe to go outside. Unspoken was the fact that in the latter case we'd probably be dead anyway.
     I was pretty sure Mom was hoping for the latter.  "If I had to spend months in the basement with your father's snoring and you kids fighting and complaining... "  But I became determined to set up our basement as a proper shelter.  All of Dad's hunting and camping equipment was stored in the basement;  I added my Girl Scout supplies, batteries, and a deck of cards.  We began storing extra canned goods down there too.  I took great pleasure in rotating the inventory and lining things up on the shelves.  (First indication of future OCD tendencies?)  There were also first aid supplies and sewing kits left from Dad's service in Korea, which I enjoyed looking over.
     Even though the Cold War went on for decades, the feeling of imminent peril seemed to gradually recede in the late 70s and 80s.  The school drills stopped, and you didn't see many magazine articles on emergency preparedness and DIY shelters anymore.  My teen years were consumed with girl drama, test anxiety and occasional brawling with my older sister.  Then, in 1979, radiation raised its head in a different form.
     Wednesday, March 28 was a warmish spring day.  I had a biology practical which I was not looking forward to;  I had no difficulty with dissecting a frog and labeling its parts, but I did have a problem with the student next to me who was squeamish and gagged repeatedly every time she had to touch something.  To make things worse, class was in the afternoon right after lunch.
     The chatter as we filed into class was at the usual high decibel level;  Mr. K warned us that every minute he spent quieting us after the bell rang would be subtracted from our exam time.
     "That's not fair!"
     He smirked.  "It's not fair that I wasn't born 7 feet tall so I could play in the NBA."
     The phone on the wall rang.
     We referred to this as "the Bat Phone", as it was a direct line to the office and usually heralded bad news.  Someone was probably going to be sent to the office.  We could hear the phone ringing in the lab next door as well.
     "Bet Kraybill's got detention again," whispered the guy behind me.
     Mr. K hung up the phone without having said anything into the receiver.  Then he called to Steve and Russ.  "Close the windows and drop the blinds.  Now."
     The intercom hissed and a warning chime rang.  "Attention, all students and staff.  There will be an unscheduled early dismissal today beginning at 1:00.  You are to stay in classrooms until your bus is called, at which time you will report directly to your assigned bus and board.  Walkers, report to the cafeteria immediately.  Any students who were to be picked up this afternoon report to the front lobby.  No students or staff are permitted outside of the building at this time."  A few whistles and cheers came from the hallway, but for the most part there was just a low buzz of queries.
     Mr. K raised his hand as we grew louder.  "Listen. LISTEN!"
    We grew quiet.
    "I don't have any more idea than you as to why we're dismissing. You get an extra night to prepare for the lab tomorrow, so make use of it. In the mean time, I expect you to stay in your seats and keep it down until your buses are called."
    Lynne raised her hand. "What's with the windows?"
    "They don't wanna see your ugly face," someone called out.
    Mr. K yanked open a desk drawer.  "OK, since you can't occupy yourselves I happen to have some worksheets here.  Put your books away and get a pencil."
    It's hard for today's youth to comprehend what times were like before the advent of smart phones and computers.  We could only rely on word of mouth.  The restrooms were the high school equivalent of the water cooler, and so what Mr. K termed "the potty parade" began.  Eventually, someone somewhere in the school leaked the information that there was a problem at the nearby Three Mile Island Nuclear Reactor site.  Hence the closing of the windows and the warning that no one was to be outside unless entering a vehicle.  Shades of duck and cover.
    The bus ride home was a mixture of bravado and fear.  No one wanted to admit that they were scared, and so there were kids sticking their heads out of windows (look! now I'm gonna grow a third arm!  am I glowing yet?) and speculating on whether or not we'd have school the next day.  (We didn't.)
    When I got home Mom had the news on, although she was somewhat miffed that her soap opera had been interrupted.  Dad would be leaving work a little early.  My sister was at nursing school, and not inclined to come home;  the students were safe indoors.  I assumed that she wanted to be on hand to assist in the emergency.  I wanted to go in the basement and check the supplies.  Then I went through my closet and packed a suitcase in case we had to evacuate or live in the basement.  (Because when you're 16 it's important to look good, even if you're underground in survival mode.)
    The next five days were rough.  Information was often conflicting.  There's great danger, we have it under control, no need to evacuate, pregnant women and infants should evacuate, there's been no meltdown, there might be a meltdown, there's been a little bit of a meltdown.  Nothing has leaked.  We released 40,000 gallons of radioactive water into the river.  It's only a little radioactive.  There's a hydrogen bubble that might burst and blow the reactor apart.  The core might melt through the concrete down into the earth.  We released some radioactive gas.  Just a little.
     Relatives called from Indiana and Florida, offering us shelter.  Friends from Ireland called, and I briefly entertained the hope of an overseas vacation.
     Mom nixed that flatly.  "What would we do with the dog?"
     The Dog thumped his tail lazily and went back to snoozing.
     "And your sister's still at school."
     Well, she could be a pain in the ass anyway.
     "And there could be looters."
     Frankly, I didn't see much that a looter would want. 
     I spent the next few days in my room, bored out of my mind.  There was my transistor radio (look it up, young 'uns), a stereo, and books.  Cards to play endless solitaire.  And that was it. There was an old TV in the basement, but back then daytime programming consisted of Captain Kangaroo, Good Morning America, and game shows, broken by news updates.  (There were only 3 networks.  No cable channels.  I hear some of you gasping.)
     The longer it went on, the more convinced I became that I couldn't survive a nuclear disaster.  I would die of sheer listlessness. 
     Eventually, the reactor was brought under control and the clean up began.  President Carter visited the site;  I developed a sore jaw from clenching my teeth every time someone pronounced nuclear as "nucular".  Today, the TMI-2 reactor is permanently shut down. The reactor coolant was drained, the radioactive water decontaminated and evaporated, radioactive waste, reactor fuel and core components shipped to a Department of Energy facility.  TMI-1 reactor is still operating, and is set to continue until at least 2034.
     I remember Chernobyl.  I watch Doomsday Preppers on occasion, and my son brings up the idea of building a shelter or bunker sometimes.  The old fear, and the old questions surface.  How do I choose who to save?  Could I really retain my sanity, living in a confined space for months, or years?  Would I want to come out, if it were ever "safe", knowing that everything in my previous life was gone?
     I don't think so.  We never know, until a situation arises, how we will react.  I might turn out to be a "life at any cost" type person.  But I can't see myself huddled in a bunker eking out an existence on canned beefaroni and playing cards either.
     Let's just hope that none of us ever have to find out.
Just for fun:  here's the ABC daytime lineup in 1979, which only started at 6AM. Before 6 there was a picture of the American flag.\
6:00AM Local news
7-9:00 Good Morning America
9-11:00 Local programming
11:00 Laverne and Shirley repeats
11:30 Family Feud
12:00 The $20000 Pyramid
12:30 Ryan's Hope (soap)
1:00 All My Children
2:00 One Life To Live
3:00 General Hospital
4:00 Edge Of Night
CBS and NBC were pretty much the same, just different repeats and different game shows/soaps.

Top songs:  What A Fool Believes (Doobie Brothers), Don't Cry Out Loud (Melissa Manchester), Tragedy (Bee Gees), Lady (Little River Band) and I Will Survive (Gloria Gaynor)

What happened to all of those public fallout shelters?  You still see signs in cities and small towns.  Most are no longer stocked, as the original supplies of food and medicine were tossed when they expired and the perceived threat of nuclear war has gone down.  Some are used for secure storage of valuables, documents, or equipment. (That's what our local courthouse uses it for.) I'd be willing to bet that some are forgotten and remain as time capssules of the 50s and 60s.  And yes, I'd love to find one of those and have a look around. :-)



  1. Fascinating! Fear of nuclear war was very real. What do we worry about now? What will our great-grandchildren fear for their futures?

    1. Sadly, in America it seems we have to worry about being gunned down at school or at the mall. No telling what the future will bring. There have always been natural and environmental disasters, wars, and tragedies due to human or mechanical failure. We can only enjoy what we have today, rectify the mistakes of the past (if possible) and work for a better future by promoting respect, tolerance and compassion for others.

  2. Well, there is always Scrabble and other board games. :)

    1. And charades and shadow puppets. zzzzzzzz...snore......zzzzzzzzz

  3. Great read... Always enough to fear.

    1. Thanks, Rich, and you are right. It's really scary when you're a kid and you first realize that there are things in this world from which adults cannot protect you.

  4. A very insightful piece of writing Lisa. I think all those drills may have managed to save a small percentage of lives that would have been lost had they not been practiced.

    I was born in 1953 and remember only too well the fears of the cold war and its possible consequences. There were many periods when war seemed so inevitable, I wondered why the hell I was bothered about anything at all, but the world eventually changed, and the danger faded, although there are still some countries today that would possibly use nuclear weapons given the chance. The danger will never totally disappear for we cannot un-invent the weapons.

    1. Thank you Steve. Nice summary - we cannot re-invent them, only try to contain them. I fear that we cannot do that forever.

  5. Wow, a very thorough and thought-provoking piece. I adore that kind of "Fallout" tale, even if nothing too bad happens in the end. I only finished Dmitry Glukhovsky's Metro 2033 novel a few months ago and was amazed it had passed me by.

    Even though I can imagine how feelings of boredom and the will to survive might fight each other if anyone was in some kind of shelter, I hadn't really thought about it as such a major issue before. Thanks for making me think along those lines finally :).

    1. Thank you Casey. I'm not sure that anyone has given it much thought. I know limited studies have been done, having in mind the time people would have to spend traveling to places like Mars in confined circumstances. I've also just remembered the Biosphere 2 experiment. must go look that up.

  6. Wow Lisa you brought back some memories! I know you can't be that old. Seems we trade fears constantly now, according to the news here and abroad. The Cold War was really the only fear back then. My mom refused to have a basement in our home because of the arthritis in her back. So we were the ONLY house in the neighborhood without a basement and in tornado alley. When I was young I wondered who would let us in in case of a nuclear disaster or a tornado, and whether I could survive for days/weeks cooped up for what might await outside the shelter door. To think now we are having better odds at getting shot or having our identities stolen at the local grocery store :)

    1. We won't discuss my age. :P When we built the house I fought with my husband - he didn't want a basement, I refused to live in a house without one! (I won.)

  7. Interesting post Li. I was born in 1951 and I remember discussing my concerns about the cold war in the early 60's with my father…….

    1. Hi Helen. I wonder if kids today discuss fears with their parents like we did?

  8. There are reasons why I remember the Cold War that I'd rather forget. Good post, though. It was very insightful and informative. Many thanks.

    Greetings from London.

    1. Thanks for reading. Hopefully it didn't stir up too many bad memories for you. :(

  9. I wasn't around for the Cuban Missile crisis, but the whole thing was revisited in the early 80s in the UK with US air bases and nuclear bombs and we had the ridiculous government pamphlet "Protect & Survive" with the asinine advice like you cite which was supposed to make us feel we were in charge of our own safety and destinies...

    you might find this amusing from 80s UK comedy "The Young Ones" about 11 minutes in


    1. Thanks Marc! I enjoyed it so much I watched a few other episodes. Love the guy painting himself white. :-) As for Gov't pamphlets - well, the word Gov't pretty much sums up the usefulness of the content.

  10. Great telling -- you really got the mix of anxiety and "ho hum, this is part of our everyday lives now" across.

    When I let myself think about nuclear weapons, what worries me the most is that they are no longer top of mind. I remember all the times it was reported the DEW line sent out a false positive just because a flock of geese went past the radars or whatever.

    1. Thanks Katherine. We have DEW towers around here - wonder if they are still operational.

  11. Those were strange times. Glad to have them behind me, personally. I remember listening to grown-ups argue about what they were going to do if things went really bad. Most of it sounded ludicrous. so much wish-fulfillment, like most post-apocalyptic scenarios. All I knew was that I would get out of my grandparents house and never come back. Nuclear war was too abstract to worry about. If it happened, then I would take my chances. thankfully, it never came to that--I like electricity and indoor plumbing a great deal. Those I would miss. People don't seem to take the threat of nuclear annihilation all that seriously now, which might be a good thing, or a bad thing, depending on how you look at it. We seem to have more immediate, more personal threats to consider these days, like random public shootings and mutated forms of influenza or whatever. I like to think that we've pretty much outlived the entrenched hysteria of the Cold War. But where are we going from here?

    1. You're right - one large fear has been supplanted by myriad smaller but equally dangerous ones. I just live one day at a time. A little prep is good, but no use worrying about all of the "might happens".

  12. I really enjoyed this lisa. In the UK we had similar macabre jokes, useless preparations and hopeless thoughts. In Epping , north of London, is a massive underground bunker disguised as a farm house that was to be the prime minister's bolt hole. You can visit it now and see how it was abandoned in the early 80s. Makes you think that annahilation was preferable to survival. Reminds me of Hugh Howey's trilogy.

    Another interesting remnant are the sirens. They still use them as flood warnings where I used to live in Yorkshire... First time I heard that my blood ran cold