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. :-)