Part of the soundtrack of my youth was the eerie blaring of air raid sirens being tested at precisely 10 am on the last Friday of every month. I was 4 when I first asked my mother what the disturbing noise was. “They’re sirens to warn us when Russian airplanes attack,” she answered vaguely, hustling me along the sidewalk to the commercial interview she was taking me to. At my wide-eyed look she assured me, “It’s just a test.”
A month later the same sound sent me outside the house in shivers of fear, scanning the skies for planes (always the reporter), and any bombs they might be dropping. It was only then that my mother thought to explain that the tests happened every month at the same time. Young Reporter Claudia demanded clarification of Exactly When they went off every month, and never forgot it.
I distinctly remember the sounds of the unsynchronized sirens whirring to life – each just a fraction of a second off from the other – and their high-pitched oscillating tones warning of danger. When the test was over and the sirens finally stopped, their wailing echoed for a few lingering moments over the San Fernando Valley. Thinking about the keening, undulating sound long enough begins to put a clench in my jaw and stomach.
Part of the curriculum in the Los Angeles Unified School District in the 1950s, 60s and 70s was repeating the Duck and Cover drills we learned in kindergarten from cheerful films featuring catchy jingles, Bert the cartoon turtle, and calm, well-dressed white children. The films spoke confidently and repeatedly of WHEN The Bomb would drop – not if. 9 months a year for 13 years every child attending school in Los Angeles was vigilant for the inevitable, inescapable flash of our doom, and as air raid sirens howled above us we learned to cower under the magical safety of a laminated Formica desk. (Link to Duck and Cover propaganda film)
As the sirens warned of impending doom the teachers turned off the lights and closed the blinds, and we students would kneel under our desks on the linoleum floor, our fingers laced behind our necks, forearms over our ears, and elbows shielding our faces. We were told to keep our eyes shut, and our faces hidden in our clothes.
While we crouched with hidden faces, the siren’s mournful monthly tune ended and became nothing but a discordant echo over cheaply built post-war housing. We waited until we heard a long bell being wrung by Mrs. Hale, our Principal, signifying the ‘All Clear’. It was during one of those drills that I first felt the suffocating quicksand of claustrophobia.
The exercise ended with the entire school huddled under our desks, pretending a bomb would explode near us. The bell would ring – and Scene! We would return to our studies, the subtext of the ritual was that we had all just died.
Here’s the unvarnished truth about Duck and Cover: Nobody ever gave us instructions on what we should do *after* the bomb dropped. There was never any talk of what to do when we were done ducking and covering, no warnings about food or water or radiation poisoning. We didn’t even have instructions to wait for instructions.
The inference was that if we ever heard the Russian planes overhead everything was over. ‘Kiss your ass goodbye’ was a phrase commonly used, and most people figured ‘They’ll never try it, and if they do? We’re all dead, but they are, too.’
The drill went on year after year – long past the point of being of any use to the children repeating it – until it became normalized and just more Cold War theater
Whether or not the adults around us would acknowledge it, their unconscious behavior affected how we reacted – we took our cues from them. They knew there was no surviving a direct hit & we picked up their signals.
We were told to kneel and patiently await our fate when we heard the sounds of air raid sirens. Deep inside all of us knew that if the missiles actually flew the lights and the shades and the command to Duck and Cover were nothing more than busy work to fill the time until we were incinerated in a flash.
At 6 am on February 9, 1971, the Russians finally attacked. I awoke to the sound of air raid sirens and explosions that were so big it moved the ground beneath me. I heard shouting, and the ground shook even harder – the earth itself was making a grinding noise as books and games flew off of my shelves, raining down on me. Instinctively I hid my face as I sat up in bed. Abruptly the shaking stopped, but the sirens went on. I was in shock as my father hollered “EARTHQUAKE!!! Get out of the house!!” I had no idea what he was shouting to me.
In all their preparations for nuclear war it had never occurred to any of the adults to mention earthquakes to the California kids living on the San Andreas fault. No one thought to tell us the sirens could be used for emergencies other than nuclear war. I mistook a 6.6 quake for World War 3, and awoke certain I was dying in a mushroom cloud. The heaving ground and exploding transformers only served to underline that mistaken notion that the world was coming to an end. It’s not the kind of thing you forget.
It puzzled me as I grew older how so many of my classmates relegated the jolly propaganda films that promised a terrifying death via radiation to the farthest corners of their minds. By the 1980s the drills had ceased, and most folks seemed to forget what the sirens were – they became just another background noise people ignored. Almost no-one noticed when the Los Angeles Civil Air Defense sirens were permanently silenced in 1986.
I don’t envy anyone with young children right now, because they’re going to be freaked out by what happened in Hawaii – how can they not? It’s utterly fucked up, and in the days to come they’ll be exposed to over-stressed adults and videos of panic and terror. Hopefully they’ll also see clips of parents trying to protect their children, (the video of the father putting his crying children into the storm drain in which he cannot fit is heartbreaking – but also a moment of the purest love and sacrifice) and there will be adults around them who are calm and reassuring.
Keep in mind that children already have their own version of Duck and Cover when they practice mass casualty shooting drills every month. There are seniors graduating in June of 2018 who have been practicing this horror-show drill their whole lives, just like I practiced waiting for the bomb to drop. The heartbreaking thing is that some of these students, and a few of their teachers, won’t get to see graduation day because their lives will be cut short in a flash from the muzzle of a gun. The added burden of the threat of global thermonuclear war between two madmen seems especially cruel.
None of it’s fair, or particularly sane, but it’s where we are as a country right now. This is who we are.
For the moment we are at the mercy of an aggressive, ignorant, rageaholic narcissist who suffers delusions of grandeur, likely has dementia, and is itching to use nuclear weapons. For the moment.
On the bright side: After a few years in this pressure cooker of lunacy and danger we’re bound to have some really good art and music come out of it – if we can pull together and #Resist long enough to outlast the bastard.