Do we have to do this again?
Whenever I hear news about Russian nuclear threats, I’m back in third grade. It’s October 1962 and my family is watching President Kennedy give a speech about the U.S. blockade of Cuba over deployment of Soviet missiles. We wonder if this really is World War III.
My Dad, ever a pilot, will talk about prevailing winds and the danger of fallout should a nuclear warhead strike St. Louis, 100 miles away.
Thankfully, we never had to take cover. In the years since, Americans have looked back in amusement at the paranoia that sent our parents and grandparents into such a tizzy. From the easy chair of hindsight, we’ve laughed at the ridiculous duck-and-cover drills, rolled our eyes at crude bomb shelters full of cots and canned goods.
But the possibility of a nuclear winter was no laughing matter when we Baby Boomers were growing up. A current events writing exercise was assigned to my brother who was in eighth grade in 1962. It involved a bomb shelter. He was to write about what he would do if the neighbors wanted in and there was space and supplies for just one extra person. Whom would he save and why?
I remember this assignment all these years later because it was so perfectly horrible.
As a eight-year-old, I worried about our pet beagle. If we had to escape, could she come along? And what of my dolls? When the alarm sounded, would we have time to pack?
Yellow-and-black placards were displayed on courthouses and churches and other public buildings where shelters were set up. I feared the signs that looked like big bumble bees, marking a place to run along with everyone else in case the alarm sounded. I was never sure what the signal might be—maybe the town fire siren? Maybe the obnoxious buzz we hear today during tests of the emergency alert system?
Public fallout shelters gathered dust for years before officials declared them surplus. A few reporters, tongue-in-cheek, came to marvel at the vintage supplies being discarded.
Back in their Cold War heyday, fallout shelters were a booming business. I remember touring different models in grocery store parking lots and county fairs, amazed at what could be crammed into a space the size of a pickup camper.
Our neighbors installed one of the pre-fab shelters in their back yard. Like modern-day Noahs, they were going to have their ark ready for the big one. All was well until a heavy rain came and somehow pushed the thing up out of the ground. So much for well-laid plans.
The Harper family of Hickory was among those who took the nuclear threat seriously. In 1954, they built a fallout shelter on the basement level of their home at 310 N. Center Street. The property is now known as the Harper House, part of the Hickory History Center.
Plans are to open the subterranean piece of local history on Saturday, April 9 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. (Admission will be $5. For more information, contact the Catawba County Museum of History at 465-0383.)
After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, most assumed we’d moved beyond the Russian bogeyman. In fact, one of the Minuteman missile silos has been turned into a tourist attraction in South Dakota.
The Cold War reared its ugly head again during the presidential debates of 2012. Republican candidate Mitt Romney claimed that Russia was the world’s top geopolitical threat. Then-president Barack Obama retorted, “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because you know the Cold War has been over for 20 years.”
Romney was practically laughed off the stage, and most agreed with Obama until Feb. 24, 2022.
---Tammy Wilson is a writer who lives near Newton. Her latest book is Going Plaid in a Solid Gray World: Collected Columns, published by Red Hawk Publications. Contact her at email@example.com