In 1951 the US Federal Civil Defense Administration in consultation with the Safety Commission of the National Education Association produced a film called Duck and Cover. The film featured an animated turtle named Bert, who, with a catchy lyric playing in the background, taught American children to duck and cover if/when an atomic bomb detonated nearby. I was in seventh grade in 1951, but the film never came to my school. Nor did the duck-and-cover exercises, for which I cannot help but be grateful.
(If you’re interested in seeing the film, go to Duck and Cover)
I can’t imagine what it would have meant to me as a child to practice dropping under my desk and covering the back of my neck to keep safe from a horrendous and almost inevitable bomb. Maybe something similar to what it must mean to our school children today to go through drills to prepare against shooters.
I did participate more fully in the moment in 1961. I was a young teacher standing in front of my high school English class when the principal came on the PA system to give instructions for evacuating the school and our city should a nuclear missile come our way. The terror of the Cuban missile crisis and the years surrounding it is imprinted on my bones. (As a young woman I used occasionally to read newspaper obituaries in towns where I didn’t know a soul just to note how many people had lived out full lives, a privilege I was convinced would never be mine.)
My entire adult life has been played out in an improbable bubble, a bubble free of world-wide nuclear devastation. That we all came through the Cuban missile crisis whole is almost beyond improbable. We know now that the nuclear warheads we were holding off with our threats were already in place. We know, too, that we were attempting to bomb Russian submarines. Just think if we had connected with even one target!
And if the potential for devastation has been less obvious in the years that have followed it has been no less real.
The grace of that nuclear-free bubble has nothing to do with peace. In the eight decades of my life, my country has been in a nearly constant state of war. The fact that we haven’t all been blow away can be attributed only to luck and happenchance.
Recently, I have been reading Daniel Ellsberg’s The Doomsday Machine, Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. Why? I’m not entirely certain except, perhaps, to give credence to my lifelong nightmares. Ellsberg does that very effectively. To understand the myriad ways our planet might have been destroyed—may yet be destroyed—by accident or intent boggles the mind. In fact, after a time, the boggled mind simply quits reacting.
At least mine did.
But what is the point of choosing to know? It is clearly impossible in our system to vote a leader into office who would have the will and the power to stand against this obscenity.
None has for the last half century. Not one!
Yet, these are our lives being played out . . . played with . . . lived. The jeopardy is ours and our children’s and our grandchildren’s.
Ah . . . those grandchildren! Sometimes I imagine sitting down with my grandchildren and trying to explain my failure to leave them a safe and habitable world.
Trying to explain why I have so few answers to offer, only more questions. Lots and lots of questions.
What is it with the human race? Do we still stand at the mouth of our caves, our hands filled with stones to repel the next intruder? Certainly the stones have evolved. Why haven’t we?
Each morning I emerge into the world filled with such questions. And then what do I do? I sit down and write another children’s book. Whatever it is, it will at least be more honest, more useful than Duck and Cover.
I often wonder what it must have been like to live in pre-World War II Germany. Something like living in the United States today, perhaps?
“Things are awful. I know they are awful. But right now I have supper to fix.”
Supper is good, though . . . as is the choice to go on with our lives.
Maybe I could say that to those beloved grandchildren.
“Supper is good. Every breath that fills your lungs and returns once more to the world is holy. Now . . . go out and fight for those impossible-to-imagine leaders, the ones who understand just how precious you are. How precious our world is!”