When I was in elementary school it was the late 1950s and 1960s. The threat of a nuclear war with Russia was always in the news. We had civil defense drills in school. What I remember was that we would have to get under our desks and tuck our heads between our legs. Duck and cover. I kind of enjoyed them because it was a break from the school day.
In 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis was a 35-day confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union made it all seem very real and close at hand. The U.S.had Jupiter ballistic missiles in Italy and Turkey and there had been the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion in Cuba in 1961. The Soviets feared that Cuba was leaning towards China, Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev agreed to Cuba’s request to place nuclear missiles on the island to deter a future invasion. Khrushchev and Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro had agreed in July 1962 to the construction of a number of missile launch facilities in Cuba. It was the U.S. versus the Soviet Union, the two nuclear powers, but it really seemed to be President Kennedy against Khrushchev.
I was only nine years old but it was in the newspapers and on TV and I heard my parents and their friends talk about the threat of war. My father had been in the Navy in WWII but I don’t recall my parents’ ideas about what was happening. I do know that there was a portrait of JFK on a wall in our home right next to Pope John XXIII.
My grasp of the enormity of this crisis must have been weak but when we were hiding under those desks in fourth grade I would look at the wall of windows and think if a bomb hit nearby New York City we would have no chance of surviving.
Searching online for some of what was being told to Americans in those years, I found one booklet that listed what your chances are if an atomic bomb hits near you.
“If a modern A-bomb exploded without warning in the air over your hometown tonight, your calculated chances of living through the raid would run something like this:
Should you happen to be one of the unlucky people right under the bomb, there is practically no hope of living through it. In fact, anywhere within one-half mile of the center of the explosion, your chances of escaping are about 1 out of 10.
On the other hand, and this is the important point, from one-half to 1 mile away, you have a 50-50 chance.
From 1 to 1.5 miles out, the odds that you will be killed are only 15 in 100.
And at points from 1.5 to 2 miles away, deaths drop all the way down to only 2 or 3 out of each 100.
Beyond 2 miles, the explosion will cause practically no deaths at all.”
That last estimate seems foolishly optimistic for us in New Jersey, but after reading further you come to the second reality – radiation. Though the booklet is optimistic about this too, we know now that was an enormous lie.
“Naturally, your chances of being injured are far greater than your chances of being killed. But even injury by radioactivity does not mean that you will be left a cripple, or doomed to die an early death. Your chances of making a complete recovery are much the same as for everyday accidents. These estimates hold good for modern atomic bombs exploded without warning.”
“Any cover is better than none when the fallout rains down. Where the fallout falls depends on where the bomb hits and which way high-altitude winds blow.” – from a story in the December 1961 issue of Popular Science. Under a culvert or in a ditch somehow covered by a car? Is there a cave near your house? You may as well stand on that bridge or sit in the car.
A high school kid on my block had a poster that said, “In the event of an atomic attack, put your head between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye.”
I decided on two things from these drills and the news. First, I was not going to die in a classroom. If the sirens sounded for an attack, I was leaving my classroom and running home. If I was going to die, I would die with my family.
Second, I wanted a bomb shelter (AKA fallout shelter) in our basement. We already had a big storehouse of canned goods down there. That was a good start. My father was very handy. he could definitely build one.
I remember getting a brochure from the library about how to build a shelter. I brought it home. I showed my parents. I went into our basement and drew plans. Cinder block walls to make a room within our poured concrete basement. A way to get safe air and ventilation. How much food and water we would need? How long would we need to stay there? Books to read. Candles and lanterns and batteries.
I don’t think my parents took my planning seriously. The Cuban crisis was over after a month, though the threats from the Russians remained. There was never any movement to actually build our shelter.
In my mind, the space could serve as a shelter even if there was no attack. The place I had decided could be our shelter has three concrete walls, one small window, and an empty doorframe. It had once been used as a coal bin to feed an old furnace. I cleaned it out. I painted it with leftover paint mixed together so that it became uniformly light brown. I fixed the window so it opened and made a crude but effective screen for it. I set up a table rescued from someone’s trash and made shelves from scrap wood. I cut down a nice wooden door that someone was discarding and hung it. I had a room of my own.
I was in a science phase and I had gotten a chemistry set for Christmas which I supplemented with things from a hobby shop. It was my lab. I was also into building car models and it was my workshop. The walls were decorated with magazine photos from Hot Rod, Motor Trend, and Popular Science.
I spent many hours in that place. It was cool in summer, and cold in winter. Our dog slept downstairs and I made a bed frame for him filled with a carpet and blanket that sat between my door and the furnace which warmed the area.
In our town and many others, buildings were designated as official fallout shelters. They were marked with a yellow and black sign. In July 1961, President Kennedy gave a speech outlining a new program. “Tomorrow I am requesting of the Congress new funds … to identify and mark space in existing structures — public and private — that could be used as fallout shelters in case of attack.” The Office of Civil Defense — the precursor to FEMA — began creating them.
The buildings selected had a protection factor of at least 40 (meaning you would receive 1/40th the radiation inside the building than you would outside, unprotected) Basements in buildings like schools, and the middle floors of taller buildings were suitable and they needed room for at least 50 people with 10 square feet of space per person.
In 1962, 400,000 aluminum outdoor signs and one million steel signs for indoors were contracted for production. I still see those signs on a few buildings. Some buildings were eventually demolished, most of the signs were removed and I bet a few signs were scavenged (stolen) by collectors. Maybe some places became shelters used after natural disasters.
Are we safe now from “the bomb”? (We called it an atomic bomb in the 1950s and early 1960s but it eventually became a nuclear weapon or nuke.) As the war in Ukraine continues far longer than most people expected, the idea that Russia might use a nuclear weapon keeps being mentioned.