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.

Page from the “Bert The Turtle Says Duck and Cover” Pamphlet produced by the Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA) in 1951 –

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.

Pamphlet produced by Office of Civil Defense Mobilization (OCDM), 1958.

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.

Doomsday 2021

Some late-night thoughts that hopefully won’t color the weekend in shades of gray and black…

I checked in on the Doomsday Clock this week.

The clock was devised by Albert Einstein and University of Chicago scientists who helped develop the first atomic weapons in the Manhattan Project. They started the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1945 and the Doomsday Clock came in 1947. They took the idea of doomsday/apocalypse and represented it on the clock as midnight. They would evaluate nuclear threats to humanity and set the clock so that it represented a countdown to midnight. They reset it every year.

I last checked the Doomsday Clock in November 2019 and it was 11:58 pm. Two minutes to Doomsday. 2020 had enough doom and gloom so I never checked.  Today the clock is 20 seconds to midnight. And seconds matter. That’s the same place that it was set in 2020. I suppose that is a glint of optimism – things haven’t gotten worse – though it is not really optimistic.

The Doomsday Clock has become a universally recognized indicator of the world’s vulnerability to catastrophe from nuclear weapons. In 1947, nuclear war was THE threat to the planet. But climate change and disruptive technologies in other domains have been added to the calculation.

The Bulletin did not ignore the pandemic.

“Humanity continues to suffer as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads around the world. In 2020 alone, this novel disease killed 1.7 million people and sickened at least 70 million more. The pandemic revealed just how unprepared and unwilling countries and the international system are to handle global emergencies properly. In this time of genuine crisis, governments too often abdicated responsibility, ignored scientific advice, did not cooperate or communicate effectively, and consequently failed to protect the health and welfare of their citizens.
As a result, many hundreds of thousands of human beings died needlessly”

The clock is reset in January each year. Things have been better, but never worse. It is the closest to Doomsday it has been in the history of the Doomsday Clock.

Doomsday clock
Image: Janet Loehrke, USA TODAY


I think I will take a look again in January 2022. But maybe I will only report back to you if there is some improvement. After all, Paradelle is supposed to be where I escape. But I know that there is no escape from Doomsday.

Cat’s Cradle, Ice Nine and Bokononism

cover of book
Cover of the first edition of the novel in 1963

Cat’s Cradle is a satirical novel by Kurt Vonnegut that I read in my high school years (though not as part of the school curriculum!) and I had the opportunity to teach it to high school students.

It is Vonnegut’s fourth novel and was published in 1963. It is a satire of science, technology, religion, and the nuclear arms race, often through the use of black humor. Not surprisingly for a Vonnegut book, it is funny and it is serious.

The narrator of the novel is an author writing a book about the day of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima entitled The Day the World Ended. He begins the book by stating “Call me Jonah” – alluding to the first line of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (“Call me Ishmael”) and to the Biblical Jonah and the whale. But the writer’s name is actually John. In a way, this narrator and Moby-Dick‘s narrator Ishmael share some traits. They are simultaneously a narrator and a protagonist within their own stories. Though the book is more than 60 years old, no spoilers, but maybe their ultimate fates are also similar.

Researching the book, the narrator travels to Ilium, New York, the hometown of the late Felix Hoenikker. He was a co-creator of the atomic bomb and a Nobel laureate physicist. He becomes involved with the Hoenikker children when he interviews them along with Felix’s coworkers, and acquaintances.

He learns of a substance called ice-nine, created for military use by Hoenikker and now likely shared by his three adult children. Ice-nine is an alternative structure of water that is solid at room temperature. It also acts as a seed crystal and upon contact with any liquid water it causes that liquid water to instantly transform into more ice-nine.

Dropping ice-nine into a pond would freeze the pond and any surrounding wet land. If a human was in the pond, the liquid water in them would also instantly change into ice-nine. It would be a more destructive weapon than any nuclear bomb as it would eventually freeze the entire planet and everything living on it.

“Cradle”, the opening position of Cat’s cradle

The novel’s title comes from a story that Hoenniker’s younger son, a dwarf named Newt, tells the narrator. When asked what Felix was doing when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Japan, Newt says that he was just idly playing the string game “cat’s cradle.” Cat’s cradle is played by two or more people playing cooperatively.  John notes that there is no cat and there is no cradle.

The novel takes the threat of nuclear destruction during the Cold War as one of its main themes. The Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of mutual assured destruction in 1962 and was certainly part of Vonnegut’s motivation. In the move, possessing some Ice Nine becomes it own arms race and a person or small country can have great power by having it.

I taught Vonnegut’s novel along with another nuclear satire, The Mouse That Roared, which was a 1955 satire about an imaginary country in Europe called the Duchy of Grand Fenwick. Grand Fenwick is known for its wine, but a California winery creates a cheap version of it. Economically threatened, Grand Fenwick decides to declare war on the United States. Obviously, if they attack the U.S. with their tiny and ill-equipped (with bows and arrows) army they will be quickly defeated. They invade New York City.

It seems like a stupid plan but what they expect is that after being quickly defeated they can rebuild their economy since the United States always pumps millions or billions of dollars into its vanquished enemies. Think of what the U.S. did for Germany through the Marshall Plan at the end of World War II.

Through a series of accidents and coincidences during the invasion of New York City, the Grand Fenwick army comes into possession of a “quantum bomb” being developed in a secret lab there. The Q-Bomb is a prototype doomsday device created by Dr. Kokintz, a rather absent-minded professor. This bomb has a theoretical explosive potential greater than all the nuclear weapons of the United States and the Soviet Union combined. Though no one knows if it would actually work because, obviously, it can’t be tested. Having the bomb makes Grand Fenwick a major world power overnight.

The book is funny and was made into a comedy film starring Peter Sellers in multiple roles. But the novel is also a commentary on the politics of the time, the nuclear arms race, and the politics of the United States.

Nuclear war doesn’t get the attention today that it had in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s not that the world powers have disarmed or that there is no threat, but somehow it has moved back in world issues.

Vonnegut in 1972

Another big theme in the novel is Vonnegut’s take on religion. He describes a religion secretly practiced by the people of the island nation of San Lorenzo. There are many San Lorenzo places in the world – none of them is Vonnegut’s fictional Caribbean island nation. Officially, San Lorenzo is a Christian nation but it also has its own native religion, Bokononism.

Bokonism is based on enjoying life through believing “foma” which are harmless lies, and by taking encouragement where you can. Bokononism was founded by Boyd Johnson (whose name is pronounced “Bokonon” in San Lorenzan dialect). The religion is outlawed. Bokonon himself conceived this outlawing because he knew that forbidding the religion would only make it spread quicker.

Bokononism secretly is the dominant religion of nearly everyone on the island, including the leaders who outlawed it. Many of its sacred texts, collectively called The Books of Bokonon, are written in the form of calypso songs. Bokononist rituals are often absurd. Their supreme religious act is for two worshippers to rub the bare soles of their feet together. This merging of soles (souls) is meant to inspire spiritual connection.

Here are some Bokononist terms:

karass – A group of people linked in a cosmically significant manner, even when superficial linkages are not evident.

duprass – a karass of only two people, who almost always die within a week of each other. A common example is a loving couple who work together for a great purpose.

granfalloon – a false karass, such as a group of people who imagine they have a connection that does not really exist. An example given is is “Hoosiers” – people from Indiana, who have no true spiritual destiny in common and share little more than a name. Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis, Indiana. If you want to know about a granfalloon, just look inside a balloon, sings the Bokonists.

I like their term sinookas which are the intertwining “tendrils” of peoples’ lives. I believe in that part of their religion.

Maybe you know the string game. Maybe you’ve heard the Harry Chapin song “Cat’s in the Cradle” (in which I see no connection with the novel). The book has more directly influenced others in many creative works. I wrote elsewhere about a band called Ice Nine Kills.

But the allusion to Vonnegut’s Ice Nine that I discovered that was most interesting – and most frightening – is “Ice IX.”

Ice IX is an actual form of solid water that has been created.  I learned that there is also ice II, ice III, and all the way to ice XVIII. The “ordinary” water you freeze for drinks is known as ice Ih. All the forms of water have been created in the laboratory at different temperatures and pressures. And you thought you learned in school that water could be a liquid, solid, or gas and that was all of it.

I hope none of them work like Vonnegut’s imagined weapon and no one ever develops his Ice Nine.

A Lesson Not Learned


One story that is repeated at this time of year is about the Christmas Eve of 1914. In the trenches of World War I, German and British soldiers had been caught up in the spirit of the season and were having “unofficial ceasefires” for a week before Christmas.

That was not something the British High Command wanted. They feared that such social fraternization would result in a “decreased desire to fight.”

The Germans had Christmas trees and lit candles on the Eve. In the “No Man’s Land” between them, the sound of the Germans singing Stille Nacht (“Silent Night”) was in the air. The British joined in with the English version and lit their own candles.

The story goes that when the song ended, a German soldier called out, “Tomorrow is Christmas; if you don’t fight, we won’t” and when morning came there was no gunfire.

The Germans sent over some beer. The British sent plum pudding. Enemies met in no man’s land, exchanging handshakes and small gifts.

Someone kicked out a soccer ball and a pickup game began.

The truce carried through the Eve and Christmas Day.

It’s a nice story for the holiday season and to take you into the new year. It seems like a hopeful tale that opposing sides can work things out amicably.

But it didn’t really have a happy ending.

By 8:30 a.m. on December 26, the fighting started again. The “War to End All Wars” didn’t end wars.

In this week when our President-elect has suggested that when it comes to nuclear weapons “Let it be an arms race,” I think the lesson here is not about the Christmas truce, but about the commanders who resisted a truce and went right back to the war. Lesson learned? Obviously not.