C111 A bomb drills in NY-2
Bomb Drill in NY elementary school

I lived this. Many readers will not have. The instruction was ridiculous, designed to lull children into thinking they would be protected if they followed a simple instruction: Duck and Cover.

Our teachers knew better, and among themselves edited the directive to reflect the truth, but tried not to say it in front of us. Later, of course, we all recalled hearing it, and laughed. What else could we do?

I was in high school during the Vietnam War protests, as well the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. A nuclear holocaust felt unlikely, but the sight of so many young men sacrificing their lives, coming home maimed or in body bags triggered a new slogan, this time to the President: “Hey, hey, L.B.J, how many kids did you kill today?”  It seemed no matter which side you were on, you were pained. Most of us knew someone who had been impacted by the conflict. Those of us who supported the protests felt each loss as surely as those who didn’t. It could have been our brother, or cousin, or classmate, or neighbor. Someone we loved. The fear was always present.

As seniors approaching graduation, there was talk of a prom. Theme? Date? Really? The student council put a vote to the graduating class, a necessary move since there were roughly 1,300 of us.  It was supposed to be our big party. But no one was in the mood to celebrate. We voted against it.

There was nothing special or noble about our decision. Far from it. Rather, it was made because we were gripped by a powerful and invasive malaise, a thickening of the atmosphere. Most of us wanted to preserve the energies we had for studying, taking our exams, and preparing ourselves for the next steps in our lives.

I think, if I’d been old enough to understand the depth of the threat, beyond its initial destruction, during those early air raid drills, I would have succumbed to a similar malaise, felt the air growing dense. But I knew nothing about cold war, missiles, or men with colossal egos and a desire to dominate. I trusted that sanity would prevail.

And thankfully, it did.

But now I hear the alarm rising through the school again, the echoes of my teachers, long gone, telling us to file into the hall and crouch near each other, bury our faces in our knees….

And I remember their forced, bitter smiles.

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