Full Circle: Duck and Cover
We used to hide under our desks to protect us from war
By Maury Z. Levy

When the Russians were coming, and in the 1950s the Russians were always coming, we used to cover our heads and sit under our desks, waiting for the atomic bomb to hit our school.

It was an almost-weekly drill. Bells would blare, and we’d be carefully instructed to get on the floor, our worn wooden desktops being our only measure of protection.

“Why would they bomb Philadelphia?” I asked Mrs. Smeader. “We’re not the biggest city.”

“Because we expect them to bomb New York or Los Angeles. We have troops guarding those cities,” Mrs. Smeader said. “But nobody’s guarding Philadelphia.”

Nobody’s guarding Philadelphia? Really? I thought she was making that up. We’ll, I hoped she was making that up.

“My dad was in the Army,” said Carmen Cappalini. “He said they’re definitely not going to bomb Philly. What’s to bomb here?”

What’s to bomb here? Um, the Liberty Bell. Independence Hall. This is where it all started. Remember Franklin and Hancock and Hamilton?

“Well,” said Danny Duffy, “the Liberty Bell isn’t going to hurt anyone. It’s a bell.”

“But it’s an important symbol of our freedom. There’s no freedom in Russia.” “But we must be 15 miles away from the Liberty Bell,” Danny said. “Why are we hiding under our desks?”

He had a point there. Did anybody really think that these desks were going to save us from an atomic bomb?

Two rows over, Mary Pat O’Hurley was crying.

“What’s wrong, Mary Pat?” Mrs. Smeader said.

“I don’t want to die,” she said. “My father already died.”

Mary Pat’s father served in Korea. He went there right out of high school at Father Judge.

We were children of the war. Our fathers, our uncles, our neighbors had served in WWII or Korea. Many of them came home injured. A neighbor, 3 doors down, had half of his face badly burned. My brother-in-law almost lost a leg. They were the lucky ones. Many never came home at all.

Very few of those who survived ever talked about it with their kids. We just knew it was a horrible thing. The Cold War between the U.S. and Russia was something that scared the hell out of us. Russia always claimed to have bigger weapons than we did. Bigger carriers. Bigger airplanes. Bigger bombs.

So we sat on the floor, with our hands on our heads and our hearts in our throats, hoping and praying this was only a drill.

The school drills were part of President Harry Truman’s civil defense programs, aimed to educate the public about what ordinary people could do to protect themselves. But was ducking and covering really going to protect you from a bomb? Maybe.

Not if a bomb went off right overhead. But it was going to protect you from an atomic bomb that went off a little in the distance. Or so they thought. But how were they going to sell that to kids?

Well, in 1951, the government hired a New York ad agency to create a film that could be shown in schools to teach children to protect themselves in the case of atomic attack. The film, “Duck and Cover,” was shot at a school in Queens, and alternated animation with images of students and adults practicing the recommended safety techniques.

As upbeat music played, the film’s animated hero, Bert the Turtle, was shown dropping to the ground (“DUCK!”) and retreating into his shell (“COVER!”) after an explosion. An atomic attack, in the film, is presented as one more danger children could learn to protect themselves against. Similar, they said, to fire, auto accidents and even a bad sunburn.

In the case of an attack, the film told students to act like Bert: duck under tables or desks, or next to walls, and tightly cover their heads. And so, thanks to Bert the Turtle, we all lived happily ever after. Or so we thought.

June 2022
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