The Cold War. What can you say about it? To quote Charles Dickens, "It was the best of times. It was the worst of times." So many fond memories of childhood fantasies and so many nights of sheer terror. One believed soldiering was an honorable (and fun!) profession during the day and then at night wondered if there would still be a world when the sun rose the next morning.
I was born in Washington, DC in 1966 and grew up in Temple Hills, MD. The year of my birth makes me a "Tweener" (i.e. after the Baby Boom but before Generation X). As such, my life, the culture I grew up in and my earliest memories are all Cold War related.
The earliest morning news show I remember was NBC's Today Show back in the late 60's/early 70's. I specifically remember the coverage of the later stages of the Vietnam War. Some of the images that were imprinted on my four-year-old mind were of a U.S. Soldier throwing a grenade at the NVA and of children close to my age lying on a sidewalk, hurt and bleeding after a Viet Cong bomb went off in their school. Well, these news stories set the stage for what I would see and experience over the next fourteen years, until I myself enlisted in the U.S. Marines.
Looking back now, I can see how the Cold War affected my life and imagination even though I didn't know it at the time. I used to play in the woods and wonder why someone would build a cinderblock shed out in the middle of nowhere. I used to wonder why someone would build only ten feet of a wooden fence that enclosed nothing. I used to look at towers with these big horn-like dishes on top and think how evil they looked. (Little did I know what type of evil they represented!) I used to see these signs everywhere that said "Fallout Shelter" and wondered what "Fallout" was and why we needed shelters from it. I heard these loud sirens that sounded like Air Raid sirens from old war movies and wondered why they were wailing when we weren't at war. Over the years, I found the answers to these questions, one by one.
Two things come foremost to my mind when someone mentions the Cold War. The Emergency Broadcast System and Air Raid Sirens. From the TV or radio, you'd hear an announcer speak the words, "This is a test. This station is conducting a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. This is only a test." Then you'd hear this high-pitched dissonant tone for sixty seconds followed by the announcer continuing: "This is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. The broadcasters of your area in voluntary cooperation with the Federal, State and Local authorities have developed this system to keep you informed in the event of an emergency. If this had been an actual emergency the Attention Signal you just heard would have been followed by official information, news or instructions. This concludes this test of the Emergency Broadcast System." If you were watching TV during this test, all you saw on the screen were the letters "EBS" against a red background. It all looked creepy. Well, I was no different from anyone else. I too developed the Pavlovian response of simply switching channels or radio stations until the test was over. Of course, when watching TV, this meant you actually had to get up and walk to the set to turn the knob.
(Note: I had never heard the EBS go off for real until 1985 when I was in the Marines and stationed at Camp Lejeune in rural North Carolina. It was a Saturday and I was sitting in my BEQ room reading and listening to the radio. I heard the high-pitched dissonant tone and reached over to change the station when it hit me that nobody said "This is a test." I froze until the tone ended and an announcement came on about a Tornado Warning in Onslow County. Up to that point, I had a vision of Nuclear Bombs going off within the next hour and a half. Kind of ironic when you are relieved that the emergency was "only a tornado." Don't cha' think?)
Air Raid sirens also make up a significant part of my childhood memories. Temple Hills is a suburb of Washington, DC and right next to Andrews AFB. Those of us who lived there knew that we were targeted. There was never any doubt about that. Well, our house was positioned inside of a triangle defined by Camp Springs Elementary School, Roger B. Taney (now Thurgood Marshall) Middle School, and Crossland Senior High School. All three of these schools were designated as Public Fallout Shelters and all of them had Air Raid sirens. They were mostly tested on the weekends. I remember waking up on Saturday mornings to the sound of one or two of these things going off. Also in close proximity to our house was Allenwood Elementary and Middleton Valley Elementary. You could periodically hear those sirens go off too. Strange thing was that the more distant the siren was, the more ominous it sounded.
As far as fallout shelters went, I remember seeing those distinctive signs everywhere. Churches, the aforementioned schools and other public buildings. But, it wasn't until I was about ten or eleven years old when it was finally explained to me. "Fallout" was radioactive material that fell from the sky after a nuclear strike and there were special areas inside these buildings where you could hide and be safe. (Well, they thought so anyway.) At that point, I learned to be afraid of the sirens and every time they went off, I prayed that it wasn't the real thing.
(Frame from an Axa comic book. Image from Professor Paul Brians' Nuke Pop Webpage.)
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