By Ernie Williamson
Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and his nuclear weapons threats remind of a time I thought had passed.
The Russian president’s chilling words bring back memories of the Cold War with its bomb shelters, duck-and-cover drills and survival crackers.
I am sure many of you children of the Cold War have memories of the ‘50s and ‘60s. I have mine.
I remember worrying that the Soviets had a technological edge after they launched Sputnik to take the lead in the Space Race.
I remember listening to the radio in gym class during the Cuban missile crisis to find out if nuclear bombs were falling.
I remember going off to Vietnam, where I was awarded a Bronze Star for sitting behind a Remington typewriter.
It was an era of “medal inflation”, when awards were being handed out to keep the war popular at home. The citation ridiculously said I had helped contain “communist aggression.”
My earliest memory of the Cold War, however, took place in elementary school.
After the Soviets tested an atomic bomb in 1949, schools across the country trained students to dive under their desks and cover their heads.
The now-famous duck-and-cover drills simulated what should be done in case of an atomic attack.
I had one elementary school teacher who threw wads of paper out over the classroom. If you were hit, you weren’t doing the duck-and-cover properly.
The drills were part of President Harry S. Truman’s Federal Civil Defense Administration program. The government even funded a movie with an animated hero, Bert the Turtle, showing him dropping to the ground (Duck) and retreating into his shell (Cover).
The duck-and-cover campaign was often mocked. Even in elementary school, I wondered how ducking and covering was going to protect me from an atomic bomb.
The first hydrogen bomb test, after all, had created a 25-square -mile fireball, vaporized an island, blew a hole in the ocean floor and had enough power to destroy half of Manhattan
During the height of the Cold War, the nuclear threat was a constant presence in our lives.
There was an avalanche of popular films that horrified moviegoers with depictions of nuclear devastation.
Who could forget Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden and Slim Pickens in “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb?”
The dark comedy was among the first 25 films selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.
According to the History Channel website, the fear of nuclear war was so great during the Cold War that President John F. Kennedy expanded the nation’s civil defense programs, calling for more than $200 million in appropriations for the construction of public fallout shelters.
Kennedy also encouraged Americans to build private shelters.
I never knew anybody who had their own shelter, but by 1965 it was estimated 200,000 Americans had built one.
The policies in those days were based on the flawed notion that most of the nation’s population would survive a nuclear attack.
But if you did survive, you would need something to eat.
To encourage people to build a seven-day supply of food and water, the government launched an initiative called “Grandma’s Pantry,” based on slogans such as “Grandma was always ready for an emergency.”
According to a story in Eater in 2017, stores like Sears, Roebuck and Co. displayed Grandma’s Pantry exhibits and put them next to shelves lined with fallout items such as Hawaiian Punch, Campbell’s Soup, Tang drink mix, candy bars and Kellogg’s Corn Flakes.
The Department of Agriculture developed what it considered the ultimate “Doomsday Food.”
The bulgar wheat biscuit was dubbed the “All-Purpose Survival Cracker.” And the government argued before Congress that bulgar’s shelf life had been established by being edible after 3,000 years in an Egyptian pyramid.
I have no idea how long the current Cold War will last, and I don’t know whether the country will react the same way it did 70 years ago.
My emotions, however, feel eerily familiar.
On the one hand, I believe someone would have to be crazy to start a nuclear war. On the other, I realize there are a lot of crazy people out there.
(Please contact Ernie at email@example.com. Or, send letters in care of The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516)