Some of us remember those duck-and-cover drills in school: In anticipation of a nuclear bomb drop, kids in bygone days practiced diving underneath our desktops and covering our heads with our arms. We’d hide there (“No talking under there!”) and wait for the “all clear” over the intercom.
I remember my overly large friend Hershey having a hard time with the duck-and-cover. He fretted over not having room enough to fit all of himself under his desk. Once, he was so afraid of exposing parts of his body, he burst into tears and cried, “Mrs. Feldman, I don’t want to die.”
Mrs. Feldman told him to hide the best he could. She and God would take care of him. I’m sure she was serious.
We were assured by a lot of grown-ups that the duck-and-cover would protect us from a nuclear bomb they seemed sure would come.
Most of us kids took this weekly rehearsal seriously. We’d been shown enough films and filmstrips of an exploding nuclear bomb and what it would do to us.
Even so, I remember how a few kids joked that a nuclear bomb explosion would make “monkey meat” out of us (whatever that meant). Thinking back, that was probably a façade for fears. And maybe not a bad way to cope.
Of course, the bombs didn’t fall, and as time passed, we (mostly) came to believe the duck-and-cover had bordered on silliness. Some of us even offered “monkey meat” jokes of our own and enjoyed making “ka-boom” sounds with our inflated cheeks — out of teacher’s earshot, of course.
Until that massive bullet that we dodged in 1962 when the very scary Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev blinked first, dismantled his nuclear missile installations in Cuba, and our hero JFK sent him packing back to Russia. After that near-miss, even us kids understood how close we had come to disintegration. We knew then things would never be the same.
But life went on. Our parents seemed to know, to quote George Harrison, how to “cope with this heavy load,” despite their apprehensions, as if they’d been there before. And they had: when a world war had deranged their daily lives and loved ones were lost.
In the same way, we’ve tried to teach our own kids since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
And now, here we are again.
We have a pretty good idea how to get through this pandemic. That we’ll probably be living with it for a long time is sinking in. But if we play our cards right by thinking and behaving smartly, the time will come when we’re up and running again — but not like before. Hopefully, when it’s over we’ll reflect on our rational behavior (e.g., how we watched over our elderly neighbors and helped the helpless) and irrational behavior (e.g., how some hoarded toilet paper and bottled water as we allowed the collegians to spring-break on Florida beaches). And we’ll prepare better for the next time.
Until then, I’m thinking longer and harder (for which I suddenly have plenty of time) about how every day for four years — every single day — my parents lived and breathed the fear of what might happen to them brought on by a world war.
I’m thinking about those weekly duck-and-cover drills and scared kids like my friend Hershey.
And I’ll think more about our collective horrific witnessing of, and then courageous recovery from, 9/11 — and how after each crisis life went on but was never the same.
Dick Schwartz lives in Minneapolis.