I’m a woman over 40—a baby boomer and a college history professor teaching courses on postwar America.  Year after year, my students express amazement over the “duck and cover” drills we did in school, back in my day.  (Mine took place on the last Friday of every month at 10 a.m.) The questions always boil down to this: Were we really stupid enough to believe we’d survive?  I try to offer them an explanation for our anxiety—the use of new and fearsome atomic weaponry in World War II; our postwar faith in the American government; the ongoing Cold War, with its arms race, nuclear testing, Sputnik; and the space race, as well as our political standoffs overseas and the missile crisis in Cuba. (In my day, references to Cuba always had the tagline “just 90 miles off our shore”—a reminder of the physical proximity of our Communist enemies.)

Here is what I don’t say.  I remember those drills very well.  I remember both my skepticism (how would my parents come to school and find me and my brother if the bomb were dropped?) and my faith (if we are having drills, then we’ll know what to do and we’ll be fine). I didn’t understand nuclear war or know much about World War II or the Korean War. My father graduated from high school and was soon overseas in World War II, serving as a naval medical corpsman in the Third Marine Division in the Pacific. What he experienced in wartime was not something he shared with us, and if war movies came on television, he quickly turned them off.  Today there is a diagnostic term for this reaction, but my brother and I just experienced the censorship of war films as one of Dad’s rules.

Looking back, I suspect my parents saw the duck-and-cover drills as being of dubious value, but they never said as much. As we grew older, my friends and I evinced increasing bravado and cynicism during those monthly drills, muttering “Put your head between your knees and kiss your ass goodbye” as we headed into the hallway to sit on the floor and await the all-clear signal.  Even as I began to understand the exercise as ludicrous, a part of me still wondered if we could survive the bomb, and I wondered why my family didn’t build a backyard fallout shelter like the families we saw on the television.

Not all of my classroom discussions result in such melancholy reflections.  Often, the responses of these 19- to 21-year-olds are downright funny. I’ve assigned oral history interviews as part of research assignments. On several occasions this has led to the startling (to my students) discovery that people had sex in the 1950s and 1960s.  One young man told me that for his research on drive-in movies he began interviewing his grandmother, but had to stop because “She started discussing what went on in the back seat and I had to tell her, ‘Grandma, I don’t want to hear it.’”  Another student asked me just after class: “Professor, did you know they had sex in the 1950s?”  I think she was referring to sex outside of marriage, but I didn’t inquire; I just answered that I did in fact know that.

Viewing my generation through the eyes of my students has led me to no profound conclusions about the past and no deep insights into my own life.  Mostly it has amused and educated me. I suspect that many students know relatively little about postwar America because by the time their high school history classes got to the Cold War era, they were galloping through the material in order to leave time to prepare for standardized tests.  That was something, thankfully, we didn’t have to endure too much of in my day.  We didn’t prepare to fill in bubbles on worksheets; we prepared for a nuclear holocaust.

Bert the Turtle, a model of prudence, is the hero in “Duck and Cover,” a 1951 civil defense film shown in schools.

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  • Robert Wood November 8, 2012 at 7:57 pm

    This piece brings back many memories of those days, most notably a discussion of the ethics of bomb shelters in a Presbyterian youth group along the Main Line west of Philadelphia. It was the time of the bomb shelter mania, and the question came up of whether one had the right to shoot one’s neighbor if he tried to get into your bomb shelter. The Assistant Minister who was leading the discussion said: yes, you had the right do that, to protect the provisions for your family. I walked out and permanently left the church of my family.

  • Roz Warren November 8, 2012 at 3:07 pm

    At my school, we got to file down the stairs and into the basement for both air raid drills and tornado drills. I’m not sure how much I thought about whether the drills were futile. They were so much fun! You got to leave class and hang out in the basement, which you never got to see otherwise.

  • Wendl Kornfeld November 8, 2012 at 7:22 am

    Incredible to see Bert again after so many years. And I still have the dog tag NYC school kids had to wear during those days. My mother explained to me at the time it was in case I ever got lost, I would be returned home safely. I never thought about it again until comedian Robert Klein’s comedy album came out decades later and he reveals what those dog tags REALLY meant–“to identify you should you become burned beyond recognition in a nuclear holocaust.” Good grief, I’m glad Mom fibbed.