Updated: Mar 21, 2022
Nuclear nightmares were a real thing for me from a tender age.
Something had reached deep inside and woke me up. I kicked off the blankets and lay uncovered, in my tiny bed, hoping to dispel the fear.
That sound had returned, that mournful wail that rose up and pierced the chill night air. I could feel the gooseflesh on my arm, crawling under my sleeves. It was 10pm, hours past my bedtime, but that awful, lingering tone continued to ring in my ears.
No use running to Mom and Dad’s room. The first time this happened, I jumped into their bed. They laughed nervously when I tried to explain. “Nothing to worry about,” they said. “Go back to sleep.” Mom walked me back to my room and turned out the light. The sound was gone, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
If it was nothing to worry about, why did Dad hang that poster in the kitchen? That big blue sign, with the red horns labeled WARNING SIGNALS in three inch block letters. With the triangular logo for Civil Defense in the corner. Signed by the governor, to show how important it was. It was OFFICIAL.
It said, if we heard the siren, we had to KEEP ALERT or TAKE COVER. If it was nothing to worry about, why was it hanging there? Why did Dad teach me to read in kindergarten if he doesn’t want me to know?
The sign read “for Natural Disasters, Enemy Attacks, and Any Other Vital Emergencies.” I don’t know what a natural disaster is, or what makes an emergency vital. But I remember how scared everyone was of ENEMY ATTACKS. I remember everyone watching President Kennedy on TV last year. It almost spoiled Halloween. Mom didn’t want to take us trick or treating.
This year, when I started first grade, we had our first air raid drill. Sister Mary Julia took us downstairs in the new church, and we practiced walking quickly and carefully to the FALLOUT SHELTER. The shiny yellow sign had the same big block letters. We had to keep quiet until all of the kids were downstairs. Father Joseph looked at his watch and told us we did a good job. He told us how important it was. How there would be a phone call from Washington D.C. to tell us when to TAKE COVER.
We would know because of the siren.
I learned to listen for that siren, and I learned how it was different from all the other sounds. A fire truck or ambulance wasn’t the same, because of the rising and falling doppler effect as they traveled across town. (I read about that in Popular Science magazine!) Sometimes, I was scared by the klaxon horn, at the asbestos factory. It sounded different, almost like barking. But then I decided it sounded like a Tom and Jerry cartoon, when the mouse hits the cat on his toes. Those are good ones.
But for some reason, the mayor or somebody decided that the air raid siren on the police station would go off once every night at 10pm. One blast, 15 seconds, to let everyone in Manville, New Jersey know that it was ALL CLEAR. And that children under 16 years of age should be at home in their bed. It was called “curfew” for minors.
Well, I was in bed, and I was trying to sleep. But now, I would have to lay awake, trembling, wondering when (not if) there would be a real WARNING SIGNAL. How long would I have to wait until “DANGER POSSIBLE” would become “DANGER CERTAIN?” How long would it take to get to the church basement? Would there be room for Mom and Dad and my little brother?
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I waited for that siren for decades, through the bluster of the cold war and the threat of nuclear winter. I watched as public anxiety ebbed and faded and eventually moved on to other concerns, other threats. I’ve processed this anxiety through countless dreams and sleepless moments.
It reminds me of all the other fears, real or manufactured, that younger generations face today. Isn’t there more that we can do to protect them from this kind of private terror? Isn’t there more that we should do?
I don’t want to take cover any longer.
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