I was reminiscing with my friend last night and she reminded me about what it was like during the time when a nuclear holocaust was a very real possibility. I guess today we worry about mass killings, terrorists, and ISSIS. But back in the early 60s, annihilation of our world as we knew it by the Bomb was the main cause of anxiety. Childhood should be a carefree time of innocence, but as children growing up in those days, the Bomb loomed large in our consciousness. During that time, everywhere you looked in Manhattan, was the ubiquitous bomb/fallout shelter. In Stuyvesant Town, where I grew up, each building was equipped with a carriage room where we kept bicycles, carriages, and things of that sort. However, during the paranoia of the Cold War, our carriage room doubled as the official fallout shelter, complete with the circular, yellow and black symbol promising survival; never mind that the walls were not designed to protect us from a nuclear attack and it was not equipped with any long-term survival gear or food and water. I guess this was the only place in our development that would at least semi-meet the requirement that all buildings have such a “safe place.” As a little girl, I remember being outside in the playground, or on the street, when suddenly the loud blare of air-raid sirens would usher us indoors to whatever building we were near. It became so “normal” for this to happen periodically that it was just an annoyance and nothing to be concerned about. Then an all-clear siren would signal us that we could come out of hiding and resume our activities. In school, we had “bomb drills” where we would huddle under our desks as protection from flying glass—not even thinking that we would all be incinerated. My brother and I played a game of “what would you do if?” We would ask, “What would you do if you found out that the USSR launched missiles and you knew you only had about 5 more minutes before they hit?” I would answer that I would hide in the bedroom closet, knowing full well that it would be over for all of us. These childhood games were born of pure FEAR about the future of our world—something that children should not have to think about. I vividly remember opening the front door to my best friend, Janet, during the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and seeing her worried face reflecting exactly what I felt—namely that we might all be doomed. That feeling of pure helplessness was something I’ll never forget and the fear I felt that day is still palpable for me
The fallout shelters provided people with a false sense of security because in actuality, the city would have been flattened and we’d be liquefied. If anybody were “lucky” enough to survive the initial attack, the radiation would slowly take its toll. But, as humans we wanted to believe we had some measure of control and these shelters met that need.
As the years rolled on and the Cold War lessened, those bomb shelters and signs gradually disappeared giving way to a tenuous sense of security. Unfortunately dangers still exist wherever we go and we cannot escape them. But what made that time period different from the world crises we currently face was that the very existence of the earth and our species was threatened—that life on this planet would cease to exist, and that horrible fate was in the hands of mere mortals.