Blast From The Past?
First appeared a nostalgic article in the January 19, 2006 edition of the Washington Post. To be honest, I didn’t pay much attention at the time.
The emphasis of that piece was Washingtonians’ twentieth century naiveté about surviving a nuclear strike and included information from the Civil Defense System. Typical of articles about the Cold War Era, the article showed a picture of students taking cover under their schoolroom desks during air raid drills. I don’t recall huddling under my desk, but my husband tells me that students, bemused, did so in California.
Today we chuckle over the foolishness of those drills. But I remember how things were. The sirens would sound, and under their desks these students would dive—as if such a move could possibly save them from nuclear fallout. With some frequency, we saw television news reports depicting diving students. And sometimes at the movies, just before the feature film was shown, we watched public-service announcements. In addition, the radio and television broadcast systems were regularly tested with that grating tone, followed by "This has been a test of the emergency broadcast system. In the event of a real emergency..."
My clearest recollection of those Cold War drills here in the D.C. area was the building of fallout shelters. Everybody I knew had "a bomb shelter," provided their house had a basement or a closet with no walls bordering the outside. The largest suburban shopping mall at the time, Seven Corners Center, had the Civil Defense logo on clear display and gave directions as to how to access the shelter.
Around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a whole industry grew up around instructions as to “how to create a safe place for your family.” We dutifully stocked these shelters with nonperishables, a bottled-water supply to last for a minimum of two weeks, flashlights and batteries, blankets, reading materials, and firearms. By our bedsides, we kept go-bags, "emergency kits," in case the sirens sounded in the middle of the night.
We built our family's shelter in what used to be the coal bin for our furnace. Our shelter had one small outside window, easily defensible were an intruder attempt to slip in from the outside. All of us—my parents, my cousins, my aunts, my grandmother, and I—practiced our marksmanship in the fields on the north side of the property where we lived. In fact, my father, never the alarmist but ever cautious, bought me my own firearm during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Funny thing, though—nobody seemed to worry about the air supply or about nuclear winter. We had no real understanding of the effects of a nuclear blast.
The sirens sounded, and we practiced our routine, whether at home, at school, or out shopping. Those sirens, mounted on telephone poles, buildings, and special towers, emitted a Middle-C tone and were audible for about two miles. If the sirens sounded when I was at home, I was more concerned about finding my cat—a barn cat, really— and taking him to the safety of the shelter than about taking shelter. I vaguely remember arguing with my mother about how I planned to leave the shelter to fetch my cat. And for a few years after the sirens quit their wailing, we children would mistake regular sirens for air-raid sirens and dash for the shelters.
Now we laugh about those ineffective measures of the 1950s and 1960s. But in the D.C. area, the threat of a nuclear attack was taken quite seriously, at least to the best of my recollection. Probably because we lived on a farmette within seventeen miles of the capital (or perhaps because my mother was a federal employee), we received Civil Defense flyers and other materials, including a questionnaire which asked, “How many additional people can you take into your shelter, in the event that Washington is evacuated?” Responding to the questionnaire was voluntary, and my parents tossed the paper into the trash.
Whether or not the threat of nuclear attack was real or even survivable, some of my early memories are of that uncertain period, the Cold War Era.
Now comes this January 25, 2006 article from the Washington Post. Excerpt:
“The Washington region's emergency managers have concluded that the high-tech devices put in place since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks are not enough to warn masses of people. So they are looking at the system that alerted the World War II and Cold War generations: the piercing wail of a siren.The air cover here over the D.C. area has been very busy the last several days. This new air activity began right after Chirac made his recent saber-rattling statement, which ties in timewise with the January 19, 2006 UPI article about Iran's wanting to test a nuke:
"Arlington County and neighboring Alexandria will become the first communities in the country to experiment with sirens as alerts to terrorist attacks. They are preparing to buy as many as 15 modern sirens to mount on telephone poles, buildings and even traffic lights in a few neighborhoods in a federally funded pilot program that is being closely watched by other area governments.
"With their mix of urban canyons, suburban subdivisions, tourists, malls and parks -- and dense populations of daytime workers that make them vulnerable to attack -- Arlington and Alexandria stand out as ideal locations to see whether sirens can reach people that BlackBerrys, cell phones and radio stations cannot.
"'People outdoors are most at risk in an attack because they are least able to find out what is going on quickly,' said John Fuoto, an engineer and siren expert for the Department of Homeland Security and a consultant to Arlington, which is overseeing the pilot project.
"Fuoto said sirens could also be ideal warning systems on the Mall, in downtown Silver Spring and at Tysons Corner -- any place people congregate outside the reach of mass broadcasts over television, radio, telephone or pager….
"'Everyone's looking at this to see if it will really reach significant numbers of people who are otherwise not reachable,' said David Snyder of Falls Church, a member of the Washington region's emergency preparedness council….
"Most local governments dismantled their civil defense sirens in the 1990s after the federal government withdrew funding for them when the Cold War ended. They had alerted the public to emergencies for a century, starting with fire alarms. After World War II, they were named civil defense sirens throughout the United States after Joseph Stalin tested the Soviet Union's first atomic bomb in 1949.
"With the threat of nuclear war over, some of the yellow, electrically powered mechanical devices stayed as warning systems in some parts of the country for tornados and other natural disasters. Around Washington today, they are used near the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant to warn of any accidents and by eight tiny firehouses in western Loudoun County to summon volunteers to duty.
"The new generation of sirens, according to a study conducted by George Washington University for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, can be used to send live or recorded messages in multiple languages. They're more reliable than the older generation, and they can operate on batteries. They can be tested silently. And they can be activated individually -- after a chemical spill in one neighborhood, for example -- or as a group….”
"WASHINGTON, Jan. 19 (UPI) -- Tehran is planning a nuclear weapons test before the Iranian New Year on March 20, 2006 says a group opposed to the regime in Tehran.The above UPI article in no way implies that Iran has the missile capability to reach the United States. Even I am not paranoid enough to think that Iran is about to launch a direct strike against Washington, D.C.! Launching a strike against Israel--especially with Hamas's political victory this week or detonating a dirty bomb within our nation's borders--those are entirely different matters.
"The Foundation for Democracy citing sources in the U.S and Iran offered no further information.
"The FDI quotes sources in Iran that the high command of the Revolutionary Guards Air Force have issued new orders to Shahab-3 missile units, ordering them to move mobile missile launchers every 24 hours in view of a potential pre-emptive strike by the U.S. or Israel....
"Advance Shahab-3 units have been positioned in Kermanshah and Hamadan province, within striking distance of Israel. Reserve mobile launchers have been moved to Esfahan and Fars province."
Recently I read that, over the years and dating back to the Ayatollah Khomeini (if memory serves correctly), Castro has paid a few visits to Tehran. Because of my past experiences with Cold War measures taken here in the D.C. area, I naturally associate Castro’s name with a childhood interrupted. Of course, threats other than nuclear missiles exist, and the Washington Post article makes that point.
Also, I just read this January 27, 2006 news item:
"BOGOTA, Colombia - Colombian has dismantled a false passport ring with links to al-Qaida and Hamas militants, the acting attorney general said Thursday after authorities led dozens of simultaneous raids across five cities in collaboration with U.S. officials....Is this latest pilot program of siren alerts the result of some kind of intelligence?
"An undisclosed number of those arrested are wanted for working with the al-Qaida terror network and the militant Palestinian group Hamas, said acting Attorney General Jorge Armando Otalora...."
Whatever the case, the atmosphere here is unsettling, especially if one considers world events.
[Hat tip to both Cuanas and Gindy, where I found some of the links used in this article]