Mendel Letters 86 — Duck and Cover

July 16, 2022

Dear Mendel,

Don’t know if you remember, but when Warren and I were growing up in the 1950s, you and Mommy had a family nuclear attack plan. Although we were probably about five and seven, Warren and I were ready because in school we were well trained in atomic bomb preparedness with “duck and cover” videos and precautions, hiding under our desks with our head and face shielded by our arms, and shelter drills in the hall away from windows and broken glass. The “duck and cover” video was a 1951 black and white cartoon short prepared by the New York City school system and the Department of Civil Defense featuring Bert the Turtle learning how to protect himself in the event of a nuclear blast.

You and Mommy designated a closet in our first floor apartment where you stored canned foods and juices. If the nuclear alert went off when neither of you were home, Warren and I were supposed to take the boxes of food and drinks and other supplies down to the basement and stack them behind the piles of old newspapers and wait for you there. It was never clear what we would do if other people wanted to shelter in the same place. This was a real dilemma because on television in 1961 there was a program on the Twilight Zone were people debated whether to let neighbors into their fall-out shelter.

Our one big scar was in November 1965 during the East Coast ‘”black out.” When the electricity and phones went out in the late afternoon Warren and I were home babysitting for Gloria’s six-month old daughter. If I remember correctly the NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) early warning system promised a twenty-minute warning if Soviet missiles had crossed the polar region and entered Canadian airspace. I set a wind-up alarm and we waited in the dark until nothing happened.

The bigger problem, which we didn’t understand then, is that a direct hit by large Soviet H-Bomb, usually described as 50-megatons, would probably completely vaporize all of New York City and much of the surrounding area. When I was teaching at a Queens high school in the 1980s, students would ask what we should do in the event of a nuclear attack. I recommended going out on the football field where we would die instantaneously from the blast rather than dying more slowly seriously injured and trapped in the remains of a collapsed building.

I was reminded of all of this because in midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, economic uncertainty, and a very contentious political environment, New York City decided it was the proper time to release a new 90-second public address announcement on preparations for nuclear war. According to the video we are supposed to stay inside, assuming any buildings are still standing, keep away from windows, and head for the basement if possible. If you were outside when the blast hit, you shower immediately, assuming the water is working, and change clothes. Viewers are instructed to follow news updates, if broadcasts continue. This new nuclear war announcement makes as much sense as “duck and cover” drills did when we were in elementary school in the 1950s.

Your son

Hard copies of these typed letters were discovered in an old camp trunk in the basement storage facility of one of the few buildings that remain standing in this Brooklyn neighborhood. The building is quite decrepit and is scheduled for demolition. The letters were found in November 2048 by a teenager who believes they were written by his great-grandfather. The letters are addressed to Mendel, the letter writer’s father, who appears to have been dead for at least six years when his son, whose name we are unsure of, started to write him. The son appears very agitated in some of the letters. With permission from the family, we are publishing them on the date they were written, only 28 years later.

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