Wayne, Pa., with its 5000 population, was fourteen miles west of Philadelphia, just far enough from the epicenter of an atomic blast in center city for people and buildings to survive, though radiation would be a problem. St. Davids, on the other hand, at twelve or thirteen miles from epicenter still would be in the kill zone. Having watched civil defense films, I planned and practiced how I would react in my room at home. At first blinding flash of light, I would have three seconds to dive for the floor between my bed and the wall, since my bed was too low for me to get under. And to cover my head with my hands. I worried, however, about my metal Venetian blinds, which would, with shattering glass, be blown into my room and slice like knives, and the way my room was, even between bed and wall, I was exposed to one of the northern windows. Anyhow, I was supposed to lie like that, through everything, until I heard the all‑clear.
We might, of course, as in community‑wide drills, have a warning siren first, which would be different from the steady wail of our ordinary noon‑time siren, which was different itself from the klaxon blasts of the fire siren; air‑raid would be a three‑minute up and down, warbling signal. In this case, the safest place in our house was the basement, though as a family we never took civil defense seriously enough to stockpile canned food and water, or other emergency supplies.
At school, the basement, where the lunchroom was, was designated a civil defense shelter for everyone, not only for the kids, as were the basement of some churches and other public buildings. There were the yellow and black signs outside and leading down the stairs to signify this. Also the basement hallways were stacked for much of their length with metal drums, silver cans, and five‑gallon tins of provisions, all marked with the c.d. seal. During drills, which I mainly recall from Mr. Shock's class, circa 1953‑54, we would quietly file two and two out of the classroom, down the stairs, and huddle under the long lunch tables, with their swing out stools, or along one of the cool brick walls.
For a newsreel clip about civil defense drills in the 1950s see:
All this civilized rehearsal of terror, however we absorbed it, seems tame now compared to the threats and precautions my grandchildren take for granted and absorb. Not air-raid drills, not cold war newsreels of mushroom clouds, implosions, searing heat waves or atomic shadows in the pavement, but “homeland security,” 9/11, suicide bombers, and airport searches.