ight times in the winter of 1964 my elementary school class carried out civil defense drills, trudging downstairs to basement fall out shelters. Each time a boy named Blaise de Montgrel (known as “The Mongrel”) tugged on my belt hoping to make my already droopy pants slip further and embarrass me in front of the girls. None of us had reached puberty and clanging bells seemed unlikely to hasten the process, but the undeterred Blaise tugged each time, which is how I counted the drills.
We went to school in an affluent neighborhood of Northwest Washington, D.C. when the cold war was at its peak. Lyndon Johnson had just defeated Arizona Republican Barry Goldwater in a presidential election focused on which of the two was man enough to launch a pre-emptive missile strike against the Soviet Union. The Johnson campaign had portrayed the congenial Goldwater as an agent of the apocalypse. Mushroom clouds were common in Democratic attack ads.
Every school had small placards showing the location of the fallout shelter, our hideout in the event of a Russian missile attack. Most of us knew an H-Bomb would probably have its way with a school basement, but we consoled ourselves with the knowledge that a nuclear attack would cancel school.
Popular culture, including movies such as “Dr. Strangelove,” a wild satire, and “Fail Safe,” anything but, made nuclear holocaust seem inevitable. Most third graders were shielded from such provocations, but my father insisted otherwise, hoping perhaps to ensure I maintained my all-important cocktail party skills.
The drills came in three stages. First came the bells and the malignant quivering of their little hammers. They sounded like saucers being smashed. Some cried while the more practiced looked annoyed or bored (risk-takers put their fingers in their ears, which was forbidden).
Our teacher Mrs. Jackson, an alien with long and spindly fingers, silently levitated her upturned palms and rotated them Geisha-like toward the door, which was our signal to rise. Girls first, the class began filing down the three flights to the basement.
If anyone spoke, she snapped, “No talking,” as if by talking we might not hear the nuclear blast. By the first flight down The Mongrel already looped his fingers into my belt. When he did I stuck a finger in his ear. He yelped. “No talking,” said Mrs. Jackson. “But I wasn’t,” yowled Blaise, which technically speaking was true.
The school’s basement was composed of a boiler rooms and janitorial changing areas that smelled of chlorine detergent and steam. The girls took turns saying “Ew” or “Icky.” “No talking,” said Mrs. Jackson.
Once, a local member of the National Guard came to lecture us on the importance of civil defense. He wore a natty uniform, spoke with a slight stammer and showed a short documentary film called, “The Menace,” with images of Soviet parades and worried faces. It concluded with images of the American flag seen from various angles. He then talked to us about what I understood as the “whistle gap.” Many snickered. “No talking,” said Mrs. Jackson.
The missile gap was a mainstream topic 1964 and in broad terms promoted the idea that the Soviet Union had enough long-range missiles to exterminate every American man, woman, child and pet. While the Soviets could do this 1,000 times over, we could only do so 82 times (which meant some Soviet cats would likely survive).
The gap became hot property under Dwight Eisenhower, who was astute enough to warn against a military industrial complex arising as a result. But John F. Kennedy and Johnson, both supported by profoundly conservative southern Democrats, ignored Ike’s admonition.
My own perspective was simpler: the Soviets had concocted their threat to their chief operative, Blaise de Montgrel, something to do.
My father was no help in the matter. The end of the world enthralled him. His cataclysm speech made adults wept.
That I didn’t have starring role in the speech made me more difficult to persuade. I also had other, more pressing concerns, including how to make pants fit better.
As I waited patiently for the world to end, it continued not to. Now I know why.
There was no missile gap.
The endless silos of ICBMs did not exist, which Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson all knew. Both sides had tailored phallic myths to make real their ideological divide. By the time common sense should have dictated common sense (this happens rarely), the music of alarm bells had become too familiar to change.
By the time the Soviet Union fell apart 20 years ago, “The Mongrel” was out of my life and my pants fit somewhat better. A few years after that, the CIA’s Kennedy-era assessment that the Russians possessed between 90-to-140 Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles was quietly revised to… three. Three missiles.
I never liked the drills. I did however grow to like the black janitor, Mr. Harry, who always welcomed us into his realm as if we provided some solace in his otherwise weary day. Over time, the drills further taught me that girls were only mildly interested in the silly antics of boys — at any age.
I also discovered, this to my chagrin, that Mrs. Jackson’s earlobes released tiny beads of sweat. This to me confirmed what the National Guard man, various presidents and my father should have known from the start, investing not in intelligence but in the vain acreage of my imagination: That the real threat to global extinction didn’t come from the Soviets but from skilled aliens posing as teachers, which may account for why the best ones are gradually vanishing, no doubt returning to a homeland less resistant to growing up.