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Telling History: Duck and Cover

Library of Congress

“Remember what to do friends, now tell me right out loud, what are you supposed to do when you see the flash? Duck and Cover.” For Cold War youth, these sobering instructions from a cautious cartoon turtle named Bert were the cornerstone of the Federal Civil Defense Administration’s initiatives to prepare children for, and survive, a pending nuclear war. Following a mandated “forewarned is forearmed” curriculum, American students from the fifties well into the seventies rehearsed exercises that were supposed to make getting ready for an atomic attack seem just like another ordinary fire or tornado drill.

For the uninitiated, duck and cover protected us from a nuclear blast through a simple two step maneuver, like so: When the teacher said “drop,” or upon seeing a blinding nuclear light, just “duck” - immediately stop what you are doing and get under something – preferably a desk – or else into a prone, face-down position on the ground. Then, “cover” – with eyes tightly closed put your hands or coat over the back of your head. Once teachers gave the “all clear” – or after surviving the violent shock wave, flying glass, falling cement, and twisted steel beams – the whole class rose and proceeded to an evacuation location in that same orderly and business-like fashion of a routine fire drill.

Scheduled daily and weekly, duck and cover remained the key logistical feature of civil defense preparedness, but just one step in a more comprehensive protocol. Usually in the mornings around first recess, schoolhouse warning systems would be tested, and since time was of the essence, students practiced carefully scripted procedures for maximum efficiency. Most schools employed one, or a combination, of warning devices and sirens.

In the 1950s, principals monitored CONELRAD, this is the forerunner to our modern Emergency Broadcast System, which operated as the nation’s initial civil defense radio network. By the sixties, schools opted for some version of the “Bell and Lights” Air Raid Warning System. Designed by Bell Laboratories, the device looked and acted a lot like a telephone. When the warning came, a bell rang and a color coordinated light flashed corresponding to the threat level: white (meaning all clear), blue (trouble expected soon), yellow (attack likely so take cover quickly), and red (imminent attack so take cover now).

These systems signaled Duck and Cover. Next, with megaphone in hand, principals guided teachers and students to predetermined assembly areas. If the nearest designated fallout shelter happened to be the school gym – identifiable by that ubiquitous sing with three upside-down yellow triangles in a black circle – orderly single file lines streamed in, and if not, classes marched off school grounds on foot or drove to nearby shelters in volunteer carpools. Smaller neighborhood schools took pupils all the way home while others arranged predetermined neighborhood rallying points for parental pick-up. During community-wide drills, scout troops – boys and girls -- also served as “casualties,” taken by ambulance to hospitals where they were “treated” by volunteer medical personnel.

And, just in case not everyone made it home, evacuees wore identification tags, not unlike military “dog tags.” These authorized “Official Civil Defense Identification Tags” were smooth metal on a non-tarnish chain necklace (after original plastic chords were found to be flammable). Each was stamped with the child’s name, birth date, religious preference, and contact information for notifying next of kin.

Joel P. Rhodes is a Professor in the History Department of Southeast Missouri State University. Raised in Kansas, he earned a B.S. in Education from the University of Kansas before earning his M.A. and Ph.D. in History from the University of Missouri-Kansas City.