While I was gallivanting around coastal Maine last week, friends were attending their 40th high school reunion. I graduated elsewhere, but their high school was the place I was at the longest.
I’d estimate the population in their junior-senior high school to have been around 650 people. This is why the Fallout Shelter, capacity 65 sign terrified me. I wasn’t big, fast, or wily. The chances of my making the Top Ten were nil.
However, I could fire a rifle with some accuracy. This is because I took shooting classes in the same basement with the fallout shelter. This was not some kind of Cold War paranoia at work. To hunt in New York, we needed a license. That required demonstrating basic gun proficiency. I imagine I can still hit a target from a standing, kneeling, or prostrate position, although I’m not sure I could get back up.
The shooting range and fallout shelter were an open secret. “I am shocked at how many fellow students knew about this and had actually been down there,” mused Darlene McKee Flynt.
In elementary school, we didn’t have a fallout shelter. We were to curl up in the hallway away from any glass, or huddle under our desks. We had regular drills for this. They mostly served to instill a great fear of the Bomb in our minds. Even in fourth grade, we knew that our desk wasn’t going to be much use against nuclear attack.
By the time I’d gotten to high school, the fallout shelter was a few decades old. I used to ponder whether it would be better to die of radiation or botulism from the dried eggs and milk. (My pal Karl believes they finally used up those food-stocks during the Blizzard of ’77.)
Then there were the dystopian literature and movies of our time, which raised the question of what kind of society we might survive to encounter. Alas, Babylon. Fail Safe. Planet of the Apes. The entire oeuvre of Kurt Vonnegut. If our day-to-day anxiety didn’t drive us around the bend, our reading list could have.
Society talked about the Bomb quite openly. Middleport, although tiny, had an FMC chemical research facility. Niagara Falls was an important hydroelectric plant. The radioactive plume from Chicago would flow right over our heads.
We were on a training route for Lockheed C-130s out of Niagara Falls. They flew low over our heads as we played. It made perfect sense to us, then, to lie in the tall grass and watch for Russian airstrikes.
I haven’t seen the people in that graduating class in forty years. Being the same age, I know that their lives were often difficult. The Viet Nam war had just ended, and it still cast an emotional shadow. Buffalo-Niagara was in economic meltdown. There was double-digit unemployment.
However, they seem to have transitioned from graceful and fragile youth to solid middle age without difficulty. None of them became killers; none of them shot up a room full of innocents.
I came back from a week’s self-imposed news blackout to read more of the usual violence—mass killings in Ft. Myers, FL, and Munich. Why, I ask myself, do rich, successful civilizations self-destruct like this? Has life become too easy?