Odd Thoughts: Reality fades into radioactive background

Langley columnist Bob Groeneveld recalls the days when school children practiced nuclear war drills.

What would you have been thinking during those 38 minutes in Hawaii – the three minutes it took officials to realize that their missile attack was bogus, plus the 35 minutes it took them to tell everyone it was a false alarm?

Around here, everyone was kept in a similar state of terror for two decades, with constant reminders through the 50s and 60s that nuclear bombs could at any moment turn the Cold War between the Soviet Union and “The West” into a hot war.

In 1948, Canada responded to the USSR’s nuclear tests by appointing a civil defence coordinator “to supervise the work of federal, provincial and municipal authorities in planning for public air-raid shelters.”

Pamphlets offered advice on how to deal with a nuclear blast in your neighbourhood. One of my favourites, The Eleven Steps to Survival, had such helpful tips as, “Know the effects of a nuclear explosion,” and, “Know how to get rid of radioactive dust.”

Then they franchised the fear by forming community Defence Associations. In 1951 a local DA was formed to organize Langley as “a cushion area in case of an atomic bomb attack on Vancouver.”

Langley civil defence coordinator I.G. Baker discussed the effects of an atomic bomb drop at a meeting in Langley Prairie that November. An “urgent call for civil defence trainees” led to the formation of the Langley Civil Defence Unit, replete with Geiger counters for monitoring ambient radiation levels.

You’ve gotta watch The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming!

The Langley Advance of Nov. 6, 1958, reported, “Alderman Bill Lott, Langley’s civil defence radiation monitoring officer, reported a jump in the ambient radiation level following the explosion of a hydrogen bomb in the Pacific Ocean. The level peaked at 160 units; the luminous dial on the mayor’s watch gave a reading of 600 units.

Still, Lott kept monitoring until the “spike” faded into the background in 1965.

“Duck and cover” drills introduced children into the mania.

Were the drills seriously ordered with the expectation that sending school children scurrying under their desks might keep them safe from a bomb whose force was measured in thousands – or millions – of tons of TNT? Or to keep them ignorant of how they’d likely die?

Many kids treated the drills as a joke. Some cried themselves to sleep at night.

Are the nightmares returning?

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