Duck and Cover

While Working, I Have My police/fire/ambulance radios running in the office, which helps me anticipate being called out (Kit and I are volunteer medics, as you probably remember). Today while working on the Premium newsletter I heard the local cops head over to the school for a “lockdown drill” — tying in nicely to the shootout story this week. I commented to Kit, “We only had to worry about fire drills.” She quickly retorted: “And nuclear war ‘duck and cover’ drills.”

Click to see larger.

Oh yeah: funny about how one forgets preparing to die as a kid — as if the duck and cover procedure would save your life in a nuclear war. (And even if it did, would you want to survive?)

American schools did such drills in the late 1940s into the 70s, and I certainly remember doing them as a kid (toward the latter end of that span, thank you!)

Yes, I know that if there’s any big explosion, it’s smart to get away from windows, and certainly not try to watch what’s happening. In 1917, a ship in the harbor in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, caught fire, and its cargo — high explosives — blew up. The blast, the largest man-made explosion ever (holding that record until nuclear weapons debuted), killed about 2,000 people and injured 9,000 more, many who saw the flash and went to their windows to see what it was (or had seen the fire on the ship, and were already watching). When the shockwave from the explosion arrived seconds later, the windows were instantly reduced to shards, blowing onto anyone standing behind them looking out. If the shrapnel didn’t kill them, it blinded them.

So indeed, “duck and cover” is a rational strategy even if it doesn’t involve an atomic blast.

Original Duck and Cover Film

The official government film for children, released in 1952 (length 9:14):

Timely Addendum

After writing the above, I then went to research the Honorary Unsubscribe. As often happens, I found several interesting people, who I will often slip in as “And So Long To” types of brief mentions after the write-up. And that included this one:

  • A Final Duck and Cover to graphic designer Robert Blakeley, known for creating the black-and-yellow Fallout Shelter sign in 1961 — 1.4 million of them were made. He died October 25 at 95. (The sign is shown above.)

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14 Comments on “Duck and Cover

  1. In my first grade class (1948) sixth grade, the teacher would say “Take Cover”, and we would crawl under our desks, cover our heads, turning them away from the windows.

    The article I link to in the second paragraph notes that “duck and cover” was apparently coined by the principal of a private school in McLean, Virginia, when a contractor was making the “turtle” film for the Federal Civil Defense Administration in late 1951. I hadn’t realized that the drills were already in progress by then, even if they didn’t use that term. I’ve amended my text to push the start to the 40s — thanks! -rc

  2. Back when there as a Compuserve Information Service owned by H&R Block there was a Diabetes support forum founded by one David Groves and it was fantastic. This is also when McVeigh blew up Oklahoma City (the federal building).

    One of our forum members had been called into her boss’s office, across the street. A pencil fell off her boss’s desk and she bent down to pick it up just as BOOM. Her boss was cut to ribbons being on the WINDOW side of the desk. She had not a scratch since the heavy oak desk protected her. Of course there was no warning.

    Amazing story. -rc

  3. I suppose you know the story, so I’ll just offer this little addendum.

    The city of Boston was the first to send a trainload of physicians, nurse, medical equipment, plus the Hospital ship to Halifax. In an way to say Thank You, the City of Halifax, NS sends a Christmas Tree to Boston, and continues to do so.

    There’s a sub-story to this, and there are NS farmers who raise those tall trees, hoping there’s will be perfect enough to be sent to Boston. And. if correct, the Farmers do it as part of their way of saying Thank you.

    I didn’t know that story! Thanks for the addendum. -rc

  4. I was at school in Birmingham, England in the 1970s. I went to a school that took pupils from 3 to 18, with separate buildings for kindergarten, junior and senior schools. Fire drills were done per building but we also had bomb drills. We gathered on the playground for fire drills and on the playing fields for bomb drills (the playing fields seemed to be miles from the school, at least they were when we had to go to them for sports lessons!) We had bomb drills because of threats from the IRA.

    In fact, we had to do it in earnest once, on 17 September 1973 — and, for the first time, everyone from the school was there. I am almost sure I heard the explosion — but I must admit it is not very likely, even though it was only about half a mile away! I do not remember it very well because I was 9. Unfortunately it went off and killed the disposal expert trying to diffuse it.

    The threats may change but the threat never leaves!

  5. I was in kindergarten in Indiana in 1962. We had bomb drills but we were told they were tornado drills. Now I’m an adult in Nebraska and the kids still do tornado drills, the exact same action — go to the lowest location in the building and crouch near a wall.

    So yes, duck and cover will protect you from a massive pressure change, be it from an explosion or high winds. That’s worth knowing if you live in an area that gets tornadoes.

    • My husband and I have had this debate, too! I started school in suburban St. Louis in 1973 while he was in suburban Buffalo in 1969. He remembers leaving the room to duck and cover in the hallways (not under desks) as the air raid drill, while I remember doing the same for tornado drills (even though my school was actually old enough to still have a bomb shelter in it). He also remembers seeing the “duck & cover” video before going into the hall the first time, but being considerably younger, I can’t recall if I first saw it as part of our drill or just in class one day.

      Since the Midwest has always had tornado issues, I’m wondering if post Cold War Midwestern kids were just TOLD they were for tornadoes, or if Midwestern schools simply assimilated “duck & cover” into our regularly scheduled tornado routine?

  6. In the late 1980s, I was working for the Department of Veterans Affairs, reviewing the operations of the VA Regional Offices. Every so often, we would be visiting one in “tornado alley” during the season. Mostly at some point they would mention during our entrance interview with the RO director what we should do in case of a tornado.

    But in Indianapolis, before we even introduced ourselves, we were given detailed instructions on where in the building (mostly the stairwells) were the designated tornado shelter areas. You can bet that was one office that took its tornado drills seriously.

  7. Addendum to my reply. Our school had monthly drills. The fire drill was initiated by the fire alarms in the building sounding; we got up, lined up, and marched out of the building to staging areas.

    There was, as I reported, the “take cover” drill.

    Third was another bomb drill. I forget how it was initiated, but we went out of our classrooms into the corridors, and stood against the walls.

  8. I don’t recall any ‘duck and cover’ drills, even though I was in school in the late 50s and the 60s. Maybe because I went to school in a few foreign countries on American military bases? But also in south Florida and Napa, California. I heard about them and wondered why I never got to participate.

  9. I guess I was in a lucky generation in between the various community fears. By the time I entered school, the Cold War was winding down, so all we had were fire drills and earthquake drills. Columbine didn’t happen until my senior year of high school, so I got out before the various drills for shooters, bombs, and the like started. Even a year or two later, when I went to do some volunteering at an elementary school, I was horrified to see frightening signs all over telling the kids to tell if they saw anything suspicious. I don’t remember the wording, but it seemed provocative and fear inducing. Thankfully my kid’s school doesn’t have anything like that up (just security theater that makes it annoying for parents to get their kids out).

  10. I lived in Indiana near Gary. Gary was at that time a large steel mill town. It was to be a main target if Russia bombed the US.

    In elementary school, after WWII we were educated as to Duck and Cover. At the same time, we were issued dog tags with our name, address and blood type listed. Oh yes, we also had our blood type tattooed on our side. All this was so that if our bodies were found, they would be able to identify us. Or if we were alive and needed blood and the dog tags were gone, they would know our blood type. That is a wonderful way to make a child feel safe and secure.

    And if I were unable to speak, no one would know to look at the blue blob on my side to find out what my blood type is. The tattoo was never legible.

    Fascinating. I had never heard of that before, but the Washington Post covered that very topic this summer: Sharp Needles for the Cold War: Yes, some kids got tattooed with their blood type. There was also a study on it published in 2008. “CONCLUSIONS:
    The use of blood-type tattoos was short lived, lasting less than a year, and ultimately failed because physicians did not trust tattoos for medical information.”-rc

  11. When I was in junior high in Tulsa, Ok, we used to have monthly (?) assemblies in which we’d watch films on now to take cover, how to do trauma treatment, etc. all tied to the fallout shelter symbol. Around town, those fallout shelters were stocked with medical supplies, water, rations, etc. Years later, I worked on a crew to clean out and repurpose one of those old shelters and was told to throw it all away. We opened some of the containers — surgical instruments, gieger counters, water treatment supplies — interesting stuff. I’ve wondered what happened to those old films?

  12. I grew up in this era living between the shipyard that built some of the first nuclear submarines, and two different military bases, army and air force. My dad helped build some of the first nuclear subs, while working at the shipyard, and he had a great philosophy about the whole thing of nuclear bombs.

    He told us, that living where we did, we wouldn’t have to worry about surviving anyway. Being between two bases and a shipyard, we would be one of the first places taken out to keep the US from responding.

    Sounds strange, but going instantly always made me feel better as a kid, than thinking about living in the aftermath, but maybe that was his intention.

    And now, as a retiree, I’m back (in another state) living between two bases and a proving ground, so won’t have to worry now either!

    That someone “didn’t suffer” seems to be a comfort. Knowing it’ll be you? Just as good, I guess! -rc


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