I took Angel Zimmerman to see “WarGames” in 1983 and while the thriller — about a teen who almost starts a global thermonuclear war by hacking into a government computer to play games — got its mojo from the Cold War atmosphere of the time, I wasn’t really scared. I just wanted Angel to be, so she would need me to snuggle with.
A different Cold War film that inspired real fear was the 1951 Civil Defense Administration’s “Duck and Cover.” It starred cartoon Bert the Turtle, who helped show U.S. citizens how to protect themselves in the event of atomic attack.
The film’s Ward Cleaver-esque-voiced narrator said that if there was a sudden flash of light brighter than the sun, Americans should drop what they were doing and cover their head and neck with those well-known radiation busters, their hands.
They were to stay like that until a government civil defense worker — whom we are told in Orwellian fashion that “we must obey” — came to help.
Schoolchildren had drills that included hiding underneath their desks in case of the Big One.
Locals reminisced about those days:
Janis Edwards: “Oh yes, duck and cover. Now we know how useless that was. Our house was near a siren and when it would go off at night it always scared the heck out of me.”
Barbara Macy Cordy: “I remember being told during drills, ‘Do not open your eyes!’ I just knew I would.”
Danny Cordova: “I wanted to watch everything melt.”
I’ve heard kids these days balk at having to carry student IDs. Well, back in the 1950s, kids didn’t carry IDs; they wore dog tags with their names and blood types, similar to the ones issued to GIs.
According to JoAnn Hinkson Beebe, Ray Anne Fune Sullivan, Carol Hanson and others, they were not really seen as frightening and indeed some saw them as kind of a fad or used them for hopscotch markers.
If given advance notice of an attack, locals were urged to get the heck outta Dodge.
Susan Macy Luckenbach: “If we had to leave quickly by car, we were to head for Chico. They had a trial run and it was a traffic jam. We would have been better off digging a hole and staying put if the real thing happened.”
Digging a hole and staying put was exactly what the Office of Civil Defense had in mind when it encouraged Americans to get underground fallout shelters.
Suggested provisions for a two-week stay included 1 quart of water per day per person, 700 calories of food per day per person (which equals one Jack in the Box milkshake), sanitation supplies and radiation detection equipment.
Los Altos built a 25-foot by 48-foot public shelter in 1962 that could sleep 96 people. Locally, a list developed in 1972 of designated fallout shelters included Holiday Inn and City Hall.
Running and hiding from a nuclear attack were not the only options. Nike surface-to-air anti-aircraft missile sites were installed all around the country. From 1958 to 1971, Fairfield had Nike missiles located off Clay Bank Road near the jail, where the Fairfield-Suisun School District Transportation Department now sits.
Comic movies like “Dr. Strangelove” and “Blast from the Past” have been made about the Cold War, but when the U.S. and U.S.S.R. came close to launching their respective missiles during the Cuban Missile Crisis, it was no laughing matter.
Mary Fehrman: “In October 1962, I was a senior at Armijo. My dad flew C-124s with the 85th Air Transport Squadron at Travis. He came home one day with a duffel bag full of stuff, including a.45 pistol and a steel helmet. He was on one-hour standby to depart for parts unknown. With any luck he was supposed to get off the ground before the Soviets bombed Travis.
“He was honest and told us we were within 5,000 yards of ground zero, and could not expect to survive. Those were scary times. We came very close before they called it off. Travis would have been a smoking hole in the ground, and Fairfield would probably still be uninhabitable. In those days, the ‘cold war’ didn’t seem so cold.”
Reach Fairfield writer Tony Wade at firstname.lastname@example.org.