Every Tuesday at noon, San Francisco is assailed with a siren. After a fifteen-second “wall” tone, a recorded message intones: “This is a test. This is a test of the Outdoor Public Warning System. This is only a test.” Depending on one’s proximity to the 109 city-wide sirens, the succinct message is clearly audible or its unintelligibility becomes yet another element of urban noise pollution. Originally, fifty sirens were installed, in 1942, obviously in response to anticipated threats related to WWII.
This weekly interruption of city life invokes, for me, growing up during the 1950s. Considered to have begun in 1947, shortly after the devastation of World War II, and ending in 1991, with the dissolution of the USSR, the Cold War’s legacy is legion.
Throughout grammar school I remember duck-and cover drills, diving under our desks, to avoid impending Russian bombs. These intermittent trainings somehow seemed much more terrifying than the emergency fire drills of walking calmly out of the not-actually-burning building. With our hands protecting the back of our youthful necks we were instructed to imagine the glass exploding from the wall of windows at Buena Terra Elementary School. Vivid descriptions of the first flash of intense heat and light of the developing nuclear fireball were invoked to motivate our participation. I don’t recall similar preparations for natural disasters like earthquakes (much more likely in Southern California) or tornadoes. We learned that some families built bomb shelters, filled with canned goods and all the necessities to survive. Were we being taught not to stick our necks out in more ways than one? Were they being overly cautious, or were we flirting with danger?
What else were we taught about those Russians? Most of what I learned was from the nefarious Boris Badenov, “world’s greatest no-goodnik”, and curvaceous Natasha Fatale on episodes of “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show”. Would I have felt differently about those Russkies had I known that my grandfather had hidden the fact that he’d been born in Russia? Was my xenophobia generalizable?
The promotion of suspicion and paranoia seemed pervasive. I was eight in 1960 when Mattel released Lie Detector Scientific Crime Game. I remember hours of interrogating suspects, sticking the stylus into the “scientific” machine and waiting for the needle to register whether their description is true or false. What effect did this have on my developing psyche? Could my own utterances be so easily be decoded?
I was an eager James Bond fan of both novels and films. I watched “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” and “Get Smart”. I wanted to be a suave, sophisticated spy, seducing beautiful women, or at least sipping martinis — shaken not stirred — after a full day of covert adventure.
After being humiliated for playing with my friends’ Barbie and Ken dolls, I was too old by the time GI Joe doll was released in 1964. My younger brother had one, and I envied his ability to navigate doll-playing as an acceptable masculine behavior. There were so many aspects of masculinity I didn’t quite grok. The boys on the block played endless games of baseball, but I was bored. They also built customized model cars, but that too was a skill that escaped me.
I preferred reading biographies and catching (and mounting, I’m sorry to say) butterflies. It all felt like a subversive plot, expecting me to act like a boy which meant betraying my authenticity.
I was expected to stand with hand on heart, intoning words that were meaningless. “I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” This jingoism ran hollow then, and has only become more so after reading Howard Zinn’s seminal A People’s History of the United States and John Perkins’ more contemporary Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. How could I be expected to participate in this nationalistic charade, similar to endorsing the equally suspect cult of masculinity.
I wanted to eradicate fear, mostly my own, which seemed to accelerate, not dissipate, with each drill. One must always be alert, ready to act in event of attack. When the alarm sounded, day or night, one must know exactly what to do. Our lives depend on our vigilance.
Every Tuesday I wonder: am I ready?