by Gretta Bradley
Kindergarten, Grade 1, Grade 2 and the first half of Grade 3 were idyllic.
Our days were filled with school, sandlot baseball and kick-the-can. We were blissfully unaware that WW II had slipped into a Cold War that had heated to the point of open hostility between the two major combatants, the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
By 1949, the Soviets had built and tested the atomic bomb. Superpower conflicts over the control of Berlin, deep inside Soviet-controlled Germany, and the installation of nuclear weapons in Cuba by the USSR, would bring the world to the brink of nuclear war. In October of 1962, American President Kennedy, in response to the crisis in Cuba, went on TV warning people to prepare for a nuclear attack.
Talk of bomb shelters began to creep into our parents’ nightly dinner table conversations. But the day the Cold War really came home for us, was the day our teacher wheeled that frippery of a modern education, a film projector, into the middle of our classroom. We were awestruck as she unfolded the impossible collection of metal legs and pulled up the screen. The teacher across the hall was called in to help thread the film through an intimidating array of wheels and sprockets as the class descended into excited chatter. We waited in great anticipation as the projector whirred and clicked to life in the darkened room.
Bert, an uncharacteristically energetic turtle, walking on his hind legs, singing a catchy ditty, “deedle, dum, dum, Deedle, dum, dum” appeared to our amazement on the screen. The black and white images flickered as the lyrics advised Bert to be vigilant. When a firecracker, hung on a string by a monkey, appears over his head, Bert “ducks and covers” by pulling his head and appendages into his shell.
The film was over in considerably less time than it had taken to set up the projector and screen.
Our literal Grade 3 brain couldn’t comprehend the seriousness of the message. We found the cartoon highly entertaining. When our teacher had returned to her place at the front of the room, her tone suggested that her understanding and our understanding of the film was very different. Not being able to make the cognitive leap from firecracker to atomic bomb, she began unpack the meaning of the cartoon for us.
Unknown to us, we were being prepared for a drill in the case of a nuclear attack. We were instructed to crouch under our desks and pull our sweaters up over our heads, imitating Bert’s duck and cover maneuver.
As the recess bell rang, we lined up — boys in one line, girls in another. We spilled out into the schoolyard talking excitedly about the animated turtle, humming the song that would stay in our heads all day. We were oblivious to what was about to happen.
The next day, our lesson in civil defence would be a rude awakening to a world under the threat of a nuclear war. An air raid siren, located just beyond the schoolyard fence, blared the beginning of the drill. We scrambled underneath our desks as we had been instructed the day before.
Terrified, I crouched, anxiously wondering what was going to happen next. As the “all clear” signal was given, 30 or so 7/8 year olds, emerged. At this time, we didn’t even have fire drills. No one had bothered to let us know that that this was a practice and for the duration of the drill, I trembled, beside myself, that I did not have a sweater to protect me from whatever was important enough to interrupt the school day.
I went home that day and tearfully recounted the events that had transpired, and I pleaded with my mother to buy me a sweater. Resources were scarce in a family of seven. I imagine now that my mother was caught between the knowledge that clothing that could not be pinned or otherwise attached to me would be quickly lost and her desire to provide her child with the necessary protection against nuclear radiation. She relented. I don’t know if she questioned the wisdom of a sweater shielding me from a nuclear blast because people of her generation didn’t do that, at least not in front of the children.
The late 50s and early 60s would bring us as close to nuclear war as the world would ever come. The U.S. and the U.S.S.R would never directly engage again, preferring to back other countries in proxy wars.
So why had the government promoted something that so obviously would not protect us from annihilation? All one has to do is visit the Diefenbunker to realize that they would not be cowering under their desks with their sweater over their heads.
This brings us to toilet paper.
We are facing a new threat. This one is microscopic. An enemy spread on a door handle, countertops, in a stranger’s cough or on the hands of a friend.
We have flocked to grocery stores to stock up on the basic necessities and toilet paper definitely falls into that category. The run on toilet paper has tickled our collective funny bone. News stations reporting panic buying, showing empty shelves where packages of toilet paper were once displayed. Video of people negotiating their shopping carts laden with the white papery stuff through crowded aisles. Stories of stores not bothering to restock shelves, opting instead to leave the pallet off the truck in the middle of the floor allowing shoppers to walk away with a bundle under each arm, doing away with the necessity of actually locating the paper products aisle.
I suspect this may be one of those times that we look back on and deny having taken part in the great toilet paper run of 2020.
Why have we focussed on something that is not really necessary for a respiratory illness whose symptoms do not include frequent trips to the bathroom?
The duck and cover drill, as do our preparations for Covid 19, are a reflection of a very human need. We need to feel that we have some control over that which we may not have a lot of control. That we are not helpless. We need some reassurance that there is something we can do despite not really knowing what will happen next. A little peace of mind in a time of uncertainty.
Our “take charge” attitude in the face of adversity has brought us through some our most trying times.
So, let’s keep calm and carry on and do the one thing that has been proven to work against viruses: wash your hands well and frequently.