Once upon a time there was a nuclear family,
And we lived in a family time,
And we’d unite in a family way.
And off in the ancient mountain,
They were splitting every nucleus.
They said, “Don’t be alarmed,
Just don’t try this at home.”
-From “The Great Unknown” by Dar Williams
I grew up during the Cold War. As the US created and tested new radioactive weapons, my own nuclear family slowly disintegrated.
In school we practiced “duck and cover drills.” During these drills we ducked under our desks and covered our heads with our hands, or we went into the hallway and kneeled in front of our lockers. We girls carefully pulled our dresses over our bottoms as we knelt–because, of course, feminine modesty is important even in the face of impending nuclear disaster
At the beginning of each school year in the Dallas, Texas, public school district, our parents filled out cards designating my sister and me as a “1,” “2,” or “3.” If disaster struck, students were assigned a location to go to according to these numbers. One number meant the child would stay at school. Another number meant the child would be picked up by his or her parents. I don’t remember what the third number meant. Perhaps you would be bused to an undisclosed location? My sister and I always wanted my mom to choose the number that meant she would come get us. I was terrified that there would be a nuclear war and that I would be separated from my mom.
As a child I didn’t question how ridiculous these drills were. I trusted that the adults around me would keep me safe. I was only afraid of being separated from my family.
Although the specter of Joe McCarthy hovered silently in the background–along with some FBI agents–my family was not actually affected by the Cold War. We were prosperous: we had plenty of food and luxuries, such as air-conditioned cars and a color television. We traveled, went to shows, restaurants, and museums. But I was terrified of the images I saw on TV of the Iron Curtain and fearful of the test alerts by the Emergency Broadcast System.
Civil to each other and loving to us during the day, my parents must have exploded at night while my younger sister and I slept. Their cycles of rapprochement ended. Their intimate words of destruction apparently penetrated my dreams like shadowy bombs because I was saddened, but not surprised, when they announced they were getting divorced.
Our subsequent move from Dallas to Havertown, a suburb of Philadelphia, turned out to be a good thing for me. I had never been a Texan—for one thing, I don’t like football, and I think Chicken-Fried Steak
is perhaps the most repulsive dish ever invented. In an age before Facebook and the Internet, I was far removed from my former life. In my new school, I was able to reinvent myself, at least a small bit, although I never entirely lost those childhood fears.