The bell was loud, sharp and long.
It was the “duck and cover” alarm that was used in my elementary school in Garden Grove – and doubtless many other Orange County schools – to either have us practice or get ready for a real nuclear attack.
There was none of the same fooling around, or grateful grins that accompanied a routine-breaking fire drill. This, in 1962 or 1963 could very well have been the real thing.
In our jeans and jumpers we scrambled under our desks, hands clasped over the back of our necks, hoping for that – for the Nth time – it was all just an abundance of caution and that the world was not about to end.
With all the school shootings, some people have compared those days to the current atmosphere with the repetitive news stories of lone wolf students (or former students) nursing grievances real or imagined, trying to seem big in a place where all they’ve earned is mediocrity.
Sixty years or so ago, the threat was very different and in some ways worse. During, for example, the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, the TV new programs and local newspapers were filled with stories about the very real possibility of a catastrophic attack from an evil enemy that could almost only end with the death of you and everyone you knew.
At the height of that inflection point, supermarkets were stripped of goods as the inevitable hoarding took hold. Construction companies did a land office business digging underground bomb shelters, many of which remain in backyards across Orange County and the U.S.
Being kids, some of us questioned the logic of these precautions. If a nuke went off, what’s the point in ducking and covering? Weren’t we going to be incinerated? Why stockpile white bread when there will be no one left to eat it? Our portly teacher, Mrs. Farkle, well, there was no way she was going to fit under that desk.
Patiently, although a little rattled, the folks answered. The blast wave of compressed air from the explosion would travel a lot further than the actual detonation. That would mean that class windows would be shattered and send thousands of sharp slivers flying across the room.
Food was being panic-bought only because your next-door neighbor was doing the same. Even if the war never happened, there might be an artificial shortage of Wonder Bread for a while. Somewhat like COVID-19.
As for Mrs. Farkle, well … they didn’t have an answer for that.
Our drills were about our world coming to an end, but it didn’t. Cooler heads prevailed. But today, there’s no end in sight to the terror. Almost all heads can be cool, but if one or two people remain aggrieved in the time and in possession of dad’s rifle, he (it’s almost always a male) can end the life of you or your friend.
Determined disturbed kids and adults have found ways around the painfully permeable protections we grown-ups have put in place. Windows can be shot out. Doors can be left open. Fences can be climbed.
So, I’ll take the days under the desks and the scary bell any time. A theoretical threat from thousands of miles away is easier to live with than the fear that that guy you offended two days ago was going to come back, that look in his eyes …
Jim Tortolano’s Retorts column appears on Wednesdays and Saturdays.