October, 1962I’ve been talking to Ed about converting the barn into living quarters for Mother. She never complains but I know she must be distressed by the summer’s hyperactivity and teenager noisiness, especially on weekends. One of the contractors I consulted remarked that a basement would cost an extra fifteen hundred dollars. “For another two thousand, you could convert it into a fallout shelter.”
I never should have mentioned the phrase “fallout shelter” to my mother. To me it is a sickening measure we might be forced to consider in some dim and terrible future, but to Ernestine, the danger is imminent, and the sooner we take steps to protect ourselves and our loved ones, the better. Giving weight to her opinion, the papers have been full of articles describing how to build and stock a shelter, emphasizing the importance of doing so immediately. She takes pains to tear them out and leave them where I will see them. A Herald article says, “Those who neglect to avail themselves of this simple safeguard for their families are lazy and stupid.”
Mrs. White’s older daughter calls and says we're having a Red Alert. “Marty heard the news from a reliable source that can't be divulged for security reasons.”
I don’t know what the term means, but it sounds scary.
“It’s the step before the last,” Mrs. White explains. “Marty’s husband is in the diplomatic service; he knows these things.”
I still don’t understand the significance of the Red Alert. Are we preparing to do something about Cuba, or is Russia preparing to attack us? Why is Khrushchev discussing a meeting with President Kennedy if he's planning to launch an attack?
“Marty says we should put in a supply of canned goods and get gas for our cars,” Mrs. White tells me as calmly as if she were handing me a grocery list.
I think we should stock up on prayer books.
Mrs. White and I have our first disagreement during the Red Alert.“When the danger escalates to the next step,” she tells me, “Holly and I will move to Marty's apartment building where there is a basement. ” She presses me to start looking for a basement for my family. "Be sure to bring plenty of blankets and warm clothes."
There is something about Mrs. White's imperturbable, we-must-be-practical attitude that is more hair-raising than a display of hysteria.
I protest that this disaster may never happen. “The Russians don't want to be bombed any more than we do. Why alarm the children with preparations that may be needless?”
"I might not be around to explain," says Mrs. White. "If something happens to me, I want Holly to know how to survive."
At that moment Timmy bursts into the kitchen as the school bus pulls away. "We're all going to be killed!" he cries.
I wince at this timing and reprimand him for "interrupting." Mrs. White says nothing, but I know what she is thinking: "You see, Mrs. Malley, you can't shield your children. They know what's going on."
No one is talking about anything else, so of course the kids know what is going on, but I’m convinced there’s no harm in being optimistic. Mrs. White could counter that optimists were among the first to die in Hitler's Holocaust.
Damn it, I will not dig a hole and crawl into it like a rat. Tim is all for building a shelter ("We can fix up the playhouse with sandbags for a hundred dollars"), and we are being bombarded with a fresh onslaught from the Civil Defense department. Build a shelter, build a shelter.
In the "The Photographer and You" column in the Herald, the question is asked, "Have events this week made you more interested in Civil Defense efforts?" Out of six people polled, there are three negatives and three affirmatives. I agree with the man who answered: "No. Fallout shelters are a complete farce. What do they mean? Probably that the privileged minority may live a few more days. That stuff was all right in World Wars I and II, but not in the next one." A woman responded, "I'd rather go with the rest of the crowd if it comes to that."
In spite of the tension in the air, life goes on as usual. We make dates for tennis ("Sure I'll play next Tuesday if we're all here next Tuesday," Sally Brewer says), we go marketing, we order tickets to the Ice Follies, we put summer clothes away for the winter, Ernestine leaves for Florida, we laugh at the Dick Van Dyke show . . .
Tim has written a poem that I have sent to his grandmother. I think it will surprise her as much as it did Ed and me.
`Twas a dark quiet night around harvest time
When the young ones of John, the carpenter, asked him,
"Father, tell us of the time when ye were young,
When men could fly and plow without oxen."
He sat by the fire, a sad glow in his eye and a lump
in his throat
And said, "O children, sit round and close by the fire,
And ye will learn of the times when I was a lad
When men could fly and plow without oxen.
"`Twas a time of great machines and cities so large
As would make yonder Sandago look like a village,
Tall were the buildings like trees of redwood,
Only made of metal, as is my plow and my knife.
"Men could fly in the heavens like the great eagle,
Faster yet, and higher than the great birds on high.
He conquered yet another kingdom as great as the sky,
Under water he went, breathing as a fish, and swimming.
"Aye, `twas smart man was, and ruler of all beasts.
He conquered the air where once only birds could go,
He conquered the sea where now there are but fish,
But he could not conquer his ageless fault: hatred of his fellow man.
"Yes, `twas a time of great buildings and great cities,
`Twas a time of great happiness and great sorrow,
`Twas an age of medicines and inventions helpful and good
But `twas also a time of the great cloud that swept man away."