“Happy Days” certainly gives one side of the affluent 1950s. It was a good time for being young, with one big exception.

Note: Bill Hagen is a guest writer for Cards-N-Time while Bob Allison is on vacation.

“Happy Days” certainly gives one side of the affluent 1950s. It was a good time for being young, with one big exception.

I grew up in Northern Virginia, inside what became the Beltway. But those of us in the Washington, D.C. suburbs knew we were circumferentially contained. Every year, the newspapers would update a map of the metropolitan area, featuring circles within circles.

When you looked at the circles, you realized they actually made a target. Total devastation in the bulls-eye, major destruction in the next circle, and shock waves of destruction accompanied by radiation in the outer circle. The circles were expanded, year by year, as Russia and China improved their bombs.

We were growing up nuclear.

It wasn’t bad; it simply created a kind of double-thinking in us. We learned to hide our insecurities by “being cool.”

We trusted that America was way ahead in the nuclear arms race; any improvements the Russians and Chinese made were due to their catching up to last year’s American bomb. I mean, any country that couldn’t redesign their cars every year…. We just knew that whatever improvements the Reds made were stolen from us. We could take pride in providing them the means for expanding the destructive circles to include more and more of us.

We took pride too in the fact that the Washington metro area was the Number 1 target. “What number is your city?” we might ask our deprived cousins from Baltimore or even New York. We get to go first! As one of our pop songs put it, “See you later, alligator!” Some of us read Mad Magazine and listened to Tom Lehrer’s song, “We will all go together when we go.”

Did we imagine that World War III might not happen? Are you kidding?

With the launch of the Civil Defense emphasis, designed to wake up Americans, with all the pictures of bomb tests, the cartoons (Bert the Turtle), the drills, the nightly news--with all these messages--, our elders encouraged us to imagine World War III would happen.

BUT, we were told, we might survive. In the early days, we would have warning sufficient to board our school busses and be taken to pre-determined locations in the Blue Ridge Mountains. We each had a color-coded Civil Defense card, in case we got lost. (I still have mine.) While making our way west on jammed two-lane roads, we might just hear the helicopters overhead, taking high government officials to a secret location—a posh resort in West Virginia, as everyone knew.

Later, with less confidence in Early Warning, the emphasis shifted to surviving where you were. After watching a scary film, in which glass from windows blasted straight across a classroom, we practiced ducking, struggling to fit under our desks. Then we practiced huddling in the halls, in case we had a little warning. Teachers had to rescue the more obedient students who immediately obeyed the command to duck down, since the rest of us would pause and then “pig pile” on top of them. More fun than class!

Our parents were encouraged to create bomb shelters. I was confident our family had a good chance of making it because Dad stored cases of cokes and beer in the basement fridge. In the adjoining rec room, there was a record player, ping-pong table, dart board, and decks of cards. If the Reds did drop the Bomb, it was going to be neat down there.

The only question was whether our best friends would be there with us. And would they want to bring their parents, kid sisters, cousins, and pets with them? Could we let that crowd in and still have enough soft drinks to sustain ourselves? Such “lifeboat survival” questions made for interesting discussions.

Anyway, while we were certain that the Bomb would eventually come to our town, we were encouraged to think we might survive. Godzilla, our media stand-in for the Bomb, would arise from the watery depths in movies year after year, but a few attractive couples and even some old folks always managed to avoid his fire, big feet and lumpy tail.

Our fantasies usually featured ourselves alone, wandering a depopulated world, hopefully stocked with grocery stores and intact sports cars. We would drive around until we spotted a perfectly proportioned soul mate—well, the only one—and restart the human race. Bob Dylan’s “Talkin’ World War III Blues” captured the fantasy—except that the girl he found refused to play “Adam and Eve,” rejecting the offer with “You saw what happened the last time.”

What did we learn growing up in the shadow of the Bomb? How did we turn out? On the surface, pretty good: we went to college, married, pursued careers as if we would live normal lives, though the Sixties loomed. But before Vietnam, before the “counter-culture,” the seeds of distrust had been sown.

Why did our leaders, having won a great war (WW II), allow a world where the young had to be taught to expect devastation? Were all the Civil Defense drills, a fool’s game to convince us that a nuclear war was winnable?

For all of that, I think we were fairly optimistic, possibly because those of us in the suburbs had economic security. And the future didn’t look all that bad, at least until the assassinations began and the cities and Vietnam heated up. In the meantime, we were listening to our own music and developing a generational kinship. Ironically, the larger insecurity helped us bond with one another. And so it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut taught us to say, while staying cool.