Duck and Cover

Raymond J. Mauer died recently. Who, you may ask, was Raymond J. Mauer? He wrote the script for the early 50s educational film Duck and Cover. Quite frankly, I didn?t now that either until I read the obituary.

Duck and Cover was one of those films produced early in the Cold War to teach American children what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. The premise of the film was rather simple. If you saw a sudden flash, you were seek cover immediately. This premise was reinforced by several examples. A schoolroom filled with children. Suddenly, there is a bright flash and all of the children immediately duck under their desks, kneel down and cover their heads with their hands. In another example, a boy out riding his bike sees a flash whereupon he jumps from his bike, runs to the curb where he kneels to the ground and covers his head. The message of the short film is quite clear, insinuating that in taking these measures you will make yourself safe. Later scenes underline this concept as the children from earlier scenes are portrayed smiling and unruffled as they move to other, supposedly safer shelters.

Very clean and antiseptic. Not portrayed is what really happens after the flash; the destruction when the shock wave hits the building and the shattered glass from the windows is blown in on the kneeling children. No hint of the injury and death caused by that shockwave. Nor is the boy kneeling by the curb shown as being blown away by that same shockwave. There is no mention of the healthy dose of radiation the initial flash brought to those children, of flash burns and long-term health problems caused by exposure to the explosion. No footage of Hiroshima or Nagasaki is shown; of the widespread destruction there; of maimed and crying children; of the look of shocked bewilderment on all of the faces photographed.

That this film was shown, not once, but twice to school children in rural northern Indiana is odd. We were close to no large cities or industrial centers. Any such bombing near our small community would clearly have been a mistake. Chicago, Detroit or Toledo could have been wiped from the map, but the sound and fury of their passing would not have been immediately known to us. The resulting radioactive cloud that passed over our area, given the proper wind conditions, might have been seen, but its danger would not have been apparent – until later. We didn?t know any better and talked about what we would do if we saw ?the flash.? It was deliciously frightening.

This was a time when our government underplayed the dangers of radiation as it actively pursued above-ground testing in the Nevada desert. We put men in trenches near ground zero, supposedly to simulate combat conditions but also, I suspect, to see how they would fare. People in areas surround the test sight stood on ridges and other vantage points to see a test, little realizing the danger of exposure. We believed in our government and trusted that what was being done was for our good. And so, we rural children watched the film and believed, somehow, that it would be no more difficult than coping with the tornados which sometimes plagued our area. Those, too, hit without warning, but most of us were untouched. Duck and Cover.

I think about the film occasionally when I hear Homeland Security announcements about having an evacuation plan. While I can see the utility of having a common contact for family members in case of an emergency, the idea of encouraging people to map out an evacuation route is reminiscent of encouraging children to duck and cover. Most urban areas are ill-suited to any sort of orderly evacuation and suburban housing tracts often have only one way in and out. The problem with an evacuation, especially from a coastal area, is that it limits the direction of escape to one direction, away from the coast. On the east coast, most of the main arteries run north and south and in Maryland there is precious little in the way of roads leading west. In the unlikely event that an evacuation were mandated, a traffic jam would ensue that would make the evacuation of Louisiana in advance of the approach of Katrina seem a mere annoyance.

How can we even speak of an orderly evacuation as people adopt the inevitable ?me first? mentality? Little thought is given to what to do on a school day. The buses, which work in shifts, taking children in turn to elementary, junior high and high school haven?t a chance of getting the children away safely in an emergency. The roads would be jammed with frantic parents. One or two fender benders and gridlock would come quickly. Being told to evacuate, where does one go? Who, in regions out of harms way, is prepared to receive the possible millions moving towards them like a stream of locusts.

Perhaps a sequel to Duck and Cover should be made with an equally catchy title like Run and Recover. It could show a family sitting quietly at dinner, perhaps, who, upon hearing the call to evacuate, smilingly load a few supplies (thoughtfully set aside for just such an emergency) and a suitcase or two in the trunk of their, and drive out of their neighborhood along with their smiling and cooperative neighbors. The scene would end with the family driving towards the setting sun (the rising sun if you are in the west) as a voice over reminds us that this prior planning, as well as some simple, advance preparations, will ensure the safety of all. Fade to credits. Duck and Cover.