The 1950s are probably just a hazy collection of half-
remembered incidents in the minds of the baby boom generation; receding images cloaked in a pea soup fog. Communism was the enemy that the country could join hands and gleefully hate. The McCarthy era, an epic witch-hunt orchestrated by another Republican zealot intent on saving America, finally drew to its inevitably inglorious end. The Andrea Doria sank off Nantucket and an image Marilyn Monroe, her skirt billowing up around her waist, rose over Times Square, causing equal amounts of consternation.
I vaguely recall the Eisenhowers as being nice, if unexciting, people, not quite Grant Wood, but close enough for comfort. Everyone seemed to defer to Ike’s judgment and he had amassed the credentials for being deferred to. His theory about collapsing dominos in Southeast Asia was going to cause a lot of trouble down the line, but no one was much aware of it at the time.
In full retrospect, the ‘50s seem like an age of innocence that might have inspired Edith Wharton to achieve even greater literary heights. It was a time when officials evidently felt the need to reassure school kids that a nuclear bomb wasn’t necessarily the end of the world if sensible precautions were taken. To that end, we were instructed on how to respond to an attack. It didn’t take that long, especially considering the gravity of the subject. The teachers even managed to get through the spiel without rolling their eyes, no small feat.
We had those varnished wooden desks. Most didn’t sit squarely on the floor, so when everyone got up it sounded like a lumberyard collapsing. The desks had inkwells cut into the top even though we had moved out of the quill era a number of years earlier. This rickety piece of very distressed furniture, so the story went, was our best hope of surviving a nuclear bomb. They were our own personal bunkers.
Kids were instructed to get under their desks and curl up into a ball to avoid the devastating shock waves and heat that was roughly equivalent to temperatures at the core of the sun. Years later, someone with a much firmer grip on reality than I nurtured quipped, "You were supposed to curl up in a ball so you could kiss your butt goodbye." (I’m not sure if I can use the word he actually used in a family newspaper.)
I just knew that he was right. Someone whose job it was to educate me to the realities of the world had given me false hope. I won’t say that it had the same dispiriting effect that finding out the truth about Santa Claus did, but I wondered how much else I had been told by my teachers that was patent hogwash. I understand today that the directive must have been initiated by the school’s administration, which certainly puts the whole matter in a much clearer perspective.
In 2003, George W. Bush’s newly formed Department of Homeland Security, whose stated mission was to "protect the homeland," issued the same sort of cartoon cautionary. Liberally applied duct tape, we were assured, would help ally the effects of biological, chemical, or radiological terrorist (this was during W’s heyday so they just had to slip that word in) attacks. I was sophisticated enough by then to recognize another curl up under your desk thing. As a matter of fact, I recall thinking that Dick Cheney must have made some investments in the duct tape industry.
Our schools today face a more immediate threat, something that, in our wildest and darkest imaginations, we couldn’t envision in the 1950s. When you Google the term "school shootings," you are going to have to be much more specific if you are searching for a particular incident. "School shootings" has entered the realm of the commonplace, like national parks and mineral resources. They have become a facet of contemporary life that the American people have astonishingly accepted as acceptable.
From CNN on Oct. 21: "A student opening fire with a handgun he took from his parents. Screaming students running for cover. A teacher, trying to help, shot dead. Two students wounded. The terror lasted just a few brutal minutes." Just another day in America.
The latest tragedy was at Sparks Middle School in Nevada. The killer was a 12-year-old who, police speculate, was being bullied. Why the child did what he did is immaterial both to the dead teacher and to the heart of an issue that this country just won’t face. This child had access to a 9mm Rugers handgun that his parents, whom I’m sure would paint themselves as "responsible gun owners," had left accessible to him. A 12-year-old, weaned on the violence he sees in every aspect of the so-called entertainment industry that gets fat on purveying mayhem to minors, would see the weapon as the perfect solution to his perceived persecution, the ultimate equalizer. It bears repeating: This child was only 12 years old.
Schools in Missouri aim (pun intended) to do something about the gun violence. Gov. Jay Nixon has signed a bill that allows "gun safety" courses to be taught to first-graders in the state. (Try to bear in mind that Missouri is a state that would probably lynch anyone who proposed that courses in sex education be offered in elementary schools.) Instead of courageously dealing with the core problem, lawmakers in Missouri have opted to give children tips on how to survive it. Teachers are being told not to imply any judgments about guns, a neat trick in 2013.
I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some of the advice consisted of getting under the nearest desk. I guess that is what I still would do.
Alden Graves is a Banner columnist.