Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Bill Archer

March 5, 2012

Lesson on ‘duck and cover’ underscored danger during Cuban crisis

In the fall of 1962, I was an eighth-grade student at McGuffey High School in Claysville, Pa. I didn’t know much about world events at the time, but I recall that my homeroom was on the first floor of the relatively new building and I remember that the wall to the left of the blackboard from a student’s perspective featured windows from ceiling to about 4 feet from the floor. The metal wall was tall enough for a pair of electric heaters — one for the front and one for the back of the room.

Since my last name started with “A,” I sat in the first row nearest the wall to the outside hallway. I think I had the second seat back, although I can’t remember. I remember being close to the door. Back in those days, I thought class was the thing that students suffered through between the first bell and recess. The suffering continued during class between recess and lunch, between lunch and recess and between recess and going home. In my mind, my scholastic career peaked in fifth grade when I placed second in the East-West Finley School spelling bee. My education was all downhill from there.

This next part is sad but true. The only lesson I can recall from eighth grade was, “Duck and cover.” One morning, our teacher started class by explaining the proper procedure for us to follow in the event of nuclear attack. The teacher explained that the steel mils of Pittsburgh were about 40 to 45 miles north of us, and that they would be a likely target in the event of a nuclear attack. She also said that Jessop Steel and Washington Steel in nearby Washington, Pa., were also possible secondary targets and that there was a chance that the Russians might lob another ICBM on that location. Jessop Steel was less than five miles away from my school.

Although I was a kid, I didn’t buy the idea that Little Washington was a possible secondary target, but I totally committed to the idea that if the Russians were really planning to initiate Armageddon and were working from a list, Pittsburgh was most likely on it. Coming to that understanding brought the concept of a nearby nuclear explosion into clear focus for me. I actually listened carefully to my homeroom teacher, and followed her instructions to the letter.

She said it was possible that we might not have any advance warning at all, and added that if that was the case, the first student to observe the flash of light from the explosion should shout out a warning and all of the students should immediately crawl under their desk and cover their faces to minimize injury from the inevitable pieces of glass that would be flying in the room when the explosion shattered the glass in the windows.

Suddenly, the advantage of being able to watch custodians installing the Maypole in the spring seemed like a dubious distinction when the thought of a real explosion on the horizon was a possibility. McGuffey High School had opened some time before then. I had finished sixth grade at East-West Finley, and I started at the new McGuffey when building contractors were still finishing up their end-of-job punch list. I remember watching students dancing around a Maypole in the spring of 1962, and thinking that I had never seen that many people dressed up before. The Maypole dance was held on the level area beside the school and outside my eighth-grade classroom.

During my earlier schooling, I resented having an “A” name and being stuck in the front, but when my teacher mentioned the shards of flying glass, it occurred to me that my desk near the hallway wall would be pretty safe in the event of a nuclear attack on Pittsburgh. I did not wish any ill will to my fellow students, but if the flash of a nuclear explosion lit up the northern sky and I only had moments to react, I thought I was in a pretty good place to duck and cover.

By the end of the day, my thinking had changed totally. If I saw the flash of a nuclear explosion, I realized that my chance of survival would be pretty slim. I also started wondering how my world would change. I started feeling sorry for all the cattle, sheep, chickens, dogs, kitties, birds and our horse, Mack Sonora. I might make it, but our farm was also 45 to 50 miles from Pittsburgh.

That lesson must have been during the Cuban missile crisis. Looking back, I think about how matter-of-factly my teacher talked about avoiding instant death by crawling under a school desk. After that, I didn’t mind being seated in the front near the door and beside the hallway wall. The first letter of my last name was a perk and not something to bemoan.

Bill Archer is senior editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at barcher@bdtonline.com.

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