|Bert the Turtle taught me and other children of the
1950s and 1960s how to protect ourselves in the event
of a nuclear bomb. 1952, Creative Commons, originally
published by the U.S. Government and Archer Productions.
Though life on South Luella Avenue in the early 1960s was indeed full of innocence and bliss for the most part, we were not untouched by the world around us. In my case, this became evident at bedtime. While some young children had trouble getting to sleep at night because they were afraid of monsters in the closet, I was afraid there were Russians under my bed.
The “Red Scare” of the 1940s and 50s spilled into the early 1960s with a vengeance, as talk of the threat of communism and nuclear annihilation permeated the airwaves and became a household topic of conversation. My parents wisely refrained from talking about it around my sisters and me. Despite their best efforts, however, it was hard to miss the nation’s preoccupation with the threat of an atomic attack.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy made a speech exhorting American citizens to build fallout shelters to protect themselves in the event of a nuclear attack by the Russians. The idea of a fallout shelter was to give people a safe place to evacuate where they could stay for as many as two weeks.
A 1959 booklet, The Family Fallout Shelter, published by the federal Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization, stated, “The enemy would try to knock out our retaliatory power. He might also try to destroy our cities. No one can be sure how far the enemy would go.” It went on to give detailed instructions on how to build five different kinds of fallout shelters, including a concrete block basement shelter for about $150 – 200.
This latter shelter was the one my father, Gilbert Huesca, set out to build in our basement. I don’t remember watching him build it, but I do recall we had a wall of concrete blocks partitioning off part of the basement. The wall did not go all the way to the ceiling, as I was able to climb on a table and look over the top. Apparently, there was supposed to be a roof on the shelter eventually, but I do not think my father got that far.
The booklet also gave brief tips on what the family should do in the event they had to use the shelter:
Families with children will have particular problems. They should provide for simple recreation.
My mother, Joan (Schiavon) Huesca, set about stocking our basement shelter with canned food, powdered milk, water, medicine, toys, cots, and other supplies. My father built long shelves along the concrete wall, and my mother filled each and every one, meticulously labeling each container with descriptions and expiration dates.
We children also did our patriotic part. At school, we participated in safety drills, as Bert the Turtle taught us how to “duck and cover” under our desks, in hallways, or against walls in the event of an atomic bomb explosion. We knew well that the sound of the air raid siren meant we had to drop to ground immediately in a crouching position, covering the back of our necks and faces to protect ourselves against injury.
We accepted this quite matter-of-factly, because we had never known anything else; yet like typical children, sometimes we needed that extra bit of assurance that we would be safe. For me, that meant asking my mommy and daddy to look under my bed every night to make sure there were no “enemy” Russians waiting to snatch me away.
Civil Defense shelters, marked by three yellow triangles on a black circle, were also commonplace at the time. An article in the Chicago Reader noted that at one time the city had some 1,482 shelters that could accommodate almost two million people.
After the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 had subsided, there remained speculation that the Russians had nuclear missiles aimed at major American cities, Chicago being one of them. My mother and father decided that we would be safer living in Mexico, away from the perceived threat of nuclear destruction. They did not want to frighten my sisters and me, so they announced to us that we were moving to Mexico City so we could get to know our relatives and learn a new language and another culture, and where the climate would be much warmer than frigid Chicago.
On a very early morning in 1964, we piled into our yellow 1962 Ford Falcon station wagon. My father had built a large wooden box to fit the roof carrier; inside it he and my mother had packed everything we would take for this new chapter of our life. It took about a week to drive from Chicago to Mexico City, where my grandmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins welcomed us with open arms.
We would not learn the real reason we had left Chicago until my father told us three decades later.
Though technology has changed our world drastically since the 1960s, some things have not changed all that much. We are still the same human beings we were back then. We still worry about the future. We try to prepare for the unknown. We do the best we can within the realm of possibility to protect our loved ones.
My parents acted in our best interest and sacrificed greatly on our behalf. My father had to give up his job. My mother had to leave her parents, her brother, and all her friends. They left a beautiful home to start over again.
We lived in Mexico City for three years before returning eventually to the States. I will be forever grateful to my parents for our life-changing move, which left an indelibly positive influence on the people we would become. Living in Mexico exposed us to opportunities we never could have imagined. For me, this meant getting to know my relatives and developing strong and intimate bonds with them that continue to this day, making new friends, attending a Mexican school and learning through a new perspective, and learning to speak Spanish fluently.
Life happens in mysterious ways. Though I may have feared the Russians in my childhood, maybe today in some strange way I have them to thank for that, too.
Copyright © 2013 Linda Huesca Tully