Be Like Bert: Duck and Cover

Be Like Bert: Duck and Cover

I told myself I wouldn’t do another gloomy political post this week, or talk about another podcast, but stuff happens. After all the talk of shitholes, and the spectacle of a White House unable to master its mute button (which I have to believe was very large and beautiful), the entire state of Hawaii was forced to duck and cover–all because somebody pushed the wrong button. Oops.

Growing up with duck and cover

When I was a child, all my little friends and I were taught to hide beneath our tiny desks in the event of nuclear attack. This, we learned, would protect us. I don’t remember whether we all gathered in the cafeteria/gymnasium/auditorium to watch the story of Bert the Turtle, or whether I questioned the effectiveness of duck and cover. Certainly no one thought to ask how Bert would find enough snails to fill his tummy after nuclear winter set in. What I do remember is feeling worried–terribly worried, despite my happy childhood–that the Russians might try to blow us up.

Nowadays I’m less concerned about megalomaniacs sending rockets on purpose (not that that couldn’t happen), and more concerned about some ordinary person somewhere making a small error that sets off a deadly chain reaction.

That most fallible of creatures

Because, let’s be clear: nobody has said the employee who “pushed the wrong button” (actually, clicked the wrong item in a dropdown menu, but that doesn’t have quite the same ring) was any worse of an employee than any other. Nobody came forward and said, “Oh, yeah, they should have fired that guy years ago. Don’t know how he ever got hired.”

No, this doesn’t sound like Homer Simpson plopping a box of doughnuts down on the button. This sounds more like a vulnerable and poorly-designed system being entrusted to that most fallible of creatures: a human being. Without enough built-in redundancy, Hawaii’s warning system was just waiting for someone to have a Reply All moment.

And how many other systems that we rely on every day for our safety and sanity are equally vulnerable? I have a feeling it’s a whole lot. But we don’t talk or even think much about that. It’s so much more comforting to just pull our head inside our shell and wait for a kindly grownup to come and tell us everything is all right.

Grownups to the rescue

Did you notice how reassuring the grownups are in that Civil Defense video above? They have everything in hand!

“We think that most of the time, we will be warned before the bomb explodes.” In other words, nuclear explosions will be a regular occurrence. But don’t worry, kids–we’ve got this!

“Be sure to get into the house fast, where your parents have fixed a safe place for you to go.” Of course they have–right under the kitchen table!

“Ask an older person to help you.” You know–one of those people who created the bomb in the first place?

“Attaboy, Tony!” (as Tony hops off his bike on the way to Cub Scouts and rests his little head against a curb). False alarm, Tony–you get to live another day. Yay!

But wait–there’s this: “Older people will help, as they always do–but there might not be any grownups around when the bomb explodes. Then, you’re on your own.” Oh, snap! Where are the grownups when you need them? I ask myself this question all the time.

It’s often noted in YA circles that kids don’t trust adults. Gee, I wonder why? Global warming and mass extinction weren’t enough. Now a whole generation of young Hawaiians gets to grow up with the memory of being shoved down a manhole by their panic-stricken parents. And while children and adults learn to duck and cover again, our president wants to build up our nuclear arsenal, and doesn’t see why we even have those weapons if we’re not prepared to use them. Appallingly, he seems to think that a nuclear first strike might be okay in some circumstances. It isn’t.

But it’s not about age

Despite the paragraphs above, this isn’t a rant about not trusting anyone over thirty. As it happens, I’ve been over thirty for a considerable amount of time, and I’ve realized that it’s our status as human beings that makes us so terribly fallible–not our age. After all, Yoda was old.

And I’m not ridiculing the idea of duck and cover, either. It was an attempt to save lives at a time when the memory of air raids was all too fresh in people’s minds–and the available budget to provide more effective measures to protect the public was woefully inadequate . . . kind of like today, come to think of it. (That last bit is worth its own blog post. But not today.)

No, my real point is that here we are, seven decades after Hiroshima, no wiser than before, but orders of magnitude more vulnerable.

Here’s that botched conference call! Oh, wait . . .

In case you missed it, here’s that botched White House conference call I referred to above:

Oops, sorry, wrong tape. My bad. Pushed the wrong button. Just a moment while I locate that tape. Hmm, that’s funny. I can’t seem to find it anywhere. I watched it the other day on MSNBC, but now it’s become diabolically difficult to find. I fear it’s gone missing. Any guesses what happened to it? Can anyone else find it? I get why the folks safeguarding the big button don’t want us to see the video, but I wouldn’t have thought it would just disappear–poof!–without a trace.

At least we can still read an article about it.

About that podcast I mentioned

I’m not sure if duck and cover had anything to do with it, but I’ve slept poorly for many years. It’s hard to come up with anything good to say about insomnia, but at least, through the twin miracles of smartphones and earbuds, I’ve listened to some excellent podcasts.

This American Life never disappoints, and Episode 634: Human Error in Volatile Situations (December 21, 2017) came instantly to mind when I heard about the false alarm in Hawaii this past weekend. (Not to mention the eerily similar one that happened just yesterday in Japan.) You don’t want to believe this stuff actually happens. But it does.

Sleep tight!

* * *

My current work in progress, We Still Have Us, tells the story of a seventeen-year-old girl in upstate New York who’s caught between poverty and privilege, dreams and duty, past and future. You can read more about it here. And for writerly updates, news, and commentary, subscribe below to my newsletter.

We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit
Share this...
Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on Pinterest

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *