Thursday, January 27, 2011

Our worst fears, ignored dangers, and risky pranks

We eventually survived all the perils of youth and natural disasters and moved on to adulthood. But the most terrifying scourges of our young lives were Communism and "The Bomb" (A or H - didn't matter - either one could blow us all to kingdom come).

Surprise air raid drills struck often during school hours. At the sound of air raid horns, we either dove beneath our desks or huddled in the school hallways with our arms clenched over our heads. To make sure we would be identifiable when (not if) the bombs fell, every kid was supposed to wear ID or "dog" tags - just like the ones soldiers and sailors wore. Except that instead of hanging on a chain around our necks (which would get very hot in a bomb situation), the little metal rectangle embossed with name and address was slipped on a plastic ribbon - I guess the plastic in those days didn't melt. Newspapers, magazines, radio, and school-issued bulletins provided lists of emergency supplies every household should store. The best place to hide from radiation and the enemy hordes which were sure to follow, would be a "bomb shelter" - preferably one underground. Across the country people stockpiled canned goods and flashlights. Some actually built cement-walled shelters. It was sort of a lark really. The government busily tested dozens if not hundreds of atomic blasts - in the Pacific southseas, Nevada, - lucky them! - and who knows where else. Watching the magnificent displays of deadly power gave Americans a sense of national pride. How many cancers did those foolhardy tests cause? And this was done at the same time we were learning how to protect ourselves from enemy bomb radiation - I guess our own bomb radiation was safe for human consumption! At the Bainbridge Island Grange Hall there was a sell-out crowd invited to watch a color slide show of the atomic explosions at Yucca Flats, Nevada. What a show of American might - made us all feel so safe from the enemies lurking at our borders.

This time too, early 1950's, the so-called "Korean situation" crowded the headlines setting off a rush to stockpile sugar and coffee and buy cars and refrigerators. The rationing of WWII was still fresh in everyones' minds. All eligible young men were required to sign up for "the draft". It might be interesting to note that the Korean war was never officially declared as war. It remains on the government books as an "emergency." We elected a 5-star general as President, Ike Eisenhower, in the midst of this new crisis. in January 1953, his inauguration was the first one to be broadcast over national television. All Island schoolchildren sat in the school auditoriums watching a grainy, black and white picture on a set perched on the stage. Lots of us still did not have television sets at home.

But physical danger was nothing compard to the threat of being brain-washed, sucked-in irretrievably into one of the countless insidious, secret Communist plots to destroy America. Why even one of Bainbridge High School star students was enrolled to enter Reed College in Oregon after graduation - that institution was reputed to be a hot-bed of rampant Communism - fear roiled in the hallowed hallways.

The popular Washington State Congressman Pelly visited the Island and spoke to a school-wide assembly about the Red danger lurking in our very government - at every level. He warned, " . . . subversive elements within the government structure . . " - Congressional report says," . . . grim reality of how far communists had infiltrated into the governmental structure . . " The very fabric of the American way of life was being torn apart - according to the bullying, zealot Senator McCarthy.

It seemed all adults smoked. It was glamorous, sexy, adult! All the so-called "cool" kids high-tailed it to a spot behind the high school tennis court to smoke away the lunch hour. Supposedly, some of the teachers did too. I don't know about that but the real danger of first and second hand smoke didn't enter our consciousness. Tobacco companies advertised "free smokes" for servicemen. The hugely popular weekly radio music show "Your Hit Parade" was sponsored by Lucky Strike cigarettes. The program featured the top ten (at first, fifteen) songs of the week as tabulated by sales of sheet music, phonograph records, and played on jukeboxes. Since this was before computers, just how all this data was cumulated in such a short time is a mystery. At the Cat'n'Fiddle (cafe at the new shopping center just down from the high school)teen hangout, nickels and dimes contributed by all kept the music bouncing because by then (the 1950's), rock and roll, Elvis, Buddy Holley, and lots of others had taken over the air waves. At the high school, the tiny gymnasium smack in the middle of the old building, was the scene of lunch time dancing (which was actually not approved) and "sock hops" after basketball and football games.

Sometimes it was animals for fun. At one of the after-game dances a skunk was used for attention - I think it was pretty much dead. And another one slipped into a locker. Poor Mr. Bean tried to combine meal preparation with a biology dissection lesson. The chickens he brought for be-heading, de-feathering, and subsequent tearing from limb to limb, managed to get sway. (Do you blame them?) They were "accidently" set loose! Not only the biology class in session went tearing down the halls after the squawking fowl but Mrs. Paski's home ec class across the hall got into the act. Mr. Bean left out dissection after that - not even frogs.

Pranks and risky adventures were high on the list of dangers. It was tradition for some of the Senior boys to climb the water tower behind the high school and splash the current Senior class motto for all the world to see. (I'll get to the adventure(s) of my own class later.) The class of 1955 took liberty with the popular movie "Stalag 17" (about Americans in a German prisoner of war camp) and painted "Stalag 55" in huge blue letters across the bricks on the school's side facing the road. Of course everyone knew who the culprits were but no one would "out" them. So, punishment was threatened. But the solidarity of the entire student body stood firm as a "walk out" or "strike" was called. We lined up across the opposite side of the road. It was of course short-lived but we felt liberated and so rebellious. We were the Frosh class then. So grown up - to take part in such frivolity! Better than bibs and bonnets!

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