Rainbow Snippets: Learning to ‘duck and cover’ from atomic bombs in the 1950s

Today is the third post in my series about the 1950s and Rainbow Snippets. Every week, readers and writers in the Rainbow Snippets Facebook group share six lines from a piece of LGBTQ+ fiction—one for each line of the rainbow flag. The snippet can be from their own work, or just something they enjoyed reading.

This week, I’m again sharing from Tomboy, my coming-of-age romance novella set in the United States of the 1950s. Today’s snippet takes place right at the beginning of Harriet’s school year in 1951, the year the Federal Civil Defense Administration was set up to teach Americans ways to survive atomic attacks. One popular survival tactic was “duck and cover,” which began to be taught widely in schools. Kids would get under their desks and protect their faces by shielding them in their laps, arms, or against the floor. They were also taught to cover the backs of their necks with their folded hands.

cover of a nuclear preparedness booklet from 1950
This US government booklet is in the public domain.

This maneuver was not meant to protect kids from a blast at close range or to shield them from radioactive fallout. Experts knew that little could be done to protect people in this situation. But they believed “duck and cover” could help people who were located farther out from Ground Zero. Some survivors of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, who had been away from the strike’s epicenters, reported many injuries that weren’t from the blast itself, but from secondary effects like flying glass and debris. And in some cases, sheltering behind solid walls or lying on the ground had protected individuals from thermal burns and blast waves.

Here, it’s the first day of school, and Harriet’s fourth-grade teacher is eager to teach her students all about ducking and covering. I went a little over the six-sentence limit, but that’s okay—the original rainbow flag had eight stripes! (For those outside the U.S., most kids in fourth grade are around nine years old):

We spent the rest of the morning learning how to protect ourselves from atomic explosions. Mrs. Baumgartner said this knowledge could save us now that the Soviets had the bomb. “When an air raid siren goes off or you see a bright flash of light, duck and cover underneath a table or desk, inside a corridor, or next to a strong brick wall. Then pull your sweater or coat up to cover the back of your neck and head,” she explained.

We all squatted under our desks as instructed. My father said the Russians weren’t stupid enough to bomb us, that they loved the common people and wanted to protect us. But Mrs. Baumgartner seemed to think they were. She went on in excruciating detail about the things that could happen to us if we didn’t duck and cover.

'We spent the rest of the morning learning how to protect ourselves from atomic explosions. Mrs. Baumgartner said this knowledge could save us now that the Soviets had the bomb.'—Tomboy by @JanelleReston #amreading Click To Tweet

In 1952, teachers like Mrs. Baumgartner got help with these preparedness lessons through the 10-minute children’s film Duck and Cover, which featured a cartoon turtle named Bert and a cheery little song reminding kids to duck and cover in the face of nuclear danger. This film was shown in classrooms throughout the country, as well as on television and through the “Alert America Convoy,” a traveling exhibit that educated Americans about civil defense:

In addition to teaching a practical skill for bomb survival, experts hoped preparedness drills would help give children—and adults—a sense of control and thus make them less anxious about the nuclear threat. But they often had the opposite effect, filling kids with anxiety. (You can read personal anecdotes about school air raid drills and “duck and cover” in the comments section of Remember “Air Raid Drills” In Schools From The 1950s And Early 1960s?)

Today, people tend to make fun of the idea that ducking and covering could have made any difference. It’s often dismissed as propaganda meant to drum up anti-Soviet sentiment in the Cold War. It probably did contribute to the latter. And it is true that, today, ducking and covering during a nuclear attack would probably make little difference. But that’s because today’s nuclear weapons, which rely on fusion reactions, are hundreds of times more powerful than the atomic bombs of the 1940s and early 1950s, which depended on fission reactions. I don’t say this to minimize the danger of earlier atomic weapons; their use devastated Japan. But the difference does help explain why some people in the blast zones of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were able to survive, and why the U.S. government promoted “duck and cover” so aggressively.

If I were ever near a fission blast, I certainly hope my first instinct would be to hit the floor and cover my head.

Image from Operation Doorstep, a civil defense study conducted in conjunction with the nuclear weapons test  Operation Upshot-Knothole Annie in Nevada in 1953. It shows a mother mannequin and a child under a basement lean-to shelter. This US government image is in the public domain.

The destructiveness of hydrogen bombs is a major reason “duck and cover” drills petered out in the 1960s. People knew there was little they could do to survive an atomic blast except hide in a fallout shelter, and even those might not help.

To learn more about “duck and cover” and the Cold War of the 1950s, check out any of the links above or visit my Cold War Pinterest board.

And learn more about the context of Tomboy by reading through my posts about the 1950s.

The history of the novella Tomboy: Learning to 'duck and cover' from atomic bombs in the 1950s Click To Tweet

About Tomboy

Some kids’ heads are in the clouds. Harriet Little’s head is in outer space.

In 1950s America, everyone is expected to come out of a cookie-cutter mold. But Harriet prefers the people who don’t, like her communist-sympathizer father and her best friend Jackie, a tomboy who bucks the school dress code of skirts and blouses in favor of T-shirts and blue jeans. Harriet realizes she’s also different when she starts to swoon over Rosemary Clooney instead of Rock Hudson—and finds Sputnik and sci-fi more fascinating than sock hops.

Before long, Harriet is secretly dating the most popular girl in the school. But she soon learns that real love needs a stronger foundation than frilly dresses and feminine wiles.

Tomboy is a very sweet and delightful love story set in post-war America, following Harriet’s growing up and the gradually blossoming relationship between two school friends. … Beautifully written and genuinely touching – I loved it.Netgalley reader review


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tomboy book cover


13 thoughts on “Rainbow Snippets: Learning to ‘duck and cover’ from atomic bombs in the 1950s”

    • Thanks so much! My history posts will probably match the length of the novella once it’s all said and done 🙂

      And I’m so glad you enjoyed the story.

  1. Wow! Thank you for the lesson. I have new appreciation for that teaching now. On a side note, I am annoyed that FB didn’t notify me of new comments on this weekend’s thread. ~sigh~ That said, thank you for sharing. And Happy Writing!

    • Same here! My mom got terrible bouts of anxiety from the drills. She doesn’t like to talk about them, unlike how my father loved to talk about how the Pledge of Allegiance was different when he was in school. And thank you! <3

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