I would hear the mournful wail of the siren and hold my breath, not moving a muscle, and listen intently to the sound. Would the whine of the siren fall after rising, and then rise and fall again? If so, then everything was okay. That was just a call for the volunteer fire department to respond to a fire or maybe an accident out on the highway.
If the siren rose and didn’t fall again but persisted in a steady, high fashion, I would have to mentally time it while scanning the horizon. Was it a summer day with dark clouds approaching? A tornado warning for our town meant the siren would blow continuously for a couple minutes before the whine quieted down and would be replaced by the roar of the oncoming storm. Recognizing this siren, too, would calm my fears. A tornado wasn’t a big deal in comparison. It was the third siren I dreaded hearing.
My grandpa was the Fire Chief in town, so I knew there was another siren that could sound. It would rise and then blow steadily, not for just a couple minutes, but for one hour straight. Or at least it was supposed to scream for one hour straight to sound the proper alarm, but I knew that if it ever happened, it would be silenced within a half hour, after the first nuclear bomb wiped it out. The siren I lived in fear of was the one that signaled war.
Yes, I was a child of the 80s. I know all about Flock of Seagulls haircuts and Rubik’s cubes and the Don Johnson white jacket. But what really defined the children of the 80s, in my opinion, is our living in fear of a nuclear holocaust.
It wasn’t just me who had this fear. I remember my sister and her friends about to leave the house one day (with their feathered hair and jean jackets, no doubt) while I was watching TV, and suddenly the show was interrupted by the Breaking News music and a stationary graphic. They all stopped dead in their tracks and waited to see what the news would be. Dan Rather came on and began saying something that I can no longer recall, but it was not a declaration of nuclear war. My sister made some excuse along the lines of, “I just had to stop because I love to listen to his voice,” and the other girls made up similar lame excuses. Nervous laughter floated through the air and then they were gone.
But we were all on edge, waiting to hear that President Reagan or perhaps the USSR’s Mikhail Gorbachev had pushed the fictional “red button” and begun the Armageddon. (Def Leppard’s Armageddon It, anyone?) At some point I had heard that it would only take 30 minutes for the first Soviet missile to reach the United States, so I would mentally tell myself that when the announcement finally came, whether via local emergency siren or Dan Rather, I would have a half hour left to live. I don’t know anymore what I planned to do with that half hour. Make sure my parents were home, I suppose. Or grab my cat and hide in the basement. Or maybe I was finally going to unleash my wild side and eat Pop Rocks while drinking Coke. There were a few buildings in our town that had those black and yellow signs with the triangles that indicated “Fallout Shelter”, but I don’t think I ever seriously planned to go to one of them. Watching other people’s hysteria would be worse than just dealing with my own.
Being a true child of the 80s, I framed this 30 minutes I had left to live by thinking of it as the time it takes to watch the Cosby Show. I remember once being at an outdoor theater watching a Shakespearean play and seeing planes fly over and wondering if it had started and none of us knew yet, because none of us were watching TV or listening to the radio and we were out in the countryside where the sound of the sirens might not reach us. I started picturing an episode of the Cosby Show, wondering how far I’d get through it before the blinding flash of light would signal the end, when my mom nudged me. “Look at that guy with his Walkman,” she whispered. “He must be listening to the Brewer game.” I immediately relaxed. He was piped in to the real world. If the war had started, he would know. I was safe. For now.
Come with me, Kitty, and I will protect you from the nuclear bombs! And that wallpaper.