Children of the Cold War grew up practicing “duck and cover,” a disaster drill during which we either crawled under our desks at school or went to a windowless interior space, sat on the floor and curled up with our hands over our heads. It was impressed upon us that this maneuver was about surviving nuclear fallout. I was one of these children, having been in elementary school in the 1970s.
Looking back, if a nuclear bomb had gone off anywhere near us, using our desks or hands for protection was laughable. We’d have been vaporized. Living in Little Falls, Minnesota, less than 10 miles from Camp Ripley, a military training facility, it felt as though we could have easily been a target for a nuclear missile, although the bigger risk in rural areas was seen as the radioactive material that was the result of the bomb.
The threat of nuclear war was all-pervasive, with the Cold War lasting from 1947 to 1991. The United States was in a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union after World War II, with both countries attempting to build their stockpiles of nuclear weapons to ridiculous amounts (enough to wipe everyone off the earth several times over) in a show of psychological force.
To a certain extent this worked because the U.S. government went to great lengths to provide information on surviving a nuclear attack through the Office of Civil Defense and related defense agencies. The Morrison County Historical Society received some of these survival materials from the United States Post Office in Little Falls, Minnesota, in 2015. The Little Falls post office was the location of a fallout shelter.
Part of the government’s strategy in helping citizens survive an attack was to urge them to build fallout shelters in their backyards. Communities were encouraged to have larger pubic fallout shelter locations, with signs bearing the distinctive triple-triangle fallout symbol affixed to the exterior walls of these locations. The Little Falls post office’s fallout shelter signs remain on the building, although the shelter itself has become the employee break room according to Kenny Garrison, long-time staff member at the post office.
I am aware of one other fallout shelter sign still in existence in Little Falls. It hangs near the back of the old Bethel Lutheran Church, which now serves as a private residence.
Within the fallout shelter materials donated by the post office, there are several manuals, including “Handbook for Fallout Shelter Management,” “Personal and Family Survival,” “In Time of Emergency: A Citizen’s Handbook on Nuclear Attack and Natural Disasters,” “Emergency Childbirth,” and “Family Guide Emergency Health Care.” The fallout shelter packet also includes plastic bags labeled as commode liners, a “Check List for Shelter Managers,” “Standard Operational Procedures,” and instructions for a sanitation kit. One of the instructions on the sanitation document says, “Remove toilet tissue from bottom of drum — CAUTION, USE SPARINGLY.” Because, surely in a desperate survival situation we’ll have the wherewithal to conserve toilet tissue.
The Cold War lasted until after I left high school, with snapshot memories of related events forever in mind. While I wasn’t alive for the Bay of Pigs and Cuban missile crisis, I remember hearing about both. Then there was the “duck and cover” maneuver, which was also the title of a civil defense film for children, though I don’t recall ever seeing it.
I do, however, remember the release of a made-for-TV movie “The Day After,” which was broadcast in 1983. The premise of the movie was what would happen the day after the U.S. suffers a nuclear attack. In the lead-up to the release, the public was forewarned that the movie would be terrifying. Children were cautioned against watching. I did not see the movie, although I suspect my dad watched it. Likely, it was no more grisly than one of today’s zombie movies, except that nuclear war was a very real danger. So real that the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls declared their campus a “nuclear weapons free zone.”
Eventually, the Cold War petered out with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the crumbling of the Soviet Union in 1991. Thankfully, we did not have to use fallout shelters. With any luck, governments harboring nuclear weapons around the world will abstain from using them or building new stockpiles.
~ Mary Warner, MCHS Executive Director
This article was originally published in the Morrison County Historical Society newsletter, Vol. 30, No. 1, 2017.