Put your hands over your head!
No, it was not a stick up, at least not of the regular kind. It was the 1960 version of paranoia, visited upon elementary school children daily in their classrooms.
During the time period of 1960 through 1962 those of us attending West Hollywood Elementary School, of Hollywood, Florida, were daily participants in the “Stop, Drop, and Cover” drill, as well as the “Duck, Cover and Wait” version. Both drills were the result of adults being afraid of “The Bomb” and that Castro was going to shoot missiles at us.
Looking back now I can have a bit more sympathy for the adults of the day. They had experienced the horrors of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the continued bomb testing going on in Nevada and at Bikini atoll. They were also the first generation of adults to see disasters on television, happening in more or less real time. We must not underestimate the shock value those images had, nor the emotional distress they caused.
In my opinion, falling to the ground and curling up in a ball, with your hands over your head, did nothing but frighten young children and created a generation of “Doomsday Children,” always waiting for the “Big One” to drop. That was the era of building bomb shelters and stockpiling supplies in them. In Florida we couldn’t dig without hitting water so shelter building wasn’t as big of a deal there.
At the time of this story I was in my second grade class with Miss Wright (no relation) as my teacher, and we were being instructed in how to properly “take cover.” They were afraid to say what we were really doing because it would cause panic for sure, so they called them tornado drills.
I had lived in south Florida for years and had never seen a tornado by itself, except on television—happening somewhere else. They sometimes spun off of hurricanes either over land or as waterspouts, but those are not the same size and intensity as the monsters that plague the rest of the country.
We were young and inexperienced, but we were not stupid. Kids weren’t generally deaf then either. We heard our parents and other adults talking about what was going on with Cuba and the Russians, and we overheard the teachers talking among themselves. What little television we were allowed to watch usually included the evening news and at that time, especially in south Florida, the missile crisis was always being talked about.
There were some advantages to these drills, besides the obvious disruption to the education process which kids were always ready for. We usually had to work at getting the teacher off track, so as to break the monotony of all of that learnin’.
My desk was at the back of the row by the windows, located farthest away from the door to the classroom. It was an alphabetical arrangement to make taking roll and lining up to go anywhere easier for the teacher. Sometimes I thought that it was really done that way in an effort to keep me from escaping.
As the drill began, the teacher had to first go over and shut the door. After securing the door she had to take roll again. “Duh, she just did that an hour earlier!” I thought, but the rules were the rules. Then she had to sit down in her chair and put her head down on the desk.
I think that modification to the “Duck and Cover” drill was just because she was so old that she couldn’t get under her desk without getting hurt. She was eligible to retire long before I was born, but she didn’t want to give up teaching. Her wanting to stay was really funny thinking back on it, because she always called us brats and was grumpy each and every day.
When they rang the bell to start the drill on one particular day, we all hit the deck just like we had been shot, much to the displeasure of Miss Wright. She shook her finger at us and made noises with her mouth to indicate to be quiet. We thought that what we did was hilarious and started laughing, incurring further wrath from the drill sergeant.
The girls really didn’t like lying down on the floor and getting their dresses dirty, and yes, in those days all of the girls wore dresses. Remember also that these were seven year old girls. If they were having a bad day anyway for some reason, they were likely to start crying. Depending on which girl it was, it could start a regular chain reaction. Just like going to the restroom together, if one cried, they all cried.
It was during one of these drills the very next day that we decided to see how long we could make the drill last. We wanted to see just how long the teacher would play the game until she had enough and called a halt to it on her own.
When the drill signal sounded we all hit the floor and stayed there, watching the teacher, but very quietly this time. She thought that we were being good because of her fussing at us last time. When she was done with roll taking and satisfied that we were down and in the proper position (curled into a ball with our hands over our heads) she sat down and put her head down on her desk.
As soon as her head came to rest on her desk I slipped out of the window next to me (the windows went from the floor to the ceiling with no screens) then ran around the building to the other side. I was going to slip back into the classroom through the window, but the windows were all closed! A girl that sat by the windows had closed them because she was cold.
Even as a child I wasn’t one to panic easily, and I saw another option. I walked around to the door to the classroom and went in, just like it was the most normal thing in the world. The teacher never moved a muscle.
I walked all the way through the room to my desk and as I was about to get back on the floor, I thought, “Why not?” So going with my now plan “B,” I walked over to the other side of the room, stepping carefully over the bodies sprawled all over the place (you could only stay curled up in a ball for so long.)
Once there I moved a chair over very, very quietly, climbed up on it and unscrewed the nut on the center of the red alarm bell enough to loosen the bell. Then I stuffed the bell full of paper towels until no more would fit and screwed the nut back in place.
Just as I got off of the chair I heard the muffled rustle of the striker inside the bell, but nothing that could be heard from more than a couple of feet away, so we were in business. I went back to my spot and lay down with a book under my head and my arms crossed to wait out our “how long?” game.
The “random and spontaneous” (as written in the teacher’s instructions) sounding of the alarm always happened at 9:00 a.m. on the dot and was over just as precisely at 9:15 a.m. every single day. You could set your watch by it, except that I didn’t have a watch.
We all struggled to suppress the giggles and were each determined not to be the one that ended our “drill.” I was truly surprised that the girls went along with it.
9:30 a.m. came along and still no movement from the teacher. At just fifteen minutes into the overtime part of the game we were getting restless. Kids can only be still for so long and then they have to do something or explode.
By 9:45 a.m. one of the girls, who was pretty bold for her age, came over to me and said that two of the girls had to go to the bathroom. What was “I” going to do about it? I said, “Who made me bathroom monitor?” She said this thing was my doing so I had to tell them what to do. Boy, it was lonely at the top!
I figured that Miss Wright probably wouldn’t remember if she did it or not, so I eased the “bathroom pass” (a key connected to a piece of wood with “Miss Wright” burned into it) off its hook on the side of her desk and gave it to the two girls. I could only hope that they wouldn’t encounter anyone who would challenge them and scare a confession out of them as to what we were doing. Kids under duress were often spontaneous confessors.
The game had suddenly gotten serious. Recess was approaching swiftly, and we weren’t going to miss our favorite “class” of the day. Normally we went out at 10 a.m. and returned to class at 10:30 a.m. It wasn’t looking good.
My mind finally clicked and I thought,”Hey wait a minute! What’s wrong with me?” I whispered to everyone to be completely quiet and line up on the sidewalk and we would march out to the playground just like we did every day, only this time we would be ten minutes earlier.
Oh yeah, extra play time and first dibs on the baseball field and the basketball court. I had no idea why didn’t I think of it sooner. Everyone did as I said and out they went, quiet as happy little mice.
Miss Wright had been lying there for a long time, and she was VERY old. A momentary flash of newspaper headlines, “Teacher dies at desk, while children play joke…” crossed before my eyes. The thought, “How would I get out of that predicament?” started churning in my over active brain as I stood there staring at her.
Just then she let out a raspy, gurgling snore that would do a bear justice, and I knew that she was just “sawing logs” and not “joked and croaked.” And out the door I went.
On the playground the teacher that usually snuck out early to recess (and always grabbed the fields for HER students) was pacing up and down. She was obviously not happy that someone had beaten her to the punch for once. The angry woman wanted to speak to the teacher responsible for those children who had “violated the recess starting time”. What a big hypocritical baby!
She approached several members of our class, but the kids kept moving, afraid to have to answer any questions. It was getting to the point where she was going to blow the whistle at us… and you couldn’t disobey the whistle. It just wasn’t done!
So I moved to intercept her without being obvious and “let” her capture me and demand to know where our teacher was. That would be OK, I had a plan and I hoped it worked, because plan “B” for this one was run like mad!
I said to the grand inquisitor, “Oh, Miss Wright wasn’t feeling well and had to go to…”, and gave it a little turning red and bashful look, “to the…” She said, “Out with it, son!” And I answered, “To the facilities.” Yeah, good and vague, no real direction given and I never said to the bathroom. And followed up with, “And we are worried about her, she didn’t look well, kind of all sleepy looking and red in the face.”
And that’s exactly what she looked like when the teacher and Mr. Sullivan (the principal) found her still asleep, face down on her desk, with her hands still over her head.
She was so flustered and confused about being asleep, and getting caught that way by the principal, that the subject of the bell not ringing (or the early recess) never even came up, not on that day or any day afterwards.
The principal escorted Miss Wright down to the school nurse to have her temperature taken and get her a glass of orange juice. Miss Queen of Angry hustled back out onto the playground to regain her dominance over everyone there. I used the few minutes where no one was in the classroom to remove the paper towels from the bell and throw them away. I was happy to have survived the game, but definitely sure that I wouldn’t do that again.
As far as their stupid drills were concerned, I’d much rather have gotten blown up by a missile or bomb while I was playing ball instead of hiding under a desk. Have you ever seen what is on the underside of a school desk? Not a pretty sight!
And that’s the way it was in 1960, when the known world was “smaller” and so was I.