Do you know what to do if the Bomb drops? Until recently, I sure didn’t. The bulk of my civil-defense training had come from those black-light posters that were popular in the early 70s, the ones that listed ten steps to prepare yourself for a thermonuclear explosion. I forget what the first nine steps were, but number ten was always “Bend over and kiss your ass good-bye.” The advice looked cool hanging next to the Day-Glo poster of Jimi at Monterey, but as a practical reference guide to surviving a nuclear war, it didn’t pack much megatonnage.

So when I discovered that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was offering solid, practical advice on what to do if the Big One drops, I jumped on it. As it turns out, FEMA offers a nuclear-survival home-study course called, with that square-jawed literalism peculiar to the military and the federal government, “Preparedness Planning for a Nuclear Crisis.” It’s available to anyone with a willingness to learn and a few hours to blow by writing to FEMA (Home Study Program, Emergency Management Institute, 16825 S. Seton Ave., Emmitsburg, MD 21727).

“There are no prerequisites required for this course,” announces a FEMA pamphlet–just in case you were wondering if you have to have taken Horrible First Degree Burns 101 and the Bleeding From Every Pore lab. Even better, “students are awarded a certificate upon successful completion of the course.” The thought of proudly displaying my nuclear-preparedness diploma on the wall of my lead-lined fallout shelter clinched the deal for me. Who knows, maybe the diploma would be made of real sheepskin, so in a nuclear pinch it could double as a gauze pad to dress a nasty flash burn. At any rate, the course promised to be more practical than any of those communications courses I took in college. And, in a deal left unexplained by FEMA, if I passed the course (a 75 percent mark or better on a mail-away multiple-choice test), I could apply to Suomi College of Hancock, Michigan, for one semester hour’s worth of college credit. Now there’s a resume enhancer.

I mailed away my application and waited, waited, waited for what seemed like months–all the while hoping those sneaky Russians wouldn’t thumb off a few SS-20s before I found out how to handle them. During the wait I kept imagining there was a big red-and-white bull’s-eye drawn on top of my head, with the words “Drop bomb here” written in infrared paint. Nuclear paranoia? Hey, when 3,500 independently targetable warheads are out to get you, it’s just common sense.

Back in the 50s you didn’t have to send away for sensible advice on surviving the senseless. The 50s were the Golden Age–or more accurately the Plutonium Age–of nuclear civil defense. Every man, woman, and child in America was taught what to do when he or she saw the searing blue-white flash that signaled a nearby thermonuclear detonation: Duck and Cover.

The Duck and Cover technique was an early version of “Bend over and kiss your ass good-bye,” with two significant differences. One, you didn’t actually apply your lips to your buttocks, although the position certainly put both elements in close proximity. And two, it wasn’t a joke–it was really supposed to work. Classroom films of the day featured an animated turtle demonstrating the proper technique–hit the dirt and squinch yourself like a shelled animal. The choice of a turtle as chief demonstrator was no accident. The subliminal message was: assume the Duck and Cover position and you’ll be safe as a turtle tucked inside his shell. The films didn’t go into much more detail, didn’t consider what happens when the buzzing fluorescent light in the classroom gets knocked down in the blast, falls on your not-so-shell-like back, and starts sparking all over the place. But then, nuclear civil defense was never very long on detail. The fine print was too depressing anyway, especially by the time you got to the part about long-term genetic damage from radiation exposure.

Consequently, civil-defense efforts in the nuclear age have stuck to the basics–take cover as soon as possible and try not to think of the word “mutation” for at least a few hours. The first serious attempt at a nuclear civil-defense program was launched, not coincidentally, shortly after the Soviets detonated their first atomic bomb on August 29, 1949.

This was an era when the words “hostile takeover” had a more menacing meaning than they do today. With the blue-white flash expected any moment, atomic air-raid drills were instituted in all of the big “target” cities. Between August 1950 and April 1951, Duck and Cover drills were held in classrooms in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Detroit, Milwaukee, San Francisco, and Fort Worth. There was a Jeffersonian air to this era of civil defense–states and local school authorities drew up their own programs, with minimal interference from the feds. In January 1951 President Harry Truman showed he was really getting serious about the nuclear threat when he created a whole federal agency to advise the citizenry: the Federal Civil Defense Administration, or FCDA. (Today’s FEMA is a descendant of the original FCDA, which, among other things, was too hard to pronounce.) The FCDA didn’t fund any civil-defense projects–its role was more that of a cheerleader, exhorting the nation to go, fight, win a nuclear war.

With the states in control, some pretty strange ideas reared their nuclear heads. In 1951 New York City allocated $87,000 to buy metal identification tags for its schoolchildren. The tags, which were modeled after U.S. Army dog tags, were issued with the express purpose of aiding civil-defense workers in identifying lost children in an atomic attack. Left unspoken was that the tags would also be handy in identifying children burned to a crisp in a nuclear explosion, which their heat-resistant tags would survive. By the following year, New York had handed out two and a half million free tags to all children from kindergarten to the fourth grade in public, parochial, and private schools.

The idea soon spread to many other cities. Some Catholic schools even printed the Lord’s Prayer on the back of their tags (though a picture of Saint Jude, the patron saint of hopeless causes, might have been more appropriate). The Milwaukee public-school board mulled over tattooing children for identification purposes. The plan was rejected, according to the local assistant superintendent, “because of its associations and impermanence in the case of severe burns.”

These were ordinary men and women grappling heroically with a force millions of times more powerful than themselves. The trouble is the human mind can’t put up with that kind of dissonance for very long. After a while the brain shuts down, and everyone goes off to see if anything good is on TV.

Today we are threatened by a nuclear arsenal far larger and more destructive than the one aimed at the America of the early 50s, and yet no one seems to get as worked up about it. “If it drops, I just hope I die instantly” is the usual position people take on nuclear defense these days. Fatalism, it seems, has become the nation’s fallout shelter.

So when the FEMA home-study course finally arrived 12 days after I requested it (talk about a window of opportunity for the Soviets), I was anxious to see what my government had to say about surviving a nuclear war. Surely Uncle Sam hadn’t given up like everyone else. The course had promised “Preparedness Planning.” That was a good sign, wasn’t it? As I ripped open the manila envelope, I remember thinking how pissed I was going to be if it turned out to be one of those “Bend over and kiss your ass good-bye” posters.

Well, I’m happy to report Uncle Sam still has a few ideas up his sleeve about surviving a nuclear war. No nuclear doomsaying for this national mascot, thank you very much. Inside the package were two softback books–the “Text,” which contained the basic information for the course, and the “Study Guide,” which had questions and quizzes about the text material. If you’re a grade-school graduate (and if you’re not, thanks for reading this far), you’d recognize the study guide as the notorious “Think and Do” book, which often made the text more confusing by asking ambiguous questions. The course was looking promising already.

I flipped through each book to get a general “feel” of the course, sort of like sizing up a new teacher on the first day of school. Besides having an insatiable thirst for sound advice on manhandling the megatonnage aimed at me, I was mildly curious about what form FEMA’s course would take. The great teaching techniques of the ages were open to the feds when they devised the home-study program. Would the course adopt, say, the Socratic method, asking a lot of subjective, open-ended questions to which there were no “right” answers? Might the course instead be structured like those color-coded reading labs in grade school, where a smart student could skip ahead to the more advanced colors, such as aqua and magenta? Or perhaps the course had adopted the Pell Grant method, and the student could attend class only sporadically, take an incomplete for the semester, and then default on his student loan.

As it turned out, the technique FEMA adopted is closest to the Filmstrip in Health Class method. Evil, twisted disaster situations are described in a mesmerizingly calm tone until an audio signal goes off–DOOP!–and the filmstrip is jerked to the next scene. Neither the text nor the study guide actually has the DOOPs written in, but you can sort of hear them periodically throughout the course. At least I did.

The textbook’s full title is appropriately weighty: Preparedness Planning for a Nuclear Crisis: A Citizen’s Guide to Civil Defense and Self-Protection. No doubt they’ll have to shorten it for the movie. Generously illustrated with cheesy 50s-style clip-art of silhouette figures, fallout-shelter signs, mushroom clouds, and the rest of the nuclear family of graphics, it was hard to believe they give this thing away free.

No time to lose, I thought, knowing how much can happen in a nanosecond in the nuclear age. Let’s get to it.


Fortunately, chapter one, “Risk Analysis: The Effect of Nuclear Weapons,” tapped right into my sense of urgency. In the useful “How to use this book” preamble, the text advises: “If you are reading this book when there is no developing crisis, you have time to study the book and make careful preparedness plans. You will be able to collect information at your leisure to complete your plans. . . . If a crisis is developing, you may not have as much time. Find out as much as you can about the civil defense plans in your community. Then study the chapters that are most critical to you.” Man, talk about high-pressure cramming. Imagine yourself frantically tearing through the text for important chapter themes as the missiles rain down.

This wouldn’t be the only time the authors of the course would raise the specter of imminent nuclear war. One of the “questions for thought” in the study guide posed this situation: “Suppose you heard the Attack Warning Signal right now, as you are reviewing Chapter 1. Where would you go? What would you do?”

Well, you wouldn’t have to bother with any more of those review questions, for one. The Attack Warning Signal, by the way, is one of the more fascinating–and largely unknown–aspects of America’s civil-defense program. According to the text, the Attack Warning Signal is a “wavering sound on sirens or a series of short blasts on horns or whistles.” In some towns the system may be made up of factory whistles or church bells. The Attack Warning Signal will be sounded for three to five minutes when an enemy attack has been launched. “When you hear this signal,” the course instructs, “you may have only five to 15 minutes to find shelter.”

I was genuinely surprised that, for playing such a vital role in nuclear survival, the Attack Warning Signal doesn’t get much publicity. I doubt many know it even exists. Does the local vicar know his church bells will be seized and rung wildly for five minutes when the missiles are in the air? Will the townspeople go to their fiery deaths dreamily listening to pealing church bells, unaware that it’s the Attack Warning Signal?

As the remainder of chapter one made painfully clear, if you haven’t taken shelter by the time the bombs drop, you’re in for it. In that case, you’ll have to contend with the full fury of the Four Horsemen of the Nuclear Apocalypse: the fireball, initial radiation, the blast wave, and fallout radiation. Still, there may be ways to cut your losses. Under the heading “Surprise Attack” the text advises: “If no warning is given and you see the brilliant flash of a nuclear weapon burst, you must take cover immediately. In a fraction of a second, the intense heat wave from the weapon will begin to arrive.”

I was still trying to reconcile the time I would need to take cover with the fraction of a second allotted to me when the text quickly moved to a discussion of the types of nuclear radiation. Frankly, nuclear-tech talk about the differences between alpha, beta, and gamma particles always left me cold, and I must admit skimming over this part a bit. The end of the chapter picked up, though, with the first mention of who would be likely to chuck the ICBMs: “Remember that time, distance and shielding are your greatest protectors. To take advantage of these protectors, you should be alert to warning signs and signals [such as] if the news media report increasing tension and military build-up between the United States and a nuclear power such as the Soviet Union.”

Once Ivan is mentioned, the course isn’t bashful about pointing the finger at him as the likely opponent in any nuclear exchange. In chapter two, a discussion of the Soviets’ evacuating their cities as a prelude to a nuclear attack is accompanied by a hokey graphic of silhouetted figures filing out of a building that looks like the Kremlin. At least it wasn’t a line of fur-hatted Russian dancers. To be fair, the course was last revised in 1983, in pre-perestroika days, so perhaps new editions will go easier on the Russkies.

By the end of chapter one, I had learned some pretty depressing facts about the awesome power of an atomic blast. It was just about this time that I needed a little encouragement, so the rousing coda entitled “Nuclear War Survival” was propitious: “The effects of nuclear attack would be terrible but people can still improve their odds for survival if they know what to do. Survival will not be easy, especially if you wait until a crisis develops before you begin to protect yourself from those dangers. This chapter has taught you about the dangers. The remaining chapters will teach you what you must do to protect yourself, and how you can increase your chance for survival.”

So if the missiles are already in the air and you’re wildly ripping through the FEMA nuclear crisis course, remember: It’s OK to skip chapter one.

Chapters two and three were much more useful, being primarily concerned with hauling ass in case of imminent nuclear attack. Following the no-reason-to-panic tone they had established so convincingly in chapter one, the authors reassuringly titled these chapters “Civil Defense and Emergency Planning” and “Planning for Evacuation.”

But hauling ass is really what they have in mind, an activity that, far from being frowned on, is one of the cornerstones of U.S. nuclear civil-defense policy. One problem with the plan is where to put all of those hauled asses. As the text explains: “Certain areas are considered risk areas because they are more likely to be targets of attack than other areas. . . . Roughly half to two-thirds of the American population live in potential risk areas.”

You can bet it’s going to be a bitch to drive any weekend that two-thirds of the country gets in the car and tries to invade the remaining third. As good as our national interstate system is, it’s probably not up to handling a massive exodus to Mayberry RFD from every town big enough to have its own TV station. In the textbook a graphic shows 11 silhouetted figures, who represent 145 million people, marching toward a drawing of a barn. It wasn’t very reassuring–to my mind, there was no way all 145 million people were going to fit inside that barn, even if it was a big grain elevator. The space problem was left unsolved, except that the text did promise more information on personal home shelters in a later chapter.

Reliable information would be another scarce commodity in a time of international crisis. When the country enters what the text obtusely calls “a crisis expectant period,” the best source of information will be “the local news media–radio, television, and newspapers.” To me, that raised a prospect almost worse than nuclear war itself–the media coverage of a nuclear crisis.

Left to their own devices, the various media outlets would inevitably put their own stamp on an unfolding crisis. The Chicago Tribune: HARDLINERS SEEN GAINING UPPER HAND. USA Today: WE HOPE FOR A BREAKTHROUGH. The Sun-Times: IT’S DOOMSDAY. Maury Povich on A Current Affair would at last have a subject worthy of his delivery. Buried beneath a torrent of special reports, nightly news flashes, tedious PBS discussions, and made-for-TV movies on the crisis, many Americans may find instantaneous death preferable.

The text doesn’t bother with these details, choosing instead to focus on even more bizarre ones. The authors list several tips for people evacuating their homes: cover all windows with whitewash or foil to deflect some of the intense heat from a nuclear flash; clear away all trash from around the house to cut down on fire hazards; and, my favorite, “unplug all appliances before you leave.” Yeah, if the bomb doesn’t kill you, that electric bill will when you get back.

The course manages to make mass evacuation sound downright suburban at times. “Pets probably will not be allowed in fallout shelters,” reads the text. “But if you go to a vacation home or private residence, you may be able to take your pets.” If you have to leave your pets behind, FEMA suggests “leaving behind enough food and water for a two or three week period.” Mmmm–now don’t eat all of this at once, Fido. However, warn the authors, “You should not turn your pets loose on their own while you are gone.”

This is the only advice in the section that FEMA thought important enough to print in boldface, so you know the consequences of ignoring it must be pretty horrific–packs of wild beagles terrorizing neighborhood food supplies, alley-cat assaults on fish trucks, etc. To get nuclear-preparedness students thinking seriously about this issue, the accompanying study guide poses this tantalizingly open-ended “question for thought”: “Pets will not be permitted in public shelters. If you have pets, what will you do with them if you evacuate?”

The whole pet issue is a perplexing and, up until now, largely ignored aspect of our nuclear-defense strategy. One can only marvel at the diabolical efficiency of the person at FEMA who thought through this problem to its absurdly logical conclusion. Still, in a country that treats its pets better than its homeless (and let’s face it, most homeless people won’t fetch your newspaper no matter how nicely you ask), FEMA may have only scratched the surface of the pet issue. Will lead-lined doghouses and kitty radiation detectors be the hot sellers in a crisis-expectant period? When Fido’s scratching frantically at the shelter door, who will have the heart to shout, “Go away, just go away”?

The rest of the course–slightly more than half the material–is devoted to shelters. As important as the distinctions between alpha, beta, and gamma radiation are, it’s clear that one of the main aims of the course is to promote the building of shelters. You can even write away to FEMA for blueprints and build your own shelter. Six different models are offered, the sort of freedom of choice most American consumers have come to demand. The nicest model is FEMA’s Home Shelter H-12-1, an underground shelter for your backyard that features “a roof slab that can be used as a patio” in peacetime. Keeping up with the Joneses is apparently one activity not even a full-scale nuclear war will affect.

Stocking your shelter with the proper supplies will be another concern, as even 7-Elevens may close down briefly during a nuclear exchange. Luckily, the text provides a handy two-page checklist of things to bring along. There are the usual items one would expect–a two weeks’ supply of food that requires little or no cooking, 3.5 gallons of fresh drinking water per person, a first-aid kit, a camping stove, and fuel. Farther down the checklist, there are more unusual items, ones that seem out of place in a fallout shelter–credit cards, insurance policies, deeds, stocks and bonds, savings- and checking-account books. But it’s nice to think that while you’re huddling in your fallout shelter, your stocks are quietly appreciating.

Human waste disposal, sorry to say, will be another serious concern for any shelter dweller. Besides the obvious aesthetic considerations, there is the issue of disease being spread. The course advises keeping a large, plastic-lined trash can around for waste storage. When the can is, uh, full, the plastic bag is removed and buried “under one to two feet of earth.” Clearly, latrine duty will not be one of the more coveted jobs in shelter life.

Eating three square meals a day won’t be easy either. FEMA conveniently provides what it calls (I’m not making this up) the “Disaster Diet,” a food plan consisting of a high-protein breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with a between-meal snack thrown in for good measure. At last, here was a reason to look forward to nuclear war–my eating habits would improve. I can’t remember the last day I had a full breakfast and lunch, and then sat down to a dinner consisting of “tuna fish, cream of celery soup, mixed sweet pickles, fruit, cookies, and cocoa or hot beverage.”

Once you’ve got the supplies, waste disposal, and food preparations under control, there’s not much left to do except hunker down in your shelter and try not to freak out. The last section of the course deals with what the text terms “Psychological First Aid”: “Some people will cope better than others. Most everyone will show signs of fear and some may panic. Some will overreact, and some will show signs of depression.”

Treating these malcontents will test the patience of even the most understanding shelter dweller. The text lists a few simple commandments to handle someone who is in need of psychological first aid: “Do not show resentment. Do not over-sympathize. Do not strike or throw water in the face of the victim. Do not argue, suggest the victim is acting up or tell the victim to “snap out of it.”‘

Sandwiched between this and the epilogue to the course is a lonely three-paragraph section headed “Death.” By my calculation, these three paragraphs represent 0.2 percent of the total textual material. Surely death, which many experts feel will be a major component of a nuclear war, deserves more prominence, maybe even its own home-study course. I was hoping the study guide would at least pose a few interesting “questions for thought” on the topic (“Is there life after death? What do you imagine it’s like?”), but there wasn’t even a mention of the “D” word there at all. The textbook broaches the subject with spine-chilling matter-of-factness: “Persons may enter the shelter with serious injuries or exposure to high levels of radiation. Death may occur. While death is difficult to think about, shelter members must realize that war will mean many deaths, and some of these may occur in your shelter.

“For reasons of health and morale, the dead must be removed from the shelter area. Members of the shelter may want to conduct a simple service.”

Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, there apparently won’t be many in the fallout shelters either. As for body disposal, the text advises burying the body in a marked grave “as soon as radiation levels permit.”

And try not to dig up any of those bags of shit you’ve buried.

At the end of the course a stirring epilogue exhorts students to believe that “the survival of yourself and the nation is possible.” At this point I believed anything was possible, even passing the 50-question multiple-choice test at the end. The format of the exam was certainly familiar enough. The answer sheet would be graded by a computer that only understood the markings of a number-two pencil. “Take the test in one sitting,” the instructions advised. “Find a quiet spot where you will not be interrupted.”

Knowing that one of the keys to nuclear preparedness was being able to adapt rules to fit the situation, I set my six-play CD player to the “random” setting, cranked up the volume, and took the test. Some of the questions were truly difficult, even with the help of the textbook for reference (another rule I decided to adapt). I couldn’t remember if fires caused by thermal radiation would reach 1.7 miles, 3 miles, 5 miles, or 8 miles from the blast site. (It’s 8 miles, I’m afraid.) I also wasn’t sure under what conditions you could eat the meat of local animals following a nuclear blast. (The correct answer is “If the animal appears healthy, and you cook the meat extremely well.” Nuclear war may mean the end of the medium-rare steak as we know it.) A few of the questions had at least one “joke” answer–one of the possible ways to extend battery life was “Hold weak batteries under your armpit for several minutes.” But for my taste, too many questions had at least more than one plausible answer.

As I folded my answer sheet in thirds and mailed it off to the government, I was glad FEMA only required a 75 percent score to receive the attractive Certificate of Completion. As horrible as nuclear war is to contemplate, it was comforting to know that if I were forced to deal with surviving one, I could count on being dead wrong only one out of four times at the most.

Two weeks later, it arrived–my Certificate of Completion. It was an attractive document, a perfect addition to any shelter wall. I had passed the course, and learned a thing or two about nuclear war and America’s emergency-management plans in the bargain. I now know how far the blast wave of a one-megaton ground burst travels. I know the best way to build a shelter, and what to cook when I get there. I even know what to do with my cat.

So the next time someone asks me, “Do you know what to do if the Bomb drops?” I’ll know what to answer. With the accumulated wisdom of the U.S. government behind me, I’ll look the inquisitor straight in the eye and say: “Bend over and kiss your ass good-bye.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustrations/Shawn Belschwender.