This morning, I was treated to the sound of a car alarm, which is all too common in the neighborhood. It was one of those multi-sound devices that electronically screeches, burps, beeps, whistles and honks, when someone even so much as passes gas within fifteen feet of the car in which it is installed.
Eventually, the owner of the car in which the honking and tooting alarm was installed surfaced to shut the infernal noisemaker off. To the rest of the neighborhood, including Yours Truly, this was nothing more than a minor annoyance. No one called the police, or, for that matter, did anything other than wonder how long it would take the car’s owner to shut the damned thing off.
This caused me to think back to when alarms actually meant something. More specifically, I got to thinking about air raid sirens.
When I was a little boy in the fifties, my town (and I believe all other towns in the area) had an air raid siren. It wasn’t one of those modern-day, electronic “whoooop-whoooopers” that one hears on police cars, fire engines and ambulances, but rather it was a mechanical device that, was operated by a continuous blast of air that was generated by a gasoline powered V8 engine.
It was the signature sound of the Cold War.
Back then, we were taught that the long, wailing sound of the air raid siren signaled an imminent air attack and that taking cover was our only option. We knew the difference between the long, plaintive wailing of the siren, which meant “take cover” and the shorter bursts that signaled “all clear.” They actually taught us this stuff at school.
I recall the air raid drills that were conducted in my grammar school, in which, at the a pre-appointed time, we were all shepherded into the bowels of the school building where we were led in song by one of the teachers, presumably to take our minds off the slaughter that would be taking place outside the school in the event of a real attack. The song of choice was always the then popular “He’s Got the Whole World in his Hands.” I have no doubt that leading public school children in that song today would be grounds for a teacher’s dismissal and would provide the basis for a suit by the ACLU. Back then, it seemed just fine.
Of course, all this was little more than well-intentioned baloney, but we were too young to know any better. The ugly fact was that we were close enough to New York City to be instantly incinerated in the event of a real air attack by the Soviet Union – the bad guys back then.
We were regularly reminded of the siren’s sound, as it was tested for one minute at noon on Saturdays, which was always a handy way to check the clocks in the house. Even then, I remember thinking that the best time for the Russians to attack would be at noon on Saturday, because no one would pay much attention to the siren, much like we ignore car alarms these days.
I don’t know whether any towns today even have an air raid siren and, as such, I wonder how many people have never heard the sound we knew so well and hoped that we would not hear during the frightening days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, by which time I was old enough to know that taking cover wouldn’t mean beans.
It sounded like this.