When the City of Waukesha's warning siren sounded one Friday morning, I opened its website to learn what it was warning about. Vague possibilities entered my head—in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, armed vigilantes in Michigan had swarmed the state house to intimidate their governor and partisan politics in Wisconsin could get as menacing. A host of memories emerged from long seclusion. I needed to know what the city thought I needed to know.
The city tests its weather warning sirens at 9:30 a.m. every Friday from April to October, the website explained, to see if they work and if we all can hear them. I could confirm, if asked, that they did and that I could. But the website also claimed that the tests "will not occur if threatening weather is possible." That wasn't reassuring, suggesting that, if I didn't hear the sirens, threatening weather was likely and if I did hear them, it was unlikely. I didn't ask how often threatening weather might occur at 9:30 a.m. on Friday mornings between April and October.
But rather than a weather warning, the first thing I thought of that morning was the catastrophe preparation I'd been grilled in during my school days growing up in Western New York. It wasn't natural disaster we were taught to be alert for but forms of destruction brought about by fire or aerial bombardment.
Sometimes during the school year, preferably on a sunny, temperate day, we'd hear the fire alarm sound and line up in our classrooms for a swift but orderly departure from the building. We'd move out onto the sidewalk circling the school or perhaps onto the playground or playing fields and wait for the all-clear signal. Sometimes firemen showed up, especially if the fire drill were the result of a defective alarm or a careless or reckless child, but most often we simply stood around until re-entering. The message of the drills was direct and brief: in case of fire, get out of the building.
The air raid drills were more ominous, preparing for a foreign power to drop bombs on our community—our troops were fighting in Korea, and our Cold War with the Soviet Union included a nuclear armament race. We needed strategies ensuring survival. People built fallout shelters in basements or backyards, underground refuges stocked with emergency provisions and supplies. Students were taught to stay in their school buildings during air raids, away from doors and windows where glass and debris might spew across the classrooms. "Duck and cover," we were told. We were shown filmstrips of people dropping wherever they were, in parks and playgrounds and shops, curling under whatever was nearby. At the warning signal students either hid under desks or, given enough time, made swift but orderly progress into hallways to kneel facing the walls, bending our heads, and covering our necks. When the all-clear sounded and we rose to return to our lessons, we didn't ask how curling up in a ball on the classroom floor would have saved us from the blast of an atomic bomb.
Catastrophe, we were encouraged to believe, was always imminent, even if relatively remote. My parents worried more about polio—58,000 new cases and over 3,000 deaths in 1952—than school fire or nuclear attack. But times change. Today, with students at risk from random gunmen, schools require active shooter drills to prepare students to lock themselves securely away if a killer enters their hallways. Unlike my childhood drills, we now need to guard more alertly against one another. Eight years ago, as my wife and I shopped at a mall, in a salon across the street a man killed his hairdresser wife and two of her co-workers and wounded three others before killing himself. Such events are no longer rare.
As I write this, the Coronavirus has infected over 23 million people and killed over 385,00 in the United States. The pandemic still surges rather than abates. As I write this, our Capitol and our Congress are recovering from assault by supporters of a malign and sociopathic narcissist. We're uncertain at the moment how much insurrection and sedition we and our long dysfunctional and ineffectual government still have to face. The combination of plague and anarchy is daunting.
The present moment should remind us of the constant need to be ready for disaster, catastrophe, possible annihilation all the time. None of those we've gotten through in the past were overcome without cost; complacency puts us in peril, as the scale of our latest losses and persistent alarm makes us aware. If we are alert to what may be imminent, we'll be able to cope with what we don't want to be eventual. We'll have no need to duck and cover.