Duck and Cover

by Terry Hogan

In this moment in our history of increased security, and perhaps the risks of infringement of our rights, it seems appropriate to backtrack and recall that this is not entirely new -- not even for Galesburg.

Galesburg's school system in the 50's was ''big'' into the ''duck and cover'' training for school children. We drilled from time to time, on quickly climbing under our desks or going out into the hallway. It was, of course, a useless exercise. A nuclear detonation would not be slowed by a school desk. The radiant heat of the blast might easily instantaneously combust the desk and all who hid below it. If that didn't cause death, perhaps the slower traveling explosive force would simply blow the school, the school desks and its occupants into a neighboring county. Finally, if neither of these two events occurred, there was the perhaps more horrifying risk of radiation sickness, a slow painful death. The drill was merely a placebo, to give the impression that the country was ready for something that it could not possibly be ready for. The fallout shelters were little better.

During World War II, there was a concern about saboteurs doing evil deeds in America to weaken the war effort and demoralize the American public. Of course, such activities pre-date my direct observations. I'm on the statistical front edge of the baby boomers (as in post WWII). However, this doesn't mean that I didn't observe at least one remnant of that period.

During World War II, Galesburg was a major railroad hub, when being a major railroad hub was important. Railroads crisscrossed America. During the war, troops, weapons, ammunition, food, clothing, raw goods to make weapons, were shipped by rail. One can argue that we won the war on rails. It was America's industrial might that overwhelmed the Japanese and the Germans.

During World War II, these railcars were pulled by steam locomotives, powered by coal that converted water to steam. Steam drove the piston that drove the wheel that pulled the train that served the war effort. Water for the CB&Q was pumped from Lake Bracken. Lake Bracken was built by the ''Q'' for that purpose. The recreational value was simply a fortuitous benefit for Galesburg.

Lake Bracken became an important war resource because of the importance of its water for driving the ''Q'' locomotives. The large pipeline, underground, that transported the water from Lake Bracken to the railroad was not readily at risk. But the dam or spillway at Lake Bracken could easily be destroyed, draining the lake and leaving the ''Q'' ''high and dry.''

Thus goes the story to explain a wooden shack, not much larger than an outhouse that stood for years by the Lake Bracken spillway. It was, I was told many years ago, a place where a guard stood duty to protect the spillway from any evil-intended saboteur. Of course, I'm sure that this was only one example of enhanced security in the Galesburg area during WWII, but it was the only one that I saw growing up.

Galesburg also had the reminder of WWII with the presence of the Mayo Hospital on the north side of town. Low risk German soldiers were sent there to provide a work force. At the risk of relying on old oral stories (a disclaimer), I was told that many of these German soldiers were Jewish, that were forced into the military. As one might expect, they had little interest in fighting for the then new German way of life. Again, this was before my time, for what I remember was the Galesburg State Research Hospital. But the old military origin of the facility is not easily overlooked.

So today, we hear of Galesburg getting ''state of the art'' equipment to detect bioterrorism. Frankly, I don't think I'd put Galesburg in the top 100 or top 1,000 or probably the top 10,000 lists of terrorist targets. Galesburg isn't even close to a key terrorist target. Chicago is downwind, so Galesburg has little risk of inadvertent exposure.

But human nature hasn't changed much since I was in grade school at Allen Park in the 1950's, dutifully practicing my ''duck and cover'' skills on command. Perhaps it served a psychological purpose of giving a false sense of security. If it did, I suppose the actions taken to ''protect'' Galesburg from imagined bioterrorist attacks may serve the same role.

Our wars have changed. We find new ways to kill one another. We find new ways to try to terrorize or demoralize one another. But we haven't, as a species, evolved much in a few generations, so our fears remain, much as they did during ''The Cold War'' and WWII.

I personally think the money could be better spent helping those in need over these cold winter months then on placebo detection devices. VX (nerve agent), mustard agent and most biological agents will have either ''expressed themselves'' or infected your system before the operating manual can be opened for the detection equipment.

But never mind, if it makes you feel better. Placebos have their role in our lives. Sometimes we need a security blanket to protect us from the evil lurking under the bed. It is, after all, a part of our history. One needs only to backtrack. To ''duck and cover''.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online January 16, 2002

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