Sunday, April 10, 2005

From...A Scout With No Tonto

…but I know we didn’t get lost. It’s not like we were in Thousand Acre Woods or anything. We weren’t far from real people. If we needed someone, there was a fellow in the Ground Observer Corps hut on the hillside next to our woods---the hillside that would shortly be sporting the new junior high school. But we couldn’t expect the observer to make a phone call for us. His phone was a direct line to a military facility. There was no sense in calling in the Army or Air Force for a few Boy Scouts behind Lloyds. We’d have to go back to Lloyds in an emergency. It would have been opened since 9 am.

The Ground Observers were set up to keep keen eyes on air activity, part of the early warning system in the 1950s. Each hut was about 8 by 8, seemingly thrown together with 2 x 4s and scraps, and fitted with a table, a chair, a logbook, an airplane identification book, and a direct line telephone to a central military facility. It was normally situated on a hill or other raised area.

Observers phoned in all sightings of airplanes---and descriptions of them where possible, using the reference book. Entries were made in the logbooks. These huts were manned 24 hours a day every day until 1958, when night observing was curtailed. As electronic capabilities improved, especially with the DEW Line’s becoming operational in 1957, the Ground Observer Corps faded away. All in all, I think the system may have been based on Cary Grant’s WWII movie “Father Goose” and its frontline aircraft sightings---but without the liquid fortification. In reality the DEW Line began in 1954 as the Pine Tree Line and later added the Mid-Canada Line. All in the cold, frosty north of high winds and falling snow.

This was the height of the Cold War. People were jumpy, and the being Ground Observers gave them a feeling of doing something positive instead of just sitting around and worrying. In most communities, the Corps was a visible reminder of the dangers of the Cold War. They were also helping with the early warning system at a time with limited electronic capabilities. But that was about the extent of the visible reminders in Middletown. We had no Civil Defense Drills or Tests that I remember, although there were “S” shelter signs sprinkled about the city buildings. In school, atomic bombs and associated horrors were barely mentioned.

I don’t remember seeing the “Duck and Cover” movie with Bert the turtle or any other of the Civil Defense movies of the 1950s. We never had any drills at St. Josephs. No hallway ducking. No desk ducking. No panics. We just had a few pamphlets distributed to us, and occasionally we’d have a fire drill. Maybe the nuns thought our religion was enough.

Things may have been different in the public schools, I can’t say. If they had such movies and tests there, the knowledge didn’t reach me.

I saw the “Duck and Cover” movie a short time ago, and the pictures of kids hiding under their desks (rather useless) from the 1950s are just as strange to me as to people born later. My parents never exhibited fear of the Cold War to us kids. If they had any, they kept it to themselves. They housed us, fed us, clothed us, loved us, and gave us “running around” freedom and no reason to be fearful for anything other than the day-to-day dangers. Our home had a safe aura that never left it. I was secure, and I think that’s why I have so many good memories. There were some bad ones, of course, but I tend to minimize them in the little memory cells of my brain. No one I knew in Middletown built a bomb or fallout shelter—unless its existence was kept quiet. We had no Middletown example of a “Blast From the Past.” It would have made a great place to visit, though.

I remember Ed and Jack observing the skies on that Ground Observer’s wooded hillside for a while until the site was changed to the roof of the State Armory, on the top of the hill on Wickham Avenue. They grew away from observing by then. Ed had gone off to the Air Force and Jack left for the Navy a year or two later. And the Ground Observer Corps died a quiet death---not because of their departure, but of natural cause and technological advances, such as the expanded DEW Line.

People are quick to criticize government and social activity of the 1950s, especially about the atomic bomb scares. Maybe if they had lived through them as a child or young adult, their perceptions and criticisms would be different. Nuclear knowledge was what it was in the period---not as extensive or detailed as it is now. Too many current historians, pundits, and observers make the mistake of putting today’s knowledge and social structure into the past and making skewed judgments. Hindsight from a future society is the standard weapon of these people---and something we didn’t have at the time…