Drills

It happened many years ago when we lived in New Hampshire.  Bruce’s contract at the local university was about to expire and he had to start looking for a new job elsewhere.  It is easier said than done.  He had to go for many interviews to many locations in different parts of the country.  He could not miss any of his working days either, therefore, at one point; he was gone pretty much every weekend.  He left on Friday night and came back on Sunday night.  A lot of traveling for Bruce meant a lot of lonely time for me.  The girls were very little and we did not have any relatives or close friends around.  Just a couple of nice neighbors and my new colleagues at the hair shop down the street.  I worked there a couple of days a week, just to get out of the house.

It was his third season of looking for new job, so we were kind of accustomed to this routine.  When Bruce was not home my weekends got very lonely.  There was no Internet really, definitely nobody was using email the way we use it now.  Especially people from Czech, my family and my friends.  Nobody ever called either because it was too expensive to call another state, or the United States for that matter.  The only person who checked on us was Bruce.  He called every morning from wherever he was.  And that was it.  So sometimes my days were also very long.  And sometimes my days and especially my nights, were very scary.  I was home all alone with two little children, in a big house, in a small town, surrounded by dense woods.  I was in the middle of a very large, new place, with all of the new things that new places have.  Including severe weather.  Every year somebody in New Hampshire died because of the harsh snow storms, ice on the road, freezing temperatures, or blinding blizzards.  It was enough just to get stuck with your car on the road and not be able to find help quickly (cell phones were just starting and there was no signal in severe weather anyway).  When the blizzard caught up with you, or the dark freezing cold night set in, it was a miracle if you were found alive the next day.  I was trying to be very responsible and listened to every severe weather warning on the TV or radio.  Sometimes I was, maybe, even a bit paranoid, but as the saying goes, “better safe than sorry.”

It was one of those days, when Bruce was at one of his interviews and I was home alone with two young daughters, when the severe weather warning came unexpectedly.  A hurricane was coming toward us and all of the TV and radio stations were giving instructions on how to proceed in case of an emergency.  I was not used to hurricanes in Europe.  My English was limited and I had no idea what to expect.  I was scared.  I gathered the children; we put on some jackets and ran to the hair salon.  The only place I knew well.  I burst in a few minutes later expecting everybody to be getting ready for the terrible hurricane.  Instead I found a calm group of workers, the last few clients of the day, and a warm atmosphere among all.

“What is going on Katerina?” they asked me.  I told them my worries and explained my situation.  I did not want to die with my children in our basement.  My colleagues were the best friends I had in New Hampshire.  I thought about it again as they calmed me down, explained that the hurricane is actually not that close and will probably miss our town by many miles.

“But wouldn’t you know what to do?  Didn’t you have hurricane drills growing up?”  My girlfriends asked me.  I told them that we do not have any hurricanes in Czechoslovakia at all.

“Well, then you had to have other emergency drills at school, right?” they asked again.

Of course we had drills at my school while growing up in communist Czechoslovakia.  But they had nothing to do with weather.

I thought for second, deciding whether I should tell to my dear, innocent, American friends about our drills or keep it as my secret forever.  I decided to tell them.

“Yes, of course we had drills,” I said.

“See, we told you.  Maybe you don’t have hurricanes, but you could have earthquake or tornado drills, right?” my friends continued.

“No, we do not have earthquakes or tornados either,” I replied.  I took a deep breath and announced: “The drills we had were against you… against Americans.”  My colleagues and the last remaining clients looked totally puzzled.  I had a lot of explaining to do.

When I was in elementary and middle school, about twice a year we would have an emergency drill.  Of course, neither the principal nor the teachers would ever tell us it was against the Americans.  They said it was for our protection in case the (unspecified) enemy would attack our country.  We were not allowed to ask any questions.  At least not without an unpleasant comment from the teacher, who would pronounce every student with a question “ignorant” for not knowing something.  Therefore, we never asked anything.  It was 1981, and WWII was still very vivid in peoples’ minds.  We all automatically assumed that the enemy was Germany.

At the beginning of each drill we would be called by our names and numbers.  Every student had their own number, which represented the size of his/her head.  Then the teachers distributed gas masks to us.  The gas masks were old and funny looking, and most of them had a long trunk, a filter.  Only a few new pieces had modern, short filters attached straight to the nose of the mask.

First we had to clean and disinfect the mask.  Then while the mask was drying, we put on our bio-attack proof gear.  It was basically our own rain coat and rain boots.  If your rain coat was not long enough to touch your rain boots then you had to put on more plastic and secure it with rubber bands.  The same applied on our hands and hair.  Then we put the masks on our faces.  We looked ridiculous.  Add in the awkwardness of middle schoolers and you could not have put together a funnier group.

Of course, once you put the mask on you could not hear well and you could not talk.  Or you could talk but because of the plastic mask and because of the filter, your voice sounded hilarious.  Everybody talked because it was so much fun.  We actually did not talk, but we yelled because we did not hear.  We also could not see, because the masks fogged up quickly.  The teachers could not do much about it because they also had their masks on and they could not recognize who is who in the plastic outfits with covered faces.  It was our time!

I have no idea how, but we got into somewhat organized groups by classes and gathered with the rest of the school.  It made over 200 hundred children.  I bet it was a sight.  There were two different types of drills.  Sometimes we would practice how to hide in the basement.  We would march down the stairs all the way to an old, dusty furnace room full of coal.  We needed the masks just for that!  Coal was used for heating back then, so when the room was full with a new shipment, usually before winter, we would have our drill outside.

The outside drill was different and much longer.  We had to march for many kilometers.  We added two kilos (4.5 lbs.) of sand to our gear for extra weight, just for practice.  The good thing was that we did not have to carry our masks.  The school was worried that we would lose them or ruin them, so we left them behind.  The plastic stayed on though, even in warm weather.  Sometimes kids got sick, probably overheated.  My mom would always give me water instead of the sand.  And it was only about a half liter.  I had special permission to carry less weight because I was small for my age.  I would drink the water during the walk.

As we marched we talked and brainstormed.  Our imaginations ran wild.  We were talking about the enemy and what would really be happening if the attack was real.  Nobody knew.  We never experienced war and all we knew about it was from TV and movies, which was mostly Soviet propaganda.  We knew very well, if a real bio-attack should happen, we would never make it in these masks.  They did not fit properly, we had many gaps around our faces, and the filters did not work anyway.  Somebody had the idea that they would beg the enemy not to attack us and let us live.  It was a boy who knew German very well.  He also thought he had good diplomatic skills and would somehow talk us out of it.

One of the eight graders was listening to this particular conversation.  Somehow he got mixed in amongst us fifth graders.  He rolled his eyes and made funny sounds with his lips.  Then, he could no longer bear the conversation and spoke.  “The enemy is not Germany, you idiots,” he said at first.

“Your Germen would be absolutely for nothing.  Try to learn English for a change, because if anybody attacks us they would speak English.  And I am guessing it would be American English,” he added and moved on to a different group of kids.  At that moment we all got it.  WWII had been over for a long time, but we knew there was some sort of tension going on between the West and the East.  We felt it.  We did not know it was called the Cold War.  We put all of the information together and realized that if the Soviet government screwed up, the Americans would attack the whole Eastern bloc.  We were in the Eastern bloc.

I went home terrified.  I knew the Soviets would screw up one day and our masks were not good enough.  I told my mom about my worries.  My mom, an absolutely pro-American person, told me that something like that would never happen.  Not that the Soviets would not screw up, but that the Americans would never attack us.  She explained to me that America is smart enough to know better.  Now I knew that America was not the enemy.  I knew Germany was no longer the enemy… I felt good.  I also knew that the communists did not know what I knew and therefore our absolutely absurd drills would continue until the last day of my studies.

Communism fell in 1989 and I was lucky enough never to experience the attack that we had been drilling for.  I also did not need to practice any of my newly-learned severe weather drill skills as the hurricane missed our town in New Hampshire by many miles and went out to the open ocean.  After that we moved to California where I learned about earthquake drills and fire drills.  When I combine all of the drills I ever learned, I have to admit that when it comes to drills I am ready.  I also have to admit that I would be happier if I never have to use any of my drill skills for the rest of my life! KD 2012 J