A Tucson friend posted this to Facebook this morning:
We’re far enough from the base that we don’t hear the sirens. Actually it’s been years since we’ve heard one, but then it’s been years since we retired from the Air Force. We’re going on base to buy groceries this afternoon; maybe the exercise will still be on and we’ll hear the sirens. Old times!
The heyday for warning sirens was WWII, but they were pretty big during the Cold War, particularly at US military bases overseas. The scariest siren, the one I remember vividly, was a three- to five-minute wavering tone, going from high to low and back again, over and over. Attack imminent! That’s what that particular warning meant. Yes, there was (and no doubt still is) a code for different siren warnings, and posters everywhere telling you what the warnings meant.
In the US, the three- to five-minute wavering siren meant Soviet ICBMs were inbound and you had one or two minutes to find shelter. In Europe, it meant Warsaw Pact troops were invading or that missiles or bombers were inbound … or all of the above. Ditto minutes, if that. Particularly in Europe, people believed the Soviet Union might attack at any time, night or day. As a young man living in Europe during the height of the Cold War I was very aware of the threat.
In 1965, as an 18-year-old, I worked for the Army & Air Force Exchange in the warehouse behind the main store in Wiesbaden, Germany. One day I wandered out by the loading docks to smoke a cigarette. I heard the sirens start to groan, winding up. All of a sudden the Attack Imminent warning was blaring. I looked around and there was no one in sight, not a person, not even a stray cat. I was all by myself, looking up into the gray German sky, wondering if I’d see the missile before it hit, thinking this was it, that I and everyone I knew and loved was about to die. The siren went on and on, wavering up and down, and I was paralyzed, stuck to the spot I was standing on. I felt as if I were falling.
And then the siren wound down and went silent. After a while birds began to chirp. A truck came around the corner. I remembered it was Wednesdsay, and sure enough when I looked at my watch it was just after noon. The siren went off every Wednesday at noon. It had been the regular test.
Relief didn’t sweep over me, though. I couldn’t shake the feeling that WWIII had just begun. You know how it is when you wake up from an intense dream and part of you still thinks you’re in it? That feeling, along with a strong sense of dislocation, stayed with me the rest of the day. I’d never felt more alone, more cut off from life. I’ve never forgotten it.
I’ve always wondered about multiple timelines. Is there an alternate world where the Soviets attacked Western Europe on a gray Wednesday afternoon in 1965, launching missiles against Western Europe and America, a world where millions were vaporized in nuclear fireballs? And if so, what would that world be like today? That afternoon in Wiesbaden I sensed life jumping from one track to another. The same déjà vu-like flash has hit me at one or two other critical junctures in my life. To this day I can’t resist books and movies about alternate universes.
Maybe I should write one!
© 2012, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.