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Time Passages: The scariest sign of all

No matter where you go or look there is a sign telling you what to do or not do.

Think about it. There are signs everywhere. From the most isolated rural country road to shopping malls and sports stadiums to the jam-packed streets and metro freeways in big cities, there’s a sign with information just waiting to be read.

Before I got my driver’s license, I would watch in wonder from the back seat of our whatever year no seat belt car as my dad would drive the family auto loaded with four or five kids on the roads around the Twin Cities. On nearly every trip I’d ask him how he knew where he was going in those long ago prehistoric days before the fabulous technology of GPS arrived.

He’d answer my question in his usual sly sense of humor manner with a simple four-word comment: “Just read the signs.”

Considering what’s going on in the world with the back and forth nuclear bomb threats between two adversaries today, it takes me back to remember about what probably was the scariest sign of all time. Looking in the time capsule portion of the mind for us who were schoolchildren in the late ‘50s or early ‘60s I can see ourselves practicing “duck and cover” drills for a potential nuclear strike.

If you’re still reading you’ve probably figured out that the scariest sign I’m referring to is the distinctive yellow and black fallout shelter sign that became a symbol of the Cold War which existed between the U.S. and Soviet Union in the early ‘60s.

If you were one of those obedient “duck and cover” kids you’ll recall the air raid drills which had you go to a downstairs room and follow the instructions given by your teacher. Otherwise, if you weren’t in school and there was an emergency you looked for those yellow-and-black signs with three downward pointing triangles that became an international symbol for protection from radiation exposure. Those signs were usually placed at various locations and attached to buildings around town that directed pedestrians toward the nearest public shelter in the event of a nuclear incident.

The man who created the ominous shelter sign was Robert Blakeley, a U.S. Army Corps Engineer, who recently died last October at age 95. The shelter system was ordered by Pres. John F. Kennedy in 1961 at a time when a nuclear missile attack seemed unavoidable with Khrushchev and the Soviets or Castro in Cuba.

Not everyone fully understood the ramifications of nuclear fallout, but by using a shelter, you could possibly survive an attack, at least in the short term. Fallout shelters were mainly located in the basements of churches, government buildings, schools, municipal or bank structures and apartment complexes.

Many houses that were erected around those years also had a safe concrete bunker-style room built into the basement. The shelters were all designed to be stocked with food and water to prevent occupants from exposure to radiation once the door was closed and locked. Nearly all new house construction in the Midwest and Southeastern part of the country in recent years have some sort of safe room built into it for residents to go for protection when severe thunderstorms or tornadoes threaten. It would be interesting to learn how many homes of all ages still have a nuclear bomb fallout room in their basement.

Blakeley, a Marine veteran who served in the military during WWII and the Korean War, was no stranger to battlefield chaos and conflict. So when he designed the sign he dismissed an early suggestion that the fallout sign be made of railroad board, a paper-like material that would be hard to hang and probably burn in the destruction of an atomic blast.

He had the foresight to know he’d need a long-lasting sign, so he chose aluminum, which easily could be recognizable when painted with the logo and the three directional arrows, including numbers of the shelter capacity. Just in case, it was the one room you didn’t want to be late getting to if the sirens blew.

For many years long after the Cold War ended there still was a fallout shelter sign attached to the exterior of the municipal building in the small community where I live. It’s not there anymore, but in a school gym of another area town a fallout shelter sign still hangs on the wall close to the staircase leading to a lower level safe room beneath the basketball floor.

There are very few, if any, yellow-and-black fallout shelter signs still remaining on buildings. Most of those signs have been removed and disappeared except for a few rare originals that survived, and collectors may find them for sale in antique stores.

As I write this I’m hopeful that the scariest sign of all remains a relic of the past. That sign from over a half century ago must never be needed again. For now we can only wait and see if good sense somehow prevails to save mankind and preserve God’s green earth.

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