A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall by
(303 Stories)

Prompted By Cold War Coping

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At my elementary school, which I attended from 1956 to 1962, we never hid under our desks or heard the phrase “duck and cover.” We had our own fallout shelter to protect us from the Russians.

The school was a large building, three stories plus a basement, which took up (in my memory at least) a full city block. It had classrooms for kindergarten through eighth grade, although I left after sixth. The basement was where the bathrooms were, so everyone in the school went down there at some point during the day. In fact, the euphemism for “going to the bathroom” was “going to the basement” and it was many years before I realized that most people didn’t say they had to go to the basement when they needed to relieve themselves.

In addition to being the location of the bathrooms, and the music rooms, and the janitor’s storeroom, and probably some other things that I am forgetting, the basement was a certified fallout shelter. It had yellow and black signs like the Featured Image of this story. So just as we had fire drills, where we all had to march outside in orderly lines to a designated place on the playground that was far away from the (presumably burning) building, we also had air raid drills where we marched down to the basement and stood in orderly lines next to the wall until the all clear signal sounded. I don’t remember ever being worried that there would really be a fire OR that there would really be an air raid, I just knew that we had to have these drills so we would be ready if there were.

By the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, probably the scariest thirteen days during the entire Cold War period, I was in seventh grade at a different school. We didn’t have air raid drills at that school. Again, I don’t remember being worried, although it’s hard to be sure. I have read so much since that time about the missile crisis, I have no idea whether I knew about it while it was happening. I don’t think my parents were talking about it, we didn’t discuss it in my seventh grade Civics class, and I generally didn’t read the front section of the newspaper. So I may have been blissfully unaware of any threat.

An obvious effect of the Cold War was that, throughout my childhood, the Russians were always the bad guys, from Boris and Natasha on Rocky and Bullwinkle (1959-64), to The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming! (1966). One year, in some class where we were talking about America being the melting pot, we went around the room and everyone said where their ancestors had come from. When I said Russia, there was a collective gasp. Of course my ancestors had fled from earlier Russian bad guys and that’s why we were even in America. But my classmates were still shocked at the idea that they knew someone who was Russian!

Thinking about the Cold War now, it is amazing to me that I spent those years being so carefree. Maybe I was worried and just don’t remember. I made various attempts at diaries (inspired by Anne Frank), but I no longer have any of them, and I suspect they were more about daily activities than about deep thoughts. Then again, unlike now, those were times when we trusted our government to keep us safe.

  • * * *

A note on the title: Bob Dylan may or may not have said that he wrote “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” in response to the Cuban Missile Crisis. That’s what appears on the liner notes of the Freewhelin’ album, but he later denied saying it. And it couldn’t be true, because the first time he performed it was at Carnegie Hall in September 1962, a full month before the missile crisis. However, it makes a good story. He did famously say about this song, which rambles on for many verses on many topics, “Every line in it is actually the start of a whole new song. But when I wrote it, I thought I wouldn’t have enough time alive to write all those songs so I put all I could into this one.” The “hard rain” he refers to might be acid rain, or nuclear fallout, or it might just be regular rain. You never know.


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Characterizations: been there


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    I am a bit younger than you, Suzy, so I, too, don’t remember being worried by the Cuban Missile Crisis. I also went to a K-8 big school, until we moved just before I entered 6th grade. It, too was considered a Fall-Out Shelter and I think we practiced in the event of an air raid. But I do remember other aspects of the Cold War, like the space race (I was taking the Iowa Achievement test when John Glenn came back from his historic space flight. The principal came on the PA system to announce it and a cheer went up in the whole school). But I think, in general, we kids were too young to really worry about the effects of the Cold War when we were youngsters. It is only in hindsight and reading our history that we understand what was going on during the most intense period.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks for your comment, Betsy. I think you are only one year (but two grades) younger than I, so we probably had about the same view of current events. As you say, it was only later that we learned how much we should have been worried about.

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    Suzy, my memories of the Cuban missile crisis are similar to yours. I knew it was a big deal, my parents did talk about it but never with great alarm, and I never thought the atomic bomb would fall. I loved your reference to Boris and Natasha. Do you remember Spy vs Spy? Like you, I am 100% Russian (actually Lithuanian), and like you, I kept a diary inspired by Anne Frank. It was filled with mostly trivial stuff about crushes. Looking back, we were lucky to be kids in a time that felt relatively safe. I love your addendum about Bob Dylan. Great music!

    • Suzy says:

      Yes I DO remember Spy vs Spy, with one character in black and one in white. I was a fanatic Mad Magazine devotee and subscriber for many years. In fact, when my parents boxed up all my stuff to send to me in California, there was an entire carton of Mad Magazines!

  3. John Shutkin says:

    Great story, Suzy. You certainly bring back the memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis, even if they weren’t exactly good ones. All of a sudden this stuff was serious, not just stupid “duck and cover” air raid drills and reading about the evil Russians. That said, thank you also for reminding me of Spy v. Spy. I loved those cartoons, particularly since the message was that it really wasn’t about good vs. bad, but the guys on both sides doing the same sneaky stuff, more or less interchangeably. Pretty subversive message for that time — but, of course, Mad really was a very subversive magazine, to its everlasting credit.

    And, as always, great title. And I really enjoyed the backstory on Dylan. As with almost everything with him, it is never straightforward.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks, I’m glad you liked it. Not sure I bring back memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis, all I say is that I don’t know if I was aware of it or not. Betsy was the one who gave us that history so clearly in her story. You’re right about Spy vs Spy (Prohias used “vs” for versus, not “v.” like lawyers do, and with no period) being subversive. Now I have to find my carton of Mad Magazines in the garage and read them again!

  4. Marian says:

    Love the visual, Suzy, now that sign is clear in my memory. My school was a single story, a bit newer than yours, so no basement! Spy vs Spy was my favorite, although I didn’t start reading Mad magazine until just about the time of the Cuban missile crisis and the subversion didn’t resonate until a couple of years after that.

    • Suzy says:

      Marian, were you in New Jersey then? If so, I’m surprised to hear that your school was a single story. Mine was bult in the 1890s or 1900s. I tried to find a picture of it online, but no luck.

  5. Great topic and great post, Suzy! Your description of your school evoked plenty of memories of my Massachusetts elementary school. Interestingly, we also had the antiquated term ‘going to the basement’ when we needed to go. I also loved your description of Cold War denial.

    By the time Boris and Natasha came around I could laugh at their antics, but as a young McCarthy-Era spooked kid, I was subject to Cold War shows like “I Led Three Lives” about a double agent who infiltrated ‘cells’ of swarthy, malevolent Communists, and “Dragnet” where Joe Friday often chased down commies and brought them to justice.

    Although I come from a different background re: anti-communism (I never could believe my country was going to protect me), I , too, couldn’t get it together to freak out over the Cuban Missile crisis. You did a moving job of describing all that. Also…

    Hadn’t heard that Dylan story about “Hard Rain” but he was always ready with a smart, wise-ass answer to stupid questions.

    • Suzy says:

      Thank you for your comment, Charlie! Interesting that you said “going to the basement” at your school too. I hadn’t thought of that phrase for decades, until I started writing this story. That’s the great thing about this site, it makes you remember things you didn’t even realize you’d forgotten.

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