December 28, 2004

The new National Film Registry films, including "Duck and Cover."

The new 25 films for Congress's National Film Registry have been announced. These are films chosen for their "cultural, historical or aesthetic significance." The only ones I've seen are "Eraserhead" (1978), "The Nutty Professor" (1963), "Schindler's List" (1993), "Unforgiven" (1992), and -- I'm guessing now -- "Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor" (1936) and "Pups is Pups (Our Gang)" (1930). And, like most people, I've seen part of "Jailhouse Rock" (1957). One I haven't seen but was curious enough to look up is "Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers" (1980). It really is a documentary about garlic.

Also on the list, and clearly a part of the American cultural heritage, is the 1951 civil defense film "Duck and Cover." I don't remember ever being shown this, maybe because I didn't reach elementary school age until the late 1950s. I do, however, remember air raid drills. These did not involve getting under the desks, as famously depicted in "Duck and Cover." We went out in the hall and curled up on our knees, with our heads against the wall and our hands clasped behind our necks. I can certainly remember having no idea what we were preparing for. I knew what "air" meant, and I knew what a "fire drill" referred to, even though the word "drill" didn't mean anything. "Raid" didn't mean anything either. So "air raid drill" was just one of those things we did, like "pledge allegiance." They told us to do it, and we did.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, when I was 11 and had some vague idea of what was happening, the school sent us home with a memo to give to our parents. The memo informed the parents that they needed to teach those of us who rode the bus how to make our way home on foot. Presumably, the school envisioned a nuclear war in which the children would be wandering about and ought to at least attempt to walk home. My parents did nothing in response to this memo, which puzzled me back then (when I also fretted about their failure to build a bomb shelter). I'm sure they wouldn't have thought much of our air raid drills either.

UPDATE: "Duck and Cover" is in the public domain. You can download or stream it here. Okay, I've watched it now. That's really quite disturbing. You begin with an animated turtle ("dum dum deedle dum dum") and before long you're being told over and over again that 'the flash may come at any time," so you must be instantly ready to jump onto the ground and cover yourself up, like these people on a picnic who go under the picnic cloth ("They know that even a thin cloth helps protect them"). Just before the peppy music ends the film, the kids are told: "Older people will help us, as they always do. But there might not be any grownups around when the bomb explodes. Then, you're on your own!"

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