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In 1992, my father toured Richmond, Virginia’s old Spring Street Penitentiary just before it was torn down. In the basement’s death row he found a hand-written log of a condemned prisoner’s final six hours dated Saturday, October 16, 1971. On that day I was twelve years old.
Time: 1800 – 2300 hours
Watch: Night Shift
6:00 p.m. I, Corporal C.A. B__, along with Corporals T. A__ & E. B__ relieved Corporals M__, M__ & R__ and assumed the duties of A Basement. All equipment appears accounted for. Temp 73°. Made a check of area. Received one inmate, W. Brown, #124549 Cell #3.
My Saturday night TV watching habit as a twelve-year-old in 1971 was ironclad. After parking on the den couch after supper, my routine started with the news at 6 p.m., and lasted until “Mission: Impossible” went off at 11 p.m. I had to go to bed then because “Playboy after Dark” came on and I wasn’t allowed to watch it. My mother said it was “blue” entertainment, for grownups only.
6:20 p.m. Marie D__, Bart S__ & Rev. Bill J__ escorted by Major T__ entered A basement to see inmate Brown. Inmate Brown still talking on phone.
During the news on Channel 6 that evening, a stark, black and white system logo suddenly popped up, accompanied by that flat, recorded announcement telling me to please stand by, because for the next sixty seconds this station (in voluntary cooperation with a bunch of government agencies) was conducting a test. With a sense of self-satisfaction, I retrieved my pad and pencil from the drawer next to me and recorded the day, date and time: October 16, 1971, 6:21 p.m. I had a good reason for doing this.
6:30 p.m. Lt. Campbell entered area.
The test had lasted about a minute, and the News with Roger Mudd came back on.
6:44 p.m. Call completed.
After the world came to the brink of nuclear annihilation in 1963, a system was developed to warn the populace via television of an impending emergency but it had to be tested once a month. My dad insisted the TV stations scheduled the tests for specific times. I maintained they were random. I was going to prove him wrong.
6:49 p.m. Made call to Jonathan S__ – attorney 202-***-****.
The test was a forty-two-second TV show, always appearing when it was least expected. It was supposed to prepare us for some kind of attack, like the drills we used to have in elementary school in the 1960s.
“Dialing for Dollars” came on; it too was a short TV show, always appearing when it was least expected. A guy would call a random viewer and ask them “the count and the amount.” If the person knew both, they won between $5 and $25.
6:55 p.m. Phone call completed. Major T__ & Lt. C__ departed area.
The “Dialing for Dollars” guy hung up without getting an answer, then stared silently at the phone, like he was expecting it to do something.
During those elementary school drills, a horn blasted short, loud bursts, indicating that the dreaded attack the TV test hinted at was maybe underway. None of us really understood that this attack was serious enough to drill and test for, we were far too young. And while we appreciated the break from our studies provided by the short blasts, thrill junkies like me were restless; we craved more exhilarating school interruptions, like an overflowing toilet, a cafeteria grease fire, or a classroom vomiting.
“Stand Up and Cheer” was now on. “Hee Haw” was coming on in half an hour.
7:12 p.m. Marie D__, Bart S__ & Rev J__ departed area. Made call to Hazel E__ 649-****.
There was a girl in my class back then named Carolyn who was epileptic. We could depend on her two or three times a year for a shrieking seizure to incite second grade panic and clear the room.
7:17 p.m. Inmate requested a cup of juice.
At the blasts we lowered our no. 2 pencils, rose from our desks and paraded single-file by height into the hallway. We lined up with our backs to the wall, got down on our knees, clasped our hands over our heads, then bent down until our faces were inches from the dirty elementary floor. This was supposed to protect us from whatever it was we were drilling and testing for. Teachers immune from the faux-attack roamed the hallways, watching to make sure we were in the correct “kiss our ass goodbye” positions.
7:25 p.m. Nurse entered area.
After the all clear we rose to our feet, brushed ourselves off and went right back to the classroom to resume chatting about our times tables, like it never happened. How this was supposed to prepare us for anything was beyond me.
7:31 p.m. Nurse departed area. Made security call.
“Hee Haw” was on.
On February 19, 1971, a Teletype operator accidentally played the wrong tape during the test. An authenticated activation message was sent through the system, ordering TV stations to suspend regular programming and broadcast what was thought to be an actual emergency. Many stations did not receive the alert, and the majority of those that did simply ignored it.
7:40 p.m. Ms. T__, deputy warden, entered area with Lt. C__ for check.
A cancellation message was sent, but it used an incorrect codeword. Another cancellation message with the correct codeword was not sent until almost fifteen minutes later.
7:43 p.m. Ms. T__ & Lt. C__ departed area.
There were more newsworthy things that happened February 19, 1971: fifty tornados ripped through Mississippi, and Phil Esposito of the Boston Bruins scored his fiftieth goal of the season. The Grateful Dead played the Capitol Theater that night in Port Chester, New York.
7:53 p.m. Rev. B__ entered A Basement to visit inmate Brown. Inmate on phone & sitting on bed.
That mistake proved just how ineffectual the system really was. Many stations ignored the orders received over the teletype during that incident. To them it was a big yawn.
My sister came into the den and asked what I was watching. She stayed for a minute then she left. She hated “Hee Haw.”
7:56 p.m. Completed phone call. Inmate requested a cup of juice.
I recently flipped through my emergency broadcast test pocket notebook that I found in a box of mementos. It contained several dates and times written in my stiff and precise twelve-year-old handwriting. Because of my bet with my dad, my job was to record the day, date, and time of every test I saw for a year, to see if there was a pattern. There was none I could see. I think I won.
Mom came in the den and said I could have only one Dr. Pepper because caffeine keeps me up.
7:58 p.m. Rev. B__ departed area. Made call to Linda B__ 225-****
In 1953 President Eisenhower asked television and radio personality Arthur Godfrey to record a “Doomsday” public service announcement, which was to be broadcast only after a total nuclear exchange between the United States and Russia left the world a smoldering ruin. Production of this film has been confirmed, but no one can locate a copy of it. Many documents of the Cold War were sealed under court order.
8:00 p.m. Made security call. Inmate talking on phone.
On vacation in Mexico that past summer, I saw a black velvet painting of Arthur Godfrey for sale in a store window. For his Doomsday services, he was immortalized in black velvet.
8:48 p.m. Call completed.
I remember once a month in 1971, we rose from our desks and walked, ordered by height, into another classroom to watch pre-1960s films about civil defense, again to help us prepare for the attack we did not understand. One was narrated by Hugh Beaumont, who was the dad on the show “Leave it to Beaver.” He wore an army uniform and chatted matter-of-factly from behind a desk about impenetrable subjects like “ground zero” and “fallout.” He indicated nuclear war was just a temporary setback to our normal standards of living.
8:50 p.m. Made call to Betsy E__ 919-***-****
Another film featured Burt the Turtle. He was a cartoon that wore a civil defense helmet and said there were two kinds of attack: with warning and without any warning. In either case, Burt advised us to duck and cover.
9:00 p.m. Rev. B__ departed area. Made security call. Inmate sitting on bed talking on phone
In those films, Junior sat in his striped shirt and cap on his cot and stared into his catcher’s mitt, while dad manned the battery-powered generator so they could maybe listen to Arthur Godfrey’s doomsday message on the wireless. Mom and sis labeled and categorized canned goods in their dresses. Everyone was cheerful and well-dressed. Dad remembered to grab his pipe and sweater as they fled the flaming, hellish carnage.
Mom watched the opening of Suzanne Pleshette on Channel 12 then went back to the kitchen. Maybe to label canned goods just in case.
9:28 p.m. Count cleared. Inmate talking on phone. Made security call.
I don’t recall the film showing the effects on that family after six months in the shelter: gaunt, dehydrated, colorless, and rickety; crazy and cannibalistic from the claustrophobia and boredom and surrounded by bottles and bags of raw sewage.
9:45 p.m. Call completed. Inmate talking on phone.
Sometimes it is all too abstract. Drills, tests, films, and phone calls never tell us exactly what we are preparing for. The preparations are merely momentary breaks in a monotonous schedule; something to do until it is time to do something else, with no ill-effects and no long-term obstacles. A break in the routine, with no consideration of the aftermath.
9:46 p.m. Made call to Bart S__ 342-****. Inmate talking on phone & using the toilet.
Even though I spent my childhood with the constant threat of nuclear winter, by age twelve, I had pushed it aside. I didn’t really care about the tests, films, drills, or mushroom clouds anymore. I was growing up. That stuff was all a big yawn.
9:52 p.m. Call completed. Made call to Justine H__. No answer.
Besides “Mission: Impossible,” my other favorite show was “American Bandstand.” I did not care for the music on that show, nor did I particularly like host Dick Clark. I watched “American Bandstand” to watch girls in short skirts jump up and down and wiggle their butts. My priorities were changing.
10:00 p.m. Made security call. Inmate Brown sitting on bed talking on phone.
You know, I knew the count and the amount on “Dialing for Dollars” earlier. I could have won had I been on the other end of that phone call.
“Mission: Impossible” was finally coming on.
10:40 p.m. Inmate hung up phone then requested apple.
We were assured, over and over, that nuclear war was bad, but not that bad. We would be fine as long as we ducked and covered in a school hallway, under the watchful gaze of our teachers, then retreated to a fallout shelter with our catcher’s mitts and waited there. Shelters were easy to find—just look for the three stacked triangles on the yellow field. They would be stocked with enough canned food and dry goods for an indefinite stay.
I walked out into the kitchen during a commercial and asked mom if I could pop some popcorn and she said it was late, but yes.
10:50 p.m. Bart S__ entered area to talk to inmate Brown. Call completed. Preparations started to escort inmate to prep area.
Adults will need a pipe and a sweater, like the dad in the film.
My mom just entered the room.
10:58 p.m. Relieved by death watch. Inmate escorted to execution chamber.
My mom sent me upstairs to bed because “Playboy after Dark” was coming on.