The day the Russians nuked my sawmill camp. A survivor’s memoir.


After 44 years, my memory of this late cold-war-era event is not perfect. But it left an impression that planted seeds for my future interest in social epistemology, the social dimension of knowledge. Perhaps as something like Y2K will do for others.

‘Epistemic’ means pertaining to what we know, how we know, and so on. There are a number of epistemic conundrums embedded in my memoir, such as discrepancies between what is taught by parents and what is taught in schools. And that children are often omitted when we talk about transmitting beliefs via testimony, i.e. children sharing beliefs with each other, having their own epistemic lives. In fact, the testimony of children coming home from school often educates parents. Learning is not top-down, but rather up-and-down and side-to-side.

It’s an October morning, 1975, in Upper Fraser, a remote sawmill camp in north central B.C. I’m 9 years old, sitting at my desk in the portable classroom where I’m to spend the remainder of my elementary school years.  A bank of windows running the length of wall to my left looks across the dirt road we call the highway and at the log deck just beyond. An eager student, I sit with my books open, waiting for my teacher, Mr. Morrice, to arrive and start roll call. And rather than talk with my peers as they settle in to their seats, I prefer to stare out the windows. My thoughts run over the words I’ve memorized for our spelling test, which three books I want to order from Scholastic Book Club, and why garter snakes bloat when they die. I wonder why, since people eat insects in other countries, we don’t eat ants and earthworms and grasshoppers here in Canada. And I imagine a baking sheet full of dried worms being pulled from the oven like chocolate chip cookies. I wonder at what point, deep in its cocoon, a caterpillar looks like a butterfly. I imagine what the earth looks like from outer space. And I wonder if Mr. Allan, our principal, will read us the next chapter in 2001: A Space Odyssey today.

My daydreaming is broken by a bang, bangity-bang. Mr. Morrice pushes the rattling projector trolley from the cloak room at the back of the class and positions it in front of his desk with the projector lens pointing toward the chalk board. Mrs. McCree, the school helper, appears and pulls the projector screen, a compact metal tube, from its corner to the right of the board. She and Mr. Morrice unfold its legs and balance the screen behind Mr. Maurice’s desk, front and center of the chalkboard. Grabbing the metal handle, Mr. Morrice whips the screen up to its full height and secures it on a rod that Mrs. McCree draws up its backside. Then Mr. Morrice pulls a large, round metal tin from the shelf under the projector. I’m shaking with excitement, A film!! A surprise film! Maybe we get to watch Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Zorro. Or The Bush Baby. Or Evolution, my favourite Canadian Film Board animation. I watch as Mr. Morrice and Mrs. McCree unfold the projector arms, remove the lid from the tin, and lift the film reel. One mounts the film reel on the front arm of the projector while the other mounts an empty reel on the back arm. Mrs. McCree plugs in the projector while Mr. Morrice loosens the end of the film from the front reel and threads it through the projector. Mrs. McCree grabs the length of film spewed from the projector body and secures it to the back reel. All right, says Mr. Morrice, put your books away.

Mrs. McCree draws the curtains shut and stands at the side of the room, resting her hands in front of her long, colourful skirt. Mr. Morrice stands beside the projector. He plays with a thread on his fraying jeans and watches us silently until our desk tops are clear and we’ve assumed our polite movie-watching posture. We’re facing front, our hands folded on our desktops and our feet planted squarely under our desks. I’m feeling a little dizzy from the interruption to our routine, and I fight the urge to remind Mr. Morrice to take attendance. Something tells me not to. Okay, says Mr. Morrice, looking toward Mrs. McCree then back at us, pay attention. Mr. Morrice flicks on the projector and watches the reels spin for a moment before joining Mrs. McCree at the side of the class. She switches off the fluorescent lights. The room darkens.

Numbers, test signals, hairs, and glitches flicker across the screen. It’s a black and white film, I think, my heart sinking. A plastic-looking man with short hair and dressed in a suit fills the screen. And he fills the room with his plastic voice. He’s a boring man, I think. I slump in my seat and wonder how long the film will be. I stare blankly, listening to the click, click, click of the projector reels. I’m so tuned out I scarcely notice the click, click, click of the boring-man’s monologue come to an end. Boring-man disappears, and in his stead army guys assemble in a line on the fringe of a desert landscape. Now I’m interested. And I squint to figure out what is going on in the scene. The entire screen brightens and dims like a lightening flash, a magic white curtain that changes the stage setting in an instant. A low dust cloud crawls along the ground in the wake of the flash, and a fireball raises like a giant fist from its center. I think of our story-time book, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Are these aliens? I wonder. I search the image for a spaceship. But there is none to be found. Instead, the dust cloud and flames bloom into a menacing giant mushroom. Boring-man’s voice returns like a poltergeist to narrate the scene. This is an atomic bomb, he says, and you need to learn what to do if one explodes near you. I straighten up. What?!

The boring-man’s voice affects the manic staccato of a radio sports announcer and my heart skips beats along with his words. You’ll see a flash, he says. Don’t look at the flash. It’ll blind you. I’m suddenly glad the curtains are drawn. He continues, the bomb destroys everything in its path. So, kids, when you see that flash, you have to act quickly. What do you do? You duck. And cover. The radiation from the bomb causes burns, he warns. Worse than any sunburn you’ve ever had. So, when you drop, curl up tight. Cover your face and the back of your neck. Try to get under a desk or some piece of furniture. If there’s nothing near to hide under, tuck up tight against a wall. If you’re caught in the open, use a newspaper, a jacket, whatever you have handy to shield yourself. And stay away from windows. Breaking glass will fly through the air and cut you. Make sure, the boring-man adds, that you stay down and covered up. If you stand up too soon, you’ll be hit by the back wave of energy.

I commit each safety step to memory like the letters in the words for my spelling test. Got it. If you see a flash, don’t look at it. Don’t think. Duck and cover. Stay down. My boney bottom rests painfully on the edge of my seat as my toes feel for the distance between the legs of my desk. I’m on the cusp of sliding to the floor but I don’t want to miss further instructions from the boring-man. Your family should know what to do, he says. Mine doesn’t. How long do I have to warn them? The boring-man answers my question. An atomic bomb can explode any time of the day or night or year. I shudder. There is no time to lose!

Whatever is said in the last few minutes of the film is drowned by my racing thoughts. I have to warn my family, I have to get them to safety! But where? And how? The fluorescent lights flicker and hum as the classroom lights up. I flinch. Mrs. McCree pulls open the curtains, and, in an effort not to look at the windows and risk being blinded by a flash, I fix my eyes on Mr. Morrice futzing with the projector. My classmates rustle through their desks for their recess snacks. Paper lunch bags crinkle and crunch, and a pungent smell of apples, peanut butter, and baloney fills the air. Jimmy, biting into his fruit, stands behind Mr. Morrice and asks, where do the bombs come from? Russians, says Mr. Morrice, as he squeezes the lid on the big, round tin, now go for recess.

Russians. I conjure a mental image of the USSR on the world map. Why would the Russians want to bomb us? I think of Boris Badenov and his partner Natasha from the Rocky and Bullwinkle show and experience my first wave of incredulity. Mr. Morrice played a joke on us. Relieved, I swing along the rungs of the monkey bars until the buzzer sounds. I race to the portable and bounce up the springy wooden steps into the cloakroom. I grin at Mr. Morrice, standing at the entrance. You’re joking with us, the Russians aren’t going to bomb us. He shakes his head, I’m not joking.

It takes everything I have to concentrate on my schoolwork until lunchtime. I can’t understand why the Russians want to bomb us. Why not a big city ? I wonder. At the bell, I shuffle out of the classroom, plod past the playground, and cut across the soccer field to sit beside the creek. There, I can eat my soggy sandwich and think in peace. A breeze loosens golden leaves from the aspens above me, and they swirl against the blue sky before they land on the water and drift out of sight. A crow hops and sidles down the length of a branch then springboards into the air, sending more leaves to their fall. An explosion of noisy crows bursts from the spruce trees in the distance. I mindlessly snap twigs between my fingers as I sit with the heaviness of my disbelief. Why? I need reasons. I roll my head onto my shoulder and find myself looking at the log deck. Of course! Now I know what the Russians want with us. Upper Fraser has a sawmill, a sawmill makes lumber, lumber is needed to make houses. Big cities have lots of people, and lots of people need lots of houses. If people don’t have houses, they’ll get cold and die. And so, if the Russians bomb Upper Fraser, they’ll kill lots of people in the cities. Upper Fraser is a very important place.

Since the Russians are dropping a bomb on us, I need to get my family out of the village. We have to move. Fast. There’s an abandoned trapper’s cabin along the Torpy Creek in the MacGregor mountain range where we spend our weekends fishing. Perfect. We’ll fish, hunt, and eat berries. But we’ll have to stock up with flour, lard, and salt. And also coffee, tea, sugar, tinned milk, and powdered milk. And bandaids. I think of only one snag in my plan. We’ll need a fire to stay warm through the winter, and the Russians will see the smoke coming from our chimney. I imagine banking the cabin with snow like an igloo and huddling together under blankets to avoid lighting a fire. But that seems impractical. We have to cook and go to the bathroom. Thinking the problem over, I decide its worth the risk that the Russians won’t waste a bomb on one cabin and I consider the matter settled. My next step is to break the news to my parents.

I run home after school. Fat Danish meatballs are spattering in the frying pan on the stove, and Mom is setting her hard hat, gloves, and work boots near the door in preparation for her graveyard shift at the mill. Mom! I blurt, The Russians are going to drop an atomic bomb on us! Mom raises an eyebrow. It’s true! I say. Mom laughs as she turns to flip the meatballs, No, honey, the Russians are not going to bomb us. But…I start to say, and she shakes her head. But Mr. Morrice says so, I persist. She frowns and says, Mr. Morrice is wrong. This is going to be harder than I thought. Dad walks in the door, smelling of sawdust and sweat, and he plunks his metal lunch kit and thermos on the table. Dad! I say, the Russians are going to drop an atomic bomb on us! He laughs. And with his big, calloused hands, he gently musses my hair. No, sweetie. He doesn’t believe me, either. But I can’t give up. I spend an entire suppertime explaining the film, the reasons the Russians want to bomb us, the details of my plan to move us to the cabin on the Torpy creek. I’m still talking as Mom clears the table, and dad opens a beer and heads to the couch with the newspaper. I continue my pitch while he reads. And I keep talking as he closes his eyes. Uh-huh, he says, uh-huh, uh-huh. There’s a long pause, then he snores. Dad? I say, Dad? Dad? But he doesn’t answer. Now what? Pajamas! Mom calls. I obediently slip into my pink flannel nightie, brush my teeth, and crawl into bed. Mom tucks me in, smooths my hair from my forehead, and kisses me goodnight. I stare into the darkness for the longest time.

The next morning, I sit quietly at table and eat my porridge. Mom, dusty from her shift at the sawmill, smooches with Dad on his way out the door. She shoos me from the table, hands me my lunch bag and kisses me good-bye. Good-bye Mom, I think, and I look at her for a long time before I leave. She’s standing on the steps yawning and waving as she watches me walk away. I don’t wave back. I stare at my feet as I drag the toes of my shoes through the dirt on the path all the way to school. I slump into the portable and plunk myself at my desk. I set my pencil beside my closed notebook and stare at the blackboard, folding my arms across my chest. And I am very, very careful not to look out the windows.

The duck and cover clip that I’ve linked in the body of the text may not be the same propaganda film that we were shown in class. I provide this clip for those unfamiliar with Duck and Cover.

I’ve changed the names of my teacher, our school helper, and our principal.

Categories: Catch-All

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