from Songs of Gentle Sadness
By Buie Seawell
In the year of our Lord 1949 Lumberton was under the very palpable dread of nuclear destruction. The Robesonian (“Robeson County’s Only Daily Newspaper”) ran the headline, “Soviet’s Have the Bomb.”
My Boy Scout leader was “Skipper” Brothers. An old, loveable but testy sort, who had served his country in World War II as a Navy noncom, was drawing his retirement and waiting for a new call to arms. Early on a September Saturday morning, he phoned up all the members of Explorer Scout Troup 301. We were to report for civil defense training at the fire station on Elm and Second Streets. There was urgency in his voice. Ominously he mentioned that Lumberton Fire Chief Eddie Glover would be there. Chief Glover had just been made head of Civil Defense for Robeson County.
“You’re up early,” Dad, still reading his News & Observer, observed.
“Spook, say ‘yes sir’ when your Dad’s talking to you,” Mom scolded.
“Well, what’s going on? And what did Skipper Brothers want?”
“Civil defense call up, gotta go to the Fire Station!” I said in my deepest voice.
“To defend what?,” Dad asked.
“I don’t know. Spot planes and call their positions into Raleigh Civil Defense Headquarters . . . something like that. Chief Glover will be there.”
“What the hell does Eddie Glover know about spotting planes?”
“I don’t know.”
“And for that matter, who the hell would want to attack Lumberton?”
“Stalin and the Soviets. They’ve got the bomb.” I ventured.
“Holy Mary Mother of God!” Dad mumbled under the newspaper.
“Malcolm! What was that?” Mom said.
“Nothing.” And he folded the N&O meaningfully and continued even more intently reading.
“I’m riding my bike to Billy’s, then down to the Fire Station.” I announced, as a clear exit line. It worked. I was out and away. Up Walnut street, red Schwinn with front shock, whitewall fat tires and electric horn . . . smoking!
All morning and afternoon we were instructed about the Soviet threat and how to tell the difference between WWII British, American and German aircraft. They didn’t have any “spotter cards” with Soviet planes, but these were promised for our next training session. In the afternoon we were taught how to record a “sighting” and call it into Raleigh Headquarters. Billy and I spotted a Piper Cub flying low west to east over downtown Lumberton. We phoned it in. Then the plane came back going in the other direction. We tried to phone it in again, but Chief Glover suggested it was probably not necessary. The rest of the afternoon we lay on our backs in the little park behind the Fire Station and stared up at the sky. At 4 PM Troup 301, BSA Explorers, was sent home. Lumberton was apparently safe for the time being.
Well, not everyone felt safe, I guess. Dr. Townsend, a dentist, who lived on 17th and Walnut decided to build a bomb shelter in his side yard. It had a little pipe that came out the top, and looked like a half buried propane tank. He put in supplies, a gun, a gas mask or two (Army Surplus) and a radio. At least that’s what his cute, redheaded, freckled faced daughter Sara told some of us. I related all this to Dad at dinner one night.
“That settles it!” Dad snorted.
“Settles what, Malcolm?” Mom asked.
“Settles this– we sure as hell are not getting one of those things! Just imagine. . . they do drop the bomb on Lumberton, for who the hell knows why, lets say they miss Fort Bragg (biggest army base in the U.S., thirty miles away near Fayetteville) and hit us. Days pass and then we come out of our bunker alive. And who is left? Nobody but a damn Republican dentist. There are worse things than nuclear war!”
“But Sara’s cute,” I blurt.
“Could we just change the subject?” Mom says. “You won’t believe what Jonce told me today!”
“I’m with you on that,” pipes Dad, “I never believe anything your sister says.”
And so it went. Lumberton was mercifully never bombed during the Cold War. I gave up Civil Defense after a couple more Saturdays to caddy golf for my Dad. I did try several times to get Sara to take me into Dr. Townsend’s bomb shelter, but I think she thought I had ulterior motives. Which I did. It was also about this time that Sara’s Mom tried to teach me to sing (Mrs. Townsend was a voice teacher.) And that alone did more to disturb the domestic tranquility than the Soviets.
Over the years I’ve become an out and out pacifist, and I laugh about Lumberton ever being a target for anything more than outlet stores. But you know – thinking back to that day in September 1949 — there’s hardly a bigger adrenalin rush for a 12 year old than being called, early on a Saturday morning to defend his homeland.