Blast from the past: the nuclear bomb desk

I will never forget my old wooden desk in grade school and the drills we held in order to protect us from a nuclear blast. The nuns from St. Ludwig’s Catholic School ordered us to get out of our seats and to curl up beneath the desks where we practiced the silence of Benedictine monks. Someone had pulled down the shades over the wide windows of the second-floor room and we sat for long minutes that felt like hours.

I remember the metal shelf built below the desktop and how it held books. The seat was actually attached to the desk belonging to some other student. It was one of the sturdiest chairs I ever had the pleasure of sitting at attention upon.

The desk had an indentation that was created to hold pencils and keep them from rolling over. To the far right of the desk was a hole which once held a small jar of ink for the more advanced students to dip their pens into. No, they weren’t quills, but something close to ‘em I imagine. I never saw an actual ink container in one of the holes, but I do remember using one of those good old fountain pens. Peacock blue was one of the favorite colors to write with back then.


Desks were our “protectors” from a nuclear bomb blast from the past 


The desk seemed to always contain at least one book. A Bible history book. I loved to read the adventures from the Old Testament, particularly the stories involving David and his battle with the Philistines and their champion Goliath. I never got grossed out from reading about the young David chopping off the giant’s head or learning how one of my other favorites – Samson – lost his sight as well as his power after his hair was cut. He brought the house down eventually and showed the bad guys that you just didn’t mess around with God-fearing people like him.


St Francis Xavier School in the nearby Fairmount section of Philadelphia held similar desks and periodic drills. Someone older than me recalled how he heard sirens outside of the school one day and the nun went to the fire escape to see what had occurred. It seemed that a prisoner for the first time ever had escaped from Pennsylvania’s  Eastern State Penitentiary. His name was Willie Sutton, who when asked why he robbed banks quipped “Because that is where the money is!

Getting under the desks would do little to help us against radiation from a nuclear blast I finally came to realize. I’m glad I experienced the drills, however. At least I can commiserate with the students nowadays who have “active shooter” drills. I wished we had a world where neither exercise would be needed in our educational system.


7 comments on “Blast from the past: the nuclear bomb desk

  1. Lydia Speck says:

    Not anything to do with the drills, just the desks: the boy who sat behind me in 5th grade had really long legs. Since he couldn’t scoot his desk back, I was always stepping on his toes. Oh, and like you, I loved my fountain pen.

    Liked by 1 person

    • contoveros says:

      Well, I never sat in front of anyone that tall and I can see how uncomfortable it could have been especially because you couldn’t rearrange the chairs affixed to the desk behind you.

      There was something special about those old-fashioned pens. They had a majestic look about them and I always felt I was really writing when I applied the tip of that metal device to the composition book or test paper. The nuns introduced us to Peacock Blue ink and it is still one of my favorite colors of ink . . .


  2. contoveros says:

    The following comments were provided at Facebook:

    Janet Mather
    Hear, hear! I remember those desks, but in my case only in first grade. When it came time to hide under desks by 5th grade, they were separate. Still hard to get under.

    We were all much smaller then and able to crawl under the desk with our knees folded toward our chests. What a way to survive!


    Terri Kiral
    I remember. There’s an old building in town that still has the fallout shelter sign on it.

    My old high school in Philadelphia still has one of those bright yellow signs with pitch black lettering announcing that Dobbins High School provides shelter from a nuclear blast. It was scary then and it’s still scary today!


    Nick Contos Petrilli
    A lot of the buildings around the area including churches, schools etc. have fallout shelter signs. A good amount of them have been decommissioned, but there are a few out there that are still able to be used in case of emergency.

    Shawmont School in Roxborough has one that I’d love to actually see in person!

    Someday we’ll take the kids over there and tell them what it was like to get through a nuclear war. No wonder we’re so crazy. We’ve had to live with such a threat over our heads since we were little.


    Bruce Saul
    Had them at Sartain

    I drove past the old school area the other day. Glad to see you made it through the blast way over there!


    Judi Halpern
    My parents were politically active and I was not to participate in these drills I was to be sent home if I’m remembering correctly?

    Cool. I wonder what they would do today for any “active shooter” drills. And what about arming teachers? I just can’t see one of my old nuns packing a .45 or a Saturday night special up her sleeve.


    Randy Bennett
    I remember taking those drills while in school in Oak Ridge, TN. At the time the city was still manufacturing the nuclear material for atomic bombs. We did the drills, but everyone in the city figured we would never know if there was a war. Until we saw the mushroom clouds.

    Scary that we had to live through the Cold War. Scary still to be in a city that may have been marked by the Soviets to get rid of their enemy’s weapon production plant.

    Randy Bennett
    We didn’t make the weapons. That was a city in Texas and Kentucky. We made the U-235, U-236, and later plutonium. Also did the research. Not sure how I feel about that, but it’s what we lived with.

    It’s still frightening to think of such a catastrophe we could have created back then.


    Ron Landsel
    I was the (pull down the classroom)shades monitor during these drills.

    Thank you for your service.

    You helped us survive the nuclear holocaust!

    Now we can become enlightened!


  3. This brings back so many memories! Thank you for this!


    • contoveros says:

      Some memories are more frightful looking back with what we know today. Thank God we never had to experience what the drills were trying to help us avoid our destruction.

      Liked by 2 people

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