Survival, Evasion, Escape:
The Nuclear Child

“There are thirty-five thousand Soviet tanks poised on the East German border. We have five thousand. They’ve got over a half million soldiers, and outnumber us ten to one. If the balloon goes up, I want you to do one thing.” The commander or lieutenant or whoever he was looked around the room. “Make for Frankfurt-Rhein airport. But there’s one thing – .”

I listened. It was hot; the room’s steam radiators were in overdrive, and the air was close from all the people sitting around.

“Chances are when you get to Frankfurt-Rhein, you’re gonna find a big ol’ hole in the ground. A smoking crater. The enemy has nuclear weapons, and he’ll probably use them. The most we’ve got are some tactical nukes based in England, and a few over here. Not near enough to stop them. So if you get to Frankfurt-Rhein and find a smoking crater, here’s what I want you to do.”

He leaned forward over his podium. Us dependents shifted restlessly. This was nothing we hadn’t heard before. I heard it several times from my father, and a few other military people in the past.

“Make for the coast. Try to get on a ship. Get yourselves to the United States as quick as you can. Your fathers – husbands – aren’t going to be able to help you. They are going to be off attending to the war. It’s their job to defend this country. It’s your job to get your butts out.”

Leaning back, he looked over the sparse crowd, a satisfied, yet troubled expression on his face.

“You won’t have much time. We estimate the East Germans could be over the border – and take over this area – within hours after the initial attack. Good luck.” With that he shut something (a briefing folder?) on the podium and looked around as if expecting questions. But there were none. As I’ve stated: this was nothing new. It was a tired old routine to which I think most dependents could recite the facts. The Cold War was on – had been on for decades. We were in Germany, with East Germany – part of the U.S.S.R. – bordering us just a hundred or so miles away. If war was to break out, we were going to get smeared, our troops reduced to a bloody paste, and the bases into smoking (and possibly glowing) holes. The only thing the US troops would be able to do would be to try to delay the inevitable: a takeover of the European continent. And it was a given that they would fail – or in failing to fail, should everything go – the world would be reduced to a smoking ruin in a thermonuclear war. In which case the manual we were given – “Survival, Evasion and Escape” – would become a moot point. There would be no reason to survive, no way to evade the ever pervasive radiation, and no where left to escape to.

Such was the specter of the threat that hung over our head every day.

I don’t remember the “briefings” going exactly as stated above – there were several, depending upon the base we were on – and we got the briefings in several different ways. Sometimes it was from our fathers. Sometimes it was from a base commander. Sometimes it was from some peon – an unfortunate officer or enlisted man consigned to “inform the newbies” – of the necessary evils. But the above is a good generic description of them all, rolled together into one. Why we were there (to defend “free Europe”). The uselessness of the mission (we were vastly outnumbered by tens to hundreds to thousands to one, depending upon the resource you were counting). That our soldiers would be overrun – quite probably killed – and we could not depend on them for help in escaping the country. The chance (high) that a limited tactical nuclear war would break out. The equal chance that the war would quickly escalate into all-out thermonuclear war, involving most of the countries involved (including the U.S. Mainland). And all we could do was run – hopefully for the coast – hopefully to make it there across a cratered and war-torn foreign land – to hopefully find some ship to take us onboard.

I remember the day when my dad handed me “The Book”. It was a small, thick book – about the size of a paperback, but about three hundred pages thick. It had that dull yellowish cover that all military manuals have, and printed in plain black block letters were the words: “Survival, Evasion, and Escape”.

“Read that,” my dad ordered. “Learn it. Know it.” Unstated was the assumption that I was the one who was going to have to know it; the one the family – my mom and brother – would rely on to tap my knowledge of this thing, the words and instructions in the book. Not because I was the oldest – I wasn’t. But because I was the one who would read it, would follow it, and would understand the instructions it contained.

And so I did.

I learned how to cross rivers; survive in the snow – how to build an unobtrusive fire “underground”, camouflage myself, what plants to eat, snares to use. It was a pretty basic book, but it was all about what the title said: surviving, evading – and escaping – the enemy – whether it be through woods, swamps, or snow; in a nuclear, biological, or chemical war environment. And, I decided, reaching the end of the book, it simply wasn’t enough. I had to know more about this fascinating subject. I had to learn how to survive – anything.

And that led me on a decade long journey into the world of survival, evasion, and escape. I consumed every book on the subject I could find, raiding the military libraries, and later the civilian ones. My peers – fellow Army brats – also took these things to heart, and we used them – against each other mostly. I recall camping – separate camps, warring camps – and us setting up booby traps and dead falls against each other; primitive detection devices to warn of approaching “enemies”. I remember us moving stealthily through midnight woods, charging through a patch of nettles, fighting through a tangle of thorns. They called me “Tank” because I would and could charge through anything – leading the way, blazing a trail through brambles and bushes, with a herd of kids on my trail.  Climbing concrete barricades, breaching fences, wriggling over barbed wire. We did this on our own, not at the Army’s command — and I think it was because we all knew what could be lurking over the horizon. I joined the Boy Scouts (led by a couple G.I.’s) and kept with it, though while I was overseas we were more concerned with cold weather survival than hunting and fishing and all those other things. (Later, in the United States, that would change as I graduated into a more “normal” and civilian group of Boy Scouts.) I learned things I guess no child of twelve and thirteen should learn – how to set a grenade into a tin can for a booby trap; how to construct a deadfall capable of taking a grown man out. Sharpening stakes and making spring loaded “traps” out of saplings, vines, and branches that would spring up from the woods or out of the brush, impaling someone. Not that we ever did – we knew better than to leave such traps “loaded” – but we constructed them anyway. Learning the “how-to’s” of guerrilla warfare.  Learning how things should be done.  Because we knew:

There was a war on. It was called “The Cold War”. And we never knew, from moment to moment, when their might be a bright flash, signaling the end of one era in our life and beginning another – one, which we were assured, would be much more horrible than this.  That the sirens would sound – the balloons would go up – and we would probably all die.  If we were lucky the survivors would go on . . . to fight and die, or perish on the beach in some distant place – we knew not where.  So we spent our time studying deeply the arts of war and looking over our shoulder at the horizons, waiting while they taught us some more . . . always that lurking fear in your heart and a sense of dreadful anticipation which you tried to box up and hoard in a corner of your mind.  You tried to go on like everything was normal – but surrounded all the time by the hustle of preparation for a horrible war . . . a war looming just over the horizon, only a few dozen miles distant, where the enemy lay in wait . . . waiting and training and plotting like you were . . .

It was simply part of our world.