The siren call of the past

chaseLast week, television news featured a story about the testing of a new tsunami warning siren in the coastal town of Port Hueneme, 60 miles north of Los Angeles. The siren isn’t exactly new, being of World War II vintage and formerly designed to warn of inbound enemy aircraft. However, its repurposing to alert residents of potential tsunami activity along the California coast is new – and kudos should go out to our northern neighbors for their innovative thinking in response to the recent natural disaster in the Samoan islands.

Seeing close-up images on TV of the siren in Port Hueneme took me back to my days as a stellar student (okay, so my memory isn’t what it used to be) at Monte Vista Elementary School. That’s because many years ago, there was a nearly identical siren perched on top of a telephone pole rising high above the sidewalk on Orange Avenue near the grade school. I always thought it looked like metal funnels stacked upside down on top of each other and painted an ugly government green.

I’m sure Mike Lawler, my column-writing colleague over on the other side of these pages, could explain in much greater detail the history of the siren system that used to dot Southern California neighborhoods, including ours.

I just remember that on the last Friday morning of every month, sometime just after recess, the usually silent sentinel would suddenly come alive with a piercing, high decibel yowl that made the girls squeal and cover their ears, made us boys even more hyper and distracted, and made our teachers roll their tired eyes and stop in mid-lesson until the rise and fall of the siren’s wail finally wound down.

This monthly testing of the air raid siren was – I think – used in tandem with another classic from my early school days, the infamous duck and cover drill. During “D&C,” my fellow students and I would pretend Russian air force squadrons were flying in hammer and sickle formation towards La Crescenta, hell-bent on dropping their payloads of bright red-painted atom bombs directly on us.

Thankfully, government officials had devised the duck and cover drill to keep us children safe from certain nuclear annihilation – at least while at school.

When the siren outside began its banshee cry, we would all drop to our scabby knees, crawl under the nearest desk, and pray (an activity still allowed in public schools back then) that any enemy planes would pass harmlessly overhead. When the siren stopped and the all-clear was sounded, we would go about the rest of our school day as if nothing unusual had happened.

That more of us weren’t emotionally traumatized well into our adult lives by such a regular reminder of the fragility of life amazes me. Then again, I realize that we lived in truly dangerous times back then. Imagine – no bicycle helmets, no seatbelts or air bags, diving boards were allowed on backyard pools, and no one had even heard of a no-smoking zone. Yowza!

At Two Strike Park near my house, we were even allowed to play (at great threat to life and limb) on a large, spinning metal merry-go-round. There were no cushy rubber mats surrounding the thing, just sand – grainy, treacherous sand that could get in your eyes. This infernal device sat right next to a super-tall swing set that the more experienced swingers among us could use to launch ourselves 20 feet through the air, over an arm-breaking sidewalk to land on the grass beyond. The same park had two heavy steel teeter totters that would regularly inflict bumps and bruises on unsuspecting children, myself included. Oh, the carnage.

Those dangerous days are long gone, as are most of the city’s sirens. It’s just as well, because any warning of impending nuclear Armageddon today will most likely come in the form of a Twitter update from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad himself. Duck and cover, kids.

I’ll see you ’round town.