Local Commentary

Our Man In Arlington

In these pandemic times, the pressure on everyday folks to “pitch in” during the emergency reminds many of the Cold War.

The 1950s-‘60s air raid and “duck and cover” drills required of schoolchildren left a disturbing imprint on my generation raised near the nation’s capital.
Curators at the Arlington Historical Museum (home to an air raid siren once at Kenmore School) showed me an array of once-commonplace instructions on how average citizens should behave if the Russians dropped a 20-megaton bomb in our suburban vicinity.

A pocket-size evacuation locator warned that “A steady blast for five minutes” from sirens, whistles or horns meant: Evacuate. A rising and falling wail for 3 minutes meant: Take Shelter.

A 1955 Civil Defense Administration pamphlet gave Arlington evacuation routes out Route 7 (one-way only) to Clarke, Loudoun, Frederick, Buckingham and Shenandoah counties. “Don’t forget emergency rations, clothing, supplies,” it said. “Do not use the telephone. Check your AM radio (640 or 1240) for detailed instructions” from the emergency station CONELRAD. A brochure gave grim facts about the radioactive fallout you can’t taste, touch or see.

All this federal and local planning wasn’t enough for the Arlington Civic Federation. In March 1958, its public safety chairman John Heckman implored the county “to step up emphasis on the construction of civil defense shelters,” according to the Northern Virginia Sun. “Mass evacuation has been outmoded by late developments in weapons and carriers.”

A 1968 Northern Virginia Regional Planning Commission map located 150 shelter sites, among them: First National Bank of Arlington, Cherrydale Cement Block Co., elementary schools, and more.

My schoolmates recalled neighbors’ cinder-block bomb shelters that doubled as pantries packed with water jugs and the diet supplement Metrecal.

Mary Lynn remembers “the dire warning not to look at the sky so you wouldn’t go blind from the nuclear attack. Even in 4th grade, I was torn between fear of what seemed an inevitable attack and my suspicion that all the tactics were ludicrous.”

Bob said the 1962 Cuban Missile crisis “freaked out my already fragile psyche. When the special bulletins came on the news, I would run into the bathroom, close the door and cover my ears.”

At Nottingham school, “We had to have a gallon jug of water in our lockers,” recalls George Maughan. “Where we were wouldn’t have mattered anyway but made everyone feel better. John recalls a teacher assigned to operate the Geiger counter.

“At Tuckahoe Elementary we had drills to get under our little wooden desks,” said Jesse. “One kid was upset because the teacher did not get under hers. Thinking back, I don’t think she could.” While a Claremont Elementary student, Pam remembers “packing a suitcase of books, food and candy that I could grab from my bedroom and take downstairs to our basement in case I was at home when the bombs fell.”

At Catholic St. Agnes, recalls another Bob, “drills were timed to see how fast we could move. The one difference from our public school counterparts is the instruction to clutch our rosary, water thermos and blanket as our nun went to the windows to draw the shades.”

Because Arlington was known as “the crater zone,” recalled Fred Gosnell, “even as a kid, I don’t remember having illusions about survivability.”


A demolition permit has been granted the owner of the 130-year-old Fellows-McGrath home at Washington Blvd. near Sycamore St. It’s disappointing to Tom Dickinson and other preservation activists who had filed an application to protect it.

The Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board opted Sept. 15 to stick to its recommendation that county staff research the property history.

Manassas realtor Masum Kahn, who bought the house after eight months on the market to build modern homes, has not set a demolition schedule. Though he would consider selling “for the right price.”