Essay Larry Bensky

Plague Journal #10: What Kids Remember

Whether it was the duck and cover drills of last centry, or wearing masks and social distancing today, children are asked to weather disasters of adult leadership.

Larry Bensky, a long-time radio and print journalist. has been writing his “Journal of the Plague Year” since mid-March for the legendary Anderson Valley Advertiser. He welcomes your comments and suggestions:

Berkeley, CA – May 25, 2020 – Let’s look at history.

At 11 a.m. on November 13, 1941, three weeks before the Japanese attack on the U.S. Navy’s ships at Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor, the entire New York City school system, 1.1 million students  in 1000 schools, participated simultaneously in a drill. These expanded nationwide during the war and afterward. By the early 1950’s  everyone in the country knew what “duck and cover” meant. 

I was an early adopter. I ducked and covered as a kindergardener in central Brooklyn. P.S. 230. Four blocks from my house.

Loud school bells reverberated  off the school corridor’s brick walls. Pent up kid energy was immediately released in scrambles to get under the ink- and graffiti-stained wooden desks. Everyone  trying to avoid generations of  hastily stuck chewed bubblegum under the desktops. Kids had hidden it there for years, the teachers imprecating, “Git dat gum ouda yer mout!”  

Students at P.S. 58 in New York hold a “take cover” drill practice in 1962.
Photo from Library of Congress .

Unlike between classes, during the drills the deafening bells didn’t shut off. Message: this is serious! Tittters subsided,  then silence. You crouched for what seemed like forever, your head scrunched between your little knees. Teachers wearing  hastiy donned yellow vests, roamed the halls. “Accidents” occurred in going towards, and in, the rare bathrooms. If you had one of those, you’d be teased for days. Even if it hadn’t been you, a rumor that it was quickly spread, and caused you grief. 

If our little selves were given an explanation, I don’t recall it. But we knew something ominous was  going on. “Overseas.”  It was hard to avoid such knowledge. So many houses in our neighborhood displayed gold star flags in their windows. We quickly learned this meant that someone’s son, father, or uncle would never again come home.  

“It was hard to avoid such knowledge. So many houses in our neighborhood displayed gold star flags in their windows. We quickly learned this meant that someone’s son, father, or uncle would never again come home.”  

We usually knew the younger ones.

They had gone to the same school where we now ducked and covered. They’d had the same teachers. Used the same textbooks, now issued to us; sometimes their names were still  there,  ten or so rows above ours, on the inside cover.  And every day those of us selected to work in the principal’s office found staff and teachers in tears. They’d seen that morning’s local newspaper, with its dreadfully awaited  lists of war casualties. And they’d seen a name they knew.

Now, more and more children are having an analogous engagement with Covid–19. Totally different phenomenon, very different times. Now you don’t have to be in uniform to get sick, wounded, or die. You don’t have to wait for an  officer to knock on your door, folded flag in hand, to tell you of a loss. You can’t center your imaginative mind on a cartoon image. The cartoon enemy of yore, fanged and fanatical, is now invisible.

In these long months of late winter and early Spring, 2020, kids hear adults talking about a mysterious illness,  It’s said to be everywhere. And kids see masked people everywhere, where there used to be none.  

Children are constantly reminded to wash their hands (Cue the chorus: “We know, mom!”) and not hug anyone.  Not even come close to anyone, mask or not. Kids have to, however reluctantly, accept that they can’t go  where they want to be – around other kids. Instead, more likely,  they do what the protean, ubiquitous National Entertainment State wants them – and us – to do.  Spend abundant screen time.

And absorb  messages. Especially the essential one. “Dozens of TV and online ads have angled to position brands within the pandemic experience, deploying inspirational pop music and gravelly voice-over artists to assure us that in “these unprecedented times” (Buick) “in times as uncertain as these” (Chick fil A) “we’re all living a new normal” (State Farm) but even now, some things never change” (Target) because “our spirit is what unites us” (Dodge) “ (“It’s A Crisis, But Don’t Forget to Spend,” Amanda Hess, NYTimes, 5/22/2020)

We had equivalent messaging in the “duck and cover” years. Though there was no TV, and, of course, no internet or social media. What we had instead in the thousands of communities, large and small, with movie theaters  was Saturday cartoons. And the weekly  newsreel, “Movietone News,”  with its abbreviated, sanitized, bloodless images of  victory after victory. Rare was  even a glimpse provided of the worldwide bloodshed and destruction.

As many as one hundred million people a week, in a population of 140 million, went to the movies during the war years.  Kids  got in for a nickel – often paid, as mine was, with pennies shaken out of a ceramic pig. We had no idea that major elements “overseas” were being  kept from us. One glaring example: “Materials created to encourage Americans to support the war effort rarely mentioned the Nazi regime’s ongoing persecution and murder of Europe’s Jews” (U.S. Holocaust Museum, “Americans and the Holocaust” )

City people had telephones and radios. And newspapers. And a lot more time to talk and exchange information with friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers. Most parents, urban or rural, hid their widespread ignorance and confusion as best they could from their children. But some, like mine, let the information loop leak. My father brought home three or four daily newspapers (there were nine in New York) and, having taught myself to read (don’t ask how) before kindergarten, I puzzled out the big headlines. And while my father settled down to fall asleep in front of the heavy piece of furniture that was a typical radio, I listened, And slowly related what was being said to what was being read.

Well beyond my capacity to learn were the details and ideology of something as inhuman as Hitler’s extermination campaign against people who looked like me, my family and friends.  Even had I somehow developed a preternatural ability to absorb and assess such information, the truth, like the truth about  the nature and path of today’s silent killer virus, was either suppressed or buried in so many details as to be undecipherable. 

There were, and are, other ways for children to learn about things. I knew, for example, that something was very different from normal when four of my uncles showed up in uniform for family gatherings. And when one of them disappeared for several months in the ”Paciific theater,”  only to reappear in a psychiatric internment facility. And when another broke down with “shell shock” after too much time on the front lines in the Normandy invasion. He  was in and out of military hospitals for the rest of his short life before (probably, we never knew for sure) dying from a misadministered dose of a “cure” – electroshock therapy. Leaving my aunt and two little cousins. All of whom had very troubled, marginal lives, as  is probable for of all too many children today,  if indeed they survive the current plague.

We  duck and cover Brooklyn kids also came to know more of our neighbors, mostly infirm and elderly men.  They were involved in  neighborhood civil defense,  as many people are trying to be involved today.  Every block, and every apartment building had volunteer air raid wardens.  Every neighborhood had patrols, enforcing blackouts, which were presumed to be effective against feared aerial attacks. 

But those volunteers were also exposing a fundamental, chronic weakness in American culture. One that’s still with us today. Volunteers (see below) need to be organized, managed, trained, deployed. In those years the people who could be so deployed mostly were unavailable, being either in the armed services or, augmented by women,  in military-related manufacturing. Now, they aren’t available because volunteering  would, in many situations, be foolishly dangerous. “Typically, more than five million volunteers work in disaster relief annually, but this year the number is expected to decrease by fifty percent.” (“Virus Exposes Weaknesses in Disaster Relief Paybook,”  NY Times 5/1/2020).

Kids have no duck and cover now. But they do have sharp senses of what’s going on around them. When their parents – if  their parents – provide them with masks, and they see so many people not wearing them (maybe one in five passers-by on my central Berkeley street wears one) what  can they conclude?

The army field manual during World War 2  said that duck and cover provided “protection against blast and thermal effects.”  Unfortunately the development and deployment of thermonuclear weapons towards the end of the war, with its invisible, deadly and poorly understood radiation, made all of that  supposed “defense” irrelevant.

In 2020, the lack of preparation, development, and deployment of scientifically vetted means of dealing with Covid-19  also concerns something invisible. The potential for its weaponization is too awful to contemplate. 

So, what to do?  A recent study of Chinese children in the Wuhan region, which is thought to be where  Covid-19 first appeared, says that what is now important to nurture in children and adolescents is resilience.  Children, the study says, will have “clinginess” as a first symptom. They instinctively pick up on the fact that their families are in danger. Then may come irritability, random anger, fear, and anxiety. “Playing collaborative games,” is recommended, as is “music even if a child only bangs out rhythms.” Also important is  spending time outdoors,  with random attention grabbers like plants, trees, animals. Bedtimes, when fright tends to accumulate, should always be shared with adults and older siblings.

It should be noted that China has become a convenient repository for Trumpish instincts to blame foreigners for everything. Where the truth is that the spread of the pandemic in our country could have been greatly curtailed if what the Chinese did in and around Wuhan, and what was done in New Zealand, Shanghai, Taiwan, Singapore and elsewhere had been done here. 

China’s heavy-handed suppression of travel and electronic communication, in and around Wuhan, which was meant to guarantee the autocratic regime’s control, was not a contribution to democracy or human empowerment, to say the least. But that “bad China” is paralleled by a “good China” which has produced some of the world’s most useful studies of the biological and psychological results of Covid-19. 

Had Trump et al not crippled and destroyed many institutional elements which could have and should have been working collaboratively with China we would be in a far better position. His counter-productive obduracy continues around research into a vaccine. If it doesn’t come from a U.S., non-governmental source, or can’t be marketed and exploited commercially by the minions of finance capitalism, it is of no interest to Trump. A foreign developed and distributed vaccine  would mean the loss of highly lucrative profit possibilities for the tax-favored  industries that are  at the sputtering, polluting, elite-enriching  core of America’s existence.

Unfortunately, what this country does least well is form organized structures outside of those politically favored industries.  And outside electoralism, another megabucks industry. There is an assumption, now being proved  seriously erroneous, that in an emergency like the current pandemic the Red Cross will take care of it.  Or FEMA. Or national, state, and local governments. Or ”faith based” entities.

What happens when dedicated, intelligent, resourceful people try to help anyway? “Mutual Aid” is the latest name for such activity, currently struggling to be born. “Cooperation for the Common Good” is their motto.  There’s a twenty-page “tool kit” for how to organize and what to try to do. ( It’s most easily available via Congresswoman Anastasia Ocasio-Cortez’ website. (

The suggested steps include:

  • 1, Find a buddy or two (if you can) to build your neighborhood network/pod.
  • 2. Identify your zone.
  • 3. Invite your neighbors.
  • 4. Build your pod (30 or fewer people).
  • 5. Have an introductory conversation with each other.
  • 6. Support each other.

Ideally, each person in the “pod” is connected by phone with someone in a target zone. (That person has not asked to be called and may or may not appreciate hearing from you.)

It was, to say the least, disappointing to find out that the first thing we podsters are supposed to chat about with our assigned “targets”  is …. Congresswoman Octavia-Cortez and her position on CODV-19. 

While I share the belief that she’s a wonderful, smart, energetic, dedicated, person and we’re fortunate to have her emerge at this important juncture, I don’t share the belief that she’s right for everyone.  Or that everyone has heard about her and approves of her approach. Door-to-door, face to face meetings would be ideal to get past this.  But in lock-down times that’s not possible.

Zoom! It recently has seemed possible that electronic contact may be useful where personal contact is impossible.  Alas, it was also disappointing to attend, my first Zoom, an orientation session with my first “Mutual Aid” pod. It took two weeks of dealing with non-call backs, disconnects, frozen screens, referenced docs that didn’t appear to register. Finally,  ten of us from all over the country were more or less in attendance. Three had clear visual connections. Five were intermittently present in sight or sound or both. Two or three others came in randomly, disrupting what was sort of going on (“Hello, can anyone hear me?  “I see Jane, no I think it’s Farah.”  “Can you hear me Farah?”) The moderator broke what he was ostensibly discussing to try to deal with each individual’s technical situation. It took 45 minutes – the estimated time for the entire session – for all of this to get sort of in place. Oops! Time was up. (“I think we may have gotten the time extended.” “This is Bill I saw something about that.” “No, this is Jane, I didn’t see it.”)  

Moderator says, as good-bye, “We’ll start the calls now.” One by one our little screens disappear. We’re supposed to continue via chat room if we want to.  I want to.  I type a simple question.  “Are we going to be doing Zoom or Facetime or Vimeo?”  Nobody chats back.  I wait half an hour.  No chat.  No call.

Shortly afterward I get a  robotic thank-you e-mail.  It includes a survey about what I thought of my experience.  Briefly, I state how useless and frustrating it was. There’s no response. But the next day I get what I knew was coming, and that I dreaded. A fund appeal! “We Did It!” is the headline. What is “it?” Congresswoman Octavia-Cortez has now raised over $900,000 for a primary race in which she will easily be re-nominated against 11 ballot opponents. Now, would I send just $3, or $5 or $10 or whatever I feel is appropriate so that another like-minded woman can be elected in Louisiana? 

I look her up. In her district she looks to have about as much chance as I would. But of course as a first timer she’s running not so much to win as to get name recognition and to build a funding network for the future. In other words, my attempt to volunteer to help coronavirus victims has instead made me another cog in the megabucks machine that passes for electoral democracy in the US of A. 

Though I would in fact be willing to try another “Mutual Aid” session —  maybe my first one was atypical — it’s now a few weeks later and no one writes to me about that. Instead, I now get more fund appeals. If I give just $3 I can get a few more wonderful people elected. And even … help Joe Biden defeat Trump!

As this scenario was gamed by Ocasio-Cortez and her coders, they must have realized that a progressive Congress will not emerge from a dribble, of even a  small stream, of electoralism. And that if Biden is indeed the chosen steed we must empower to try to unhorse Trump, he is way too full of well-documented undependability for anyone to think his ascension would be anything other than not Trump.

Of course governments, even our weakened and disorganized one, already have entities that could provide much needed assistance in a public health crisis. As was done by FDR and his New Dealers in the1930s, around many issues, including public health. One entity, for example,  is Americorps. “The goal here is in the face of a genuine national crisis, both economic and public health, to call on a generation of younger Americans to step forth and serve,” says Senator Christopher Coons (D-Del).  Last month he co-introduced the “Pandemic Response and Opportunty Through National Service Act” (Washington Post, 5/21/2020:  “Expanding AmeriCorps could turn new grads into an army of contact tracers.  It just needs funding.”

Ultimately, Coons believes, AmeriCorps should have 750,000 members, ten times today’s total.  Since they’re paid just $15,000 a year, their ranks would be limited to the demographic Americorps already attracts: affluent, middle-class, mostly white young people with families and networks that help them survive.  But that’s just one problem. A bigger one would be that for this to happen it would take a Democratic sweep of the Presidency and both houses of Congress in November to establish and fund it. And even then, there would be abundant legal challenges by the activist Republican judiciary which Trump-McConnell have cemented through lifetime appointments

“Lifetime” is a fraught term, especially these days. Those of us at the end of ours must face the likelihood that even if a vaccine, or a cure, for the coronavirous situation emerges quickly (no one who knows much about such things  believes that it will, or even can) it won’t matter to us, personally. So we have to perform the mental gymnastics involved in doing what we can for those with possibly longer, hopefully much longer, life expectancies..  

We have to do what we can for the kids now going to bed,  many of them scared, anxious, nervous at the danger they sense is there, but cannot see. There are many variations to this old saying,  you can assimilate them, or rewrite them any way you wish.  “Don’t Do Nothing Because You Can’t Do Everything.  Do Something.  Anything!”

[To read previous entry of the “Journal of the Plague Year” click here]

Larry Bensky
Larry Bensky

Larry Bensky is a literary and political journalist with experience in both print and broadcast media, as well as a teacher and political activist. He is known for his work with Pacifica Radio station KPFA-FM in Berkeley, California, and for the nationally-broadcast hearings he anchored for the Pacifica network