Preparing for the Unthinkable, Cold War Style

By Frances Roback, Cultural History Curator

As we enter the 21st millennium, the future of our world appears increasingly bleak with each morning's headline.  Global warming, energy and water shortages, an ominous flu pandemic, - the list of crises goes on and on.  Tensions are mounting to the breaking point as world powers struggle for solutions.

Almost fifty years ago, our world faced a near catastrophe of another sort, and survived. Two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, were in a nuclear arms face-off in a deadly game of brinkmanship. In 1960-61, US-Soviet relations were at their flashpoint, and global nuclear war seemed near.  The 1962 Cuban missile crisis brought our world to the very brink of World War III.  It would have been the war to end all wars, and quite possibly the end of the world as well. 

Purdy family survival kit

By 1960-61, Canadians and Americans had it on the best government authority that nuclear war was inevitable.  We were urged to protect ourselves from radioactive fallout in family shelters equipped with survival kits and stores of food and water.  In Calgary, Bill and Lorna Purdy, a registered nurse, prepared themselves and their four young children - with a fifth child on the way - to survive nuclear war in their basement shelter.  Following government instructions, Lorna packed her husband's briefcase with a first aid notebook and kit; civil defence pamphlets including "If War Should Come"; "Your Basement Fallout Shelter"; and "Survival in Likely Target Areas"; hatchet, can opener, flashlight, candles and matches; lipstick, deodorant, soap, and shaving gear; toothbrushes and vitamins; diapers, baby powder and diaper rash ointment for the child Lorna was expecting; Kleenex and sanitary napkins; spare socks and cigarettes.  Most chilling of all are four identification toe tags, one for each of the Purdy children, aged four, five, six, and seven. 

The Purdy family survival kit is an exceedingly rare survivor of the Cold War era, and a haunting reminder of how we faced that earlier global crisis. 

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