Writer’s Workshop: Another Bizarre Childhood Fear

It’s 1968, and I’m minding my own business watching cartoons in the afternoon when, all of a sudden, this shows up on my TV screen…

Now, I’m scared half to death, having run out of the room or buried my face in the cushions of the couch…

No particular reason; it just scared me half to death. Why? I don’t know. Maybe it was the Civil Defense logo sitting fixed on the screen, staring at me like a big eye. Maybe it was the long wait between "this is only a test" and the beeping noise. Maybe it was the implication that one day we would see this and it will be the real thing: the ICBM’s would be in the air and about to explode somewhere, destroying everything and everybody, all going up in a huge mushroom cloud.

Or maybe I was just being a weird kid.

When I was a freshman in high school, there was a scare one Saturday morning. The guy at Strategic Air Command in Colorado who ran the test on the Teletype network every Saturday morning at 8:30 AM Central time accidentally used the paper tape (yes, it was all the way back in those days) for an actual activation through the system, setting off bells in every newsroom in the nation informing them that the President of the United States had activated the Emergency Broadcast System, and that we were to prepare for a nuclear attack. The guy who made the error (whose face was probably red as a beet) made up for it by canceling that message and sending the right tape through, and all was well.

After that little misadventure, I was no longer afraid of the test.

When Wikipedia became a thing, someone wrote a whole article on the Emergtency Broadcast System. I was happy to see that I wasn’t the only kid in the US who was scared to death of them…

19 thoughts on “Writer’s Workshop: Another Bizarre Childhood Fear

    1. The good thing was that they learned not to keep the test tape and the activation tape together. They also discovered that the problem with running the test at the same time every week was that people would assume that it was a screwup and ignore it, which almost every radio and TV station in the nation did. They made a lot of changes after that…


    1. It’s the ominous script that gets you. Settig it to music or having Pee Wee Herman say it took a lot of the edge off, so of course the FCC banned it.

      WXYZ in Detroit made it a lot scarier than it had to be…

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I am well aware of this but cannot ever remember seeing it. I have these mixed memories that are either mine or from TV that showed it. That and the image they put on TV when programming actually shut off, instead of being replaced by infomercials!


    1. There are lots of recodings of EBS tests on YouTube. The one I used was one I created to demonstrate the way they used to do it until the mid-’70’s. There are some test cards out there, too, the most common being the color bars. I can talk your ear off about these…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It would send a fright through me because I always wondered if they would suddenly start coming through with messages of bombs falling because of the cold war.


    1. It always sounded so ominous, especially the “If this had been an actual emergency…” part. The script for the test was written by the FCC and was (more or less) fixed, so some stations would have fun with it. Several set it to music, others had it read by celebrities (Howard Cosell and Pee-Wee Herman were particular favorites). After a while, the FCC pitched a fit and would fine them $25,000 for poking fun at it….

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh! I didn’t know that….about the $25,000 dollar fine!
        I was always relieved when it was over….because I knew something wasn’t happening. The sound STILL makes me tense.


  3. I remember this well when I was a kid. It was a different voice and, I think we had colour, but the same. For some reason I wasn’t upset or scared just annoyed tgat it interrupted what I was watching.


    1. Typically, an announcer from the local station would read the test script, and the test cards were either the generic ones supplied by the FCC (the Civil Defense roundel or the letters EBS in ovals) or one designed by the graphics people at the station. Some of them were works of art.


    1. They used to happen during commercial breaks, when they figured most people had left the room to go to the bathroom or get something to eat. FCC regulations said they had to be done “on random days and times between 8 AM and local sundown,” which meant they generally did them at the same time on the same day of the week, usually during the kids’ programs…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I can see why it would scare a child – it has a very old sci-fi, aliens-are-coming vibe.

    My childhood fear was Worzel Gummidge. Actually, not a ‘childhood’ fear, a current one apparently – I was going to provide a link, but I didn’t want to be faced with him!


    1. I’m familiar with Worzel Gummidge since he was played by Jon Pertwee, also known as The Third Doctor (and my favorite). He said he would be mobbed by kids when he’d make an appearance somewhere. I found bunch of videos on YouTube…


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