I received the government-issued handbook Your Chance to Live in grade school during the cold war. It was meant to teach children how to survive environmental dangers, natural disasters, and nuclear wars.
The book was a collaboration between the Civil Defense Preparedness Agency, the California State Board of Education, and other government entities. Rarely will you find a better example of a product designed by committee. The tone is confusing, the writing is just plain weird, and the illustrations are the stuff of fever dreams. Take this image (please):
All these years later, I remain simultaneously transfixed and repulsed by it. Is he going to eat that dog food or molest it?
The aforementioned group of well-compensated government employees created this image to persuade children like me—and I was none too bright, mind you—to stock up on food. Was it effective? You be the judge. I showed this image to my five-year-old daughter. This was her interpretation:
“He looks like he’s going to eat something in a can, except maybe he should dump it out first on his plate. That would be yucky if it was raw. Why do his eyes look like that?”
She missed the point of the illustration entirely: you’ll need your strength to battle the radioactive pedophiles who will come calling after Armageddon. If she didn’t get it, there was certainly no hope for a kid like me.
How do I know that the book was written for children? Because it contains specific instructions for kids. Tell your parents to keep a full tank of gas. Remind them to stock up on medicine. Make sure they construct a lead-lined, crank-ventilated, blast-proof bunker deep beneath your sandbox.
It also contains morbid, kid-oriented limericks like this one:
One summer day Franz’s sibling, named Pete,
Was totally zapped by the heat.
My goodness, said she,
I am bothered to see,
A puddle where Pete used to be.
The poem (Keats, I believe) offers no advice for avoiding Pete’s fate. No matter, because I didn’t understand it anyway. I didn’t realize that Pete had spontaneously combusted, leaving only a puddle of interstitial fluid on the sidewalk. I assumed that he had taken a leak and walked away intact.
Here’s one about fire:
Lady bug, lady bug,
Fly away home.
Your house is on fire,
And your children.
Let that be some sort of lesson to you.
Your Chance to Live has so much more than disturbing poetry. It contains a parade of disturbing characters, beginning with your friendly government greeter. Would you shake this hand?
Our food-molester is back, this time pilfering water from the toilet. Or as my daughter sees it, “he’s looking in a trash can. Maybe he’s going to sort the trash.” The intended message is that you can drink toilet water in a pinch. (Personally, I’d check the water heater first.)
This character was surely the result of a bad trip:
As was this one:
Note the text that surrounds this disfigured fellow:
“Just use your quaggles” is from an incoherent story about aliens preparing to visit Earth. They are studying our frailties, one of which is susceptibility to heat. The story does not define their mission, nor does it tell us what quaggles are. Here’s a line from the story in which Professor Quantle is preparing his alien students for their encounter with humans:
“They are susceptible to — ah — shall we say — ah — termination, by factors so numerous that their continuation as a species is miraculous.”
You don’t have to be Professor Quantle to read between the lines. They’re planning to exterminate us. You can add Death By Quaggles to your list of things to worry about, kid.
There are other futuristic annihilations in store for the young ‘uns, including evil robots…
…and well-endowed, radioactive women:
I took that image to mean that women are alluring but deadly.
In Your Chance to Live, even the moon is in peril:
My daughter says he’s thinking, “oh man, I’m gonna have more craters!”
Creeps abound in Your Chance to Live. Here are some creeps under a car (my daughter thinks they’re hiding from the police):
Here is a creep being tortured:
And here are some dead creeps:
In case you cannot make out the text, the epitaph under the evil sun reads “DECEASED: Miss Sunny Hott by excessive heat and insolation, July 19, 1984.” Had I bothered to do the math, I would have realized I would be dead by the age of 17. The other tombstones read:
- “Killed in laboratory”
- “Drank potent medicine with healing radium salts”
- “Died from exposure to x-ray”
Guess what crossed my mind when the dentist said, “let’s take some pictures of those teeth!”
All of this weirdness is bound to leave a person with a…
Maybe it’s a trick of his perfectly spherical head, but his eyes follow you… all the way into your nightmares. Can you decipher the symbolism of that image? I cannot, though I suspect psilocybin would put me in the same frame of mind as the illustrator.
Here’s the beginning of the section on mental health:
“We’ve all heard stories about how people flip out in drastic, mindboggling emergencies — like the lady who took her children down to the beach to watch the tidal wave come in, or the seaman who, during the Pearl Harbor attack, ran back into a burning ship to put on his new shoes. These stories are incredible, and even amusing in the telling.”
“Flipping out” is hilarious! Death from above is amusing! And drowning? Well that’s just good family fun. Here’s a cute example to which kids can relate:
“Take a simple event like falling out of a tree house. You know you’ve fallen, you feel the blood gushing, and what you normally do is limp home, feeling sorry for yourself, and get the thing fixed. But what if you’re knocked silly, or seized by fear? Jumping blindly up, you run into the road, where a car hits you. That takes care of your head wound and possibly all your other problems.”
…Because you’re DEAD, you stupid rugrat! What should you do instead of running into traffic? Let’s look at another example.
“Now imagine you’re in line at the bank. The customer in front of you whips out a gun, and yells, ‘Everybody freeze!’ The sensible thing to do is just that. Freeze. But what if the sight of the gun terrifies you? Instead of standing there, you either feint, run, or leap at the bandit. Of the three, feinting is the only reasonably safe course.”
…So do that instead.
Hey! Here comes some good news:
What kind of disaster? How about the Smoke Monster from Lost, for starters:
My daughter says, “it looks like something caught those people, and it’s trying to eat their heads off.”
Here’s another reason to stay indoors:
That illustration puzzled my daughter. “What is that thing,” she asked. I believe it is supposed to be the sun, I said. “Well, he got a person. To eat, maybe. Why would the sun eat a person?”
Staying indoors won’t save you from gruesome death. My daughter interpreted this as the arms of an angry god:
If angry gods don’t get you, there’s always whatever the hell this is:
But don’t worry. This tale of woe has a happy ending, judging by the joyful expression on this man’s face:
To be fair, this wonderfully bizarre handbook contains some good advice. Keep extra food and water, have an escape plan, and avoid the sun. For the love of all that is holy, avoid the sun.
Oh, and keep an eye out for nuclear disasters. Sleep tight!