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Warning sirens, church bells resurrect memories of bygone era

In Ritzville recently, at noon on a Thursday, I heard the town’s warning sirens blow. It was an immediate “memory meld” as I call those sounds, smells or sights that transport people from the present to their childhood in just an instant.

Growing up in Spokane in the Cold War era, we heard warning sirens tested every Wednesday at noon until 1973, when the tests went to once a month. In February 2000, the era ended when Spokane County deemed the county’s 50 sirens “surplus property” and silenced them forever.

Right after the sirens blared in Ritzville, the church bells at Zion Congregational Church chimed an entire hymn. Another memory meld from childhood when Spokane seemed to have churches with bells on every block.

You can still hear church bells in Spokane, but those sirens are likely gone for good, unless the region revives a siren system to warn of nuclear disasters (Hello, North Korea!) or to warn of natural disasters, such as earthquakes, more common to the Inland Northwest than you might think.

POP CLOCK: The U.S. Census Bureau has a downloadable population clock, so you can track how many people join and depart from us each day. In the United States, there’s one birth every 8 seconds, one death every 12 seconds, one international migrant moving here every 44 seconds, giving the U.S. a net gain of one person every 14 seconds.

Total U.S. population when I first checked the population clock on April 15: 315,686,058. Figure today as I write this column on Tuesday: 315,728,458.

TALK BACK: I heard from several readers who offered different viewpoints on the need to stay connected via new technology, such as texting, Facebook, video chats and Twitter. It is one way to cut down on loneliness that can hit in older age, experts say.

A reader named Linda emailed: “The times I have felt loneliest have been when I was with other people. I am an introvert. People tire me out. My email and my land line are enough ‘tech’ doors into my personal space.”

Also heard from:

• Barbara Morrissey: “I can’t afford it. It is not just the cost of the gadgets, it’s the connections. My cell is emergencies only, a cheapo phone – $20 buys me four months. Radio is still the best way to learn what I need to know on long trips through the West. There is a move among the younger generation to ditch Facebook because it will not delete your history. Europeans are starting to take a hard look at this through legislation. In Belgium it is called ‘the right to be forgotten.’ Out here in the old West, it used to be called ‘start over.’ ”

• Carol Stueckle: “I have a lot of social contact, but there are two kinds of loneliness. One is for things and people and the other is for a (specific) person. And those of us who have lost our mates have that other type of loneliness. There isn’t enough Twittering in the world that will solve our loneliness for our husbands. The Twitter is not going to work, not in this case.”

REACH BACK: In this season’s “Mad Men” it’s 1968. The ad executives featured in the series often reach into the pockets of their suits, shirts and pants for packs of cigarettes. It’s the exact gesture men in 2013 use when reaching for cellphones.

GREAT FLOODS: Much of the Inland Northwest’s unique geology, such as basalt rock formations and the rich soil of the Palouse, resulted from great floods thousands of years ago that roared through the region.

It’s a complex story, and while the evidence is all around us, you often need experts to point it out. I’m a big fan of The Ice Age Floods Institute, which helps educate residents to the great flood story that happened here. The institute’s Cheney-Spokane chapter is offering several workshops and field trips in May.

You’ll never look at rock formations the same, believe me. And those ridges you see in some hillsides? Wave marks, no kidding.

To find the schedule and get more information, go to cheney-spokane.


• History stories passed down for generations of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe of Indians, Wednesday, 6 p.m., Spokane Valley Library, 12004 E. Main Ave., (509) 922-4570.

• Free comic book weekend, Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Merlyn’s, 19 W. Main Ave., Spokane, (509) 624-0957.

• “Methodology Matters” is the topic at Eastern Washington Genealogical Society’s regular meeting, Saturday, 12:30 p.m., Downtown Spokane Public Library, 906 W. Main Ave., (509) 328-0786.

For more activities, go to