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Back in 1954, when the Russians were evil and I was a first-grader at Wampus Elementary School in Armonk, N.Y., the school authorities regularly conducted emergency drills wherein we students practiced protecting ourselves from nuclear attack by crouching under our desks. We'd hunker down there until Mrs. Hart gave us the word that the nuclear war was over, then we'd crawl back out and resume reading about the fascinating adventures of Dick and Jane. ("Ha!" said Dick. "Ha ha!" said Jane. "Ha ha ha!" said Dick. "Ha ha ha ha" . . . etc.)

I understand this drill was conducted in many schools in the '50s. Apparently the desks used in classrooms back then were made of an exceptionally missile-resistant variety of wood. During the Cold War years, I often wondered why it never occurred to our defense planners to protect the entire nation from nuclear attack by simply covering it, from sea to shining sea, with a huge Strategic Classroom Desk.I now realize that our defense planners did not have time to be fooling around with ridiculous schemes like that. They were too busy spraying deodorant on cows. According to an Associated Press story sent in by many alert readers, the Army recently admitted that in 1963 and 1964, Army scientists went to stockyards in six American cities and "sneaked up on cows and sprayed them with deodorant." I am not making this up. The idea was to find out whether enemy agents could spray American cows with hoof-and-mouth disease germs, thereby spoiling our nation's beef supply, not to mention wreaking havoc in the ketchup industry.

Needless to say, the cow-spraying operation, like just about everything else the federal government did during the Cold War, was a secret. I'm guessing that it had a classified name, perhaps "Operation Cow Pow."

After spraying deodorant on cows, the Army scientists probably went to a bar to celebrate their successful mission by having a few drinks and - in the tradition of suave covert operatives such as James Bond - picking up women.

ARMY SCIENTIST (suavely): Hi. I'm a covert operative. Don't tell anybody.

WOMAN: What's that on your shoes?

Yes, it was a risky job. But somebody had to do it. Because there was a Cold War on, and for all we knew, somewhere over in Russia, communist scientists, bent on world domination, were spraying deodorant on THEIR cows.

Of course those days are gone. The once-mighty Soviet Union has degenerated into a bunch of obscure nations with names like "Kazoobistan," populated by would-be capitalists trying to borrow money from us so they can buy frozen-yogurt franchises. Gone, too, is the very real threat that at any moment, a nuclear war could wipe out human civilization. I frankly miss it. I mean, during the Cold War, you could always say to yourself, "Hey, any minute now I could be blown to atoms, so why should I (pick one):

a. . . . clean the toilet?"

b. . . . give up heroin?"

c. . . . not eat these last seven eclairs?"

Yes, you could have guilt-free fun during the Cold War, as opposed to now, when the prospect of reaching old age has turned us into a bunch of health-obsessed wussies, squinting at product labels in the supermarket, trying to locate the low-fat bean dip. Also, with the Soviet Menace gone, our government hardly ever does fun stuff any more. I'm sure I speak for millions of Americans when I say that I'd rather see my tax money used for covertly spraying deodorant on cows than for printing up yet another 652-pound health-care plan.

Fortunately, there is one government outfit that still has some of that old Cold War paranoid spunk. I refer to the Central Intelligence Agency, which recently admitted that it had been hiding four large buildings in suburban Virginia from the rest of the federal government. You probably read about this. Under questioning from a Senate committee, the CIA admitted it was building a $310 million office complex that nobody, including President Clinton, knew anything about. And if you're wondering how a project that large could be kept secret, then you clearly have never seen the federal budget, which is larger than your garage. The CIA could easily have slipped $310 million in there under a heading such as "Snacks."

This story gave me a warm feeling. It reminded me of the good old days, when life was exciting and communists were trying to destroy the nation's moral fiber via such tactics as rock 'n' roll music and J. Edgar Hoover was keeping an eye on everybody in the United States except actual criminals, and Richard M. Nixon was finding enemy microfilm in pumpkins and nobody had ever heard of dietary fiber. Just for old times' sake, I'm going to crouch under a desk.