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The Cold War Civil Defense culture run rampant with nuclear fears, nuclear nightmares, and nuclear testing is recounted in this series of satirical vignettes and collages that are the fallout from my duck and cover childhood.
Nuclear Fears seemed to have temporarily disappeared at the end of the Cold War. Like some hidden Nike Missiles they receded underground out of sight, but poised at the ready. They resurfaced first with the threats of terrorists after September 11 and more recently with the tragic nuclear meltdown in Japan. Whether nuclear reactors or the threats of a dirty bomb, the old familiar fears of radioactive fallout have resurfaced and old fears have been reactivated.
By the mid 1950s our arsenal of missiles was becoming as bloated as the prodigious legion of pregnant women. Along with a boatload of babyboomers, a bouncing new U.S. policy was born and they would grow up together. The proud Papa, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles named his progeny Massive Retaliation.
Under the watchful eye of his rich Uncle Sam, the policy would grow up big and strong. Conceived as was I in the warm afterglow of the Hydrogen Bomb, it was also in the dark shadow cast by Godzilla, that radioactive mutated monster of mass destruction. Together they would send a collective shiver down our Cold War spine.
Who's Afraid of The Big Bad Wolf?
After 9/11, Americans faced unnerving official terror warnings displayed in primary colors of yellow, orange, and doomsday red.
Newspapers printed preparedness articles as a profusion of emergency instructions appeared on how to protect ourselves. Panicked, people started stock-piling canned goods and duct tape, batteries and bandages to keep in their designated safe rooms.
With round the clock breaking news on television, it made it seem as if we had entered a time of great danger and Armageddon was near.
Take My Word For It
But there was already a precedent of fear one which we had lived through, not that long ago.
Nothing matched the profound frears that gripped our countryys fear of a Cold War turning hot Even without 24/7 news coverage, the terror was seared into our minds. It was an unrelenting fear that sent Dick, Jane and Sally Draper duck n' covering under school desks. back to top
CIVIL DEFENSE IS COMMON $ENSE
In the postwar world of pushbutton ease and no more guess work, it was anyon'es guess when the ultimate button would be pushed and nuclear war begin. "How much time do we have, minutes, days, months, years? We don't know" a somber male voice asked on a public service announcement. "But this we do know- Civil Defense is everybody's business!"
It was time to wake up and smell the coffee!
Fueling our prodigious fears, was the emphasis on Civil Defense and the government's zeal in educating the public about the risks of an atomic attack- how you could survive one, and how to plan and pack for the few days you and your family would have to spend in your fall out shelter.
In case of an H- Bomb blast, the Atomic Energy Commission offered some EZ advice: "People in fallout areas can protect themselves by following some simple rules," they suggested reassuringly.
"The news of an H- Bomb attack will be announced over the radio and most people will know about it before the veil of stinging dust comes settling down out of a clouded sky over farm, forest and village."
So until then, enjoy the freedom to live as you please. back to top
In keeping with the can-do containment policy of our government, canned foods were darn handy to stock up your bomb shelter with.
Just as the Soviets and Uncle Sam were stock-piling arsenals of Nuclear weapons, so patriotic 1950's housewives were stocking up a good supply of canned goods for that long Nuclear Winter.
Re-emerging from your shelter after an atomic attack would be a snap. After a few days when the surrounding radioactivity is greatly reduced, the government offered some helpful hints about re-adjusting.
Hungry? Canned food was safe to eat, but fresh fruit had to be washed and scrubbed. That's why you would be glad you had the Green Giant around- with his canned peas its would be as if the Green Giant stepped out to his pre-radioactive garden and picked a batch of peas. Ho-Ho-Ho.
Speaking of which, they reminded us that before planting your spring tomatoes, it was necessary to turn the turf and bury the radioactive dust which would fall on lawns and gardens. Buried dust might make future plants and crops radioactive, they chuckled, so there would be plenty of hot peppers next season! back to top
DUCK N' COVER
To prepare for this big disaster, evacuation plans were set in motion to send big city dwellers quickly to the hinterlands.
Printed maps of American cities appeared in newspapers and magazines upon which were superimposed ominous Atom bomb bullseyes showing the lethal reach of the bomb. To prevent a stampede of citizens dashing to safety, the maps let you know how long you had to get out of Dodge. back to top
Just for the kiddies there was Bert the Turtle that loveable, cuddly, Cold War cartoon character from the Civil Defense film Duck and Cover who cheerfully offered frightened school children life- saving instructions to guide them through an atomic attack.
Face The Music
"When Danger threatens them they never get hurt, they know just what to do..."
At the sound of the warning siren, like some Pavlonian response, Stan Musieal baseball gloves were unceremoniously tossed to the ground, gun-slinging cow-pokes shifted attention and slippery-tots would jump out of vinyl-sided pools as a stream of children appeared- a blur of pig tails, baseball caps and scraped-kness racing in their U.S. Keds helping them to run faster to get to the public fall-out shelter in time.
A Frigid New Frontier
What you are about to watch is a nightmare.. .This is the Twilight Zone"
The Cold War had moved into a deep freeze by the early 1960's teetering on turning very hot.
The Big Showdown
Rattled Americans were twisting the night away as the jousting match beween President Kennedy and the Soviet's leader Nikita Khrushchev escalated as the world poised for a show down of wits between these two Cold Warriors. With a rat-a-tat-tat-and-a-ring-a-ding-ding, we would all be pioneers in this scary New Frontier.
Despite being lulled to sleep with sweet stories from our Little Golden Books, baby boom children knew a nuclear attack could happen any hour. Instead of sweet little kittens finding their mittens, the spectre of a mushroom cloud would hang over our dreams. back to top
NUCLEAR FEARS FOR THE NUCLEAR FAMILY
Within a short period of time we came teetering close to the brink of nuclear war.
First, in the balmy summer of 1961 when the terrifying thought of thermonuclear confronation between us and the Soviets became all too real as the crisis in Berlin heated up. back to top
Sounding a lot like the sinister Fearless Leader, a character on Rocky and Bullwinkle, who exclaimed "What does Pottsylvania have more of than any other country? Mean! We have more mean than any other country in Europe! We must export mean!", a volatile Khrushchev had boasted that the USSR's thermonuclear strength was unmatchable and could leave America in a cloud of radioactive dust. Appearing on TV, Kennedy urged Americans to build bomb shelters- citizens should be ready to protect their own families. back to top
FALLOUT SHELTERS FOR THE NEW FRONTIER
A somber letter from JFK printed in an issue of Life Magazine from September 1961, urged Americans to be prepared.
"Nuclear weapons and the possibility of nuclear war are facts of life we cannot ignore. Unprepared there is a 1 chance in 4 that you and your family will die." However you could be among the lucky 97% to survive if you followed the advice in the magazine about building a shelter.
Uncle Sam advised that we should be prepared to take cover for about 2 weeks.
For the nuclear family the ultimate togetherness would be a spruced up, well supplied family shelter. An important factor in increasing merriment and togetherness in the family living conditions was the attention paid to fall-out fun.
To pass the time, good mothers made sure to stock plenty of games for the children. When you're hot, wilted and sorry for yourself you'll be glad you packed that game of Chutes and Ladders. Don't blame that listless, half alive feeling on the beautiful spring day you were missing. No gloomy Gus's aloud!
Whittle While You Wait
And just because you were stuck in a fallout shelter ladies, didn't mean it was okay to let your diet slide. It would be the perfect time to whittle your waist.
Don't let your weight losing intentions fade in the rise of temperature, Cold War ladies were warned. Keep a supply of tasty Rye-Krisps and cans of Metracal- you'll still want that trim figure for those post-blast pool parties!
Home Sweet Home
Knowing that they were going to spend a week or two in their bomb shelter, happy homemakers in the 60's were advised to make it as gay and restful an environment as possible.
Painting the walls a bright color would make it cheery, while decorating it in Early American charm would give a nice homey touch to the The New Frontier Fallout Shelter. back to top
Chillin' in the Cold War
More sound suggestions were offered to us from a record entitled, "If the Bomb Falls: a Guide to Survival." A no- nonsense narrator speaking in a confident, calm voice suggested that "by all means provide some tranquilizers to ease the strain and monotony of life in a shelter. A bottle of 100 should be adequate for a family of 4. Tranquilizers are not narcotic and are not habit forming. Ask a doctor for his recomendation."
Suddenly there was a mass hysteria to burrow underground. Suburban-do-it-yourselfer's came out in full force prudently eyeing that palette of bricks once slated for an outdoor barbeque now being re-evaluated for the home fallout shelter.
In the early 1960's, there was a huge real estate boom; not in houses but in home-shelters. From coast to coast, families were eyeing the new models of family shelters.
Contractors and salesmen pitched home shelter kits as a modern miracle of mass production likening them to Levitt houses. "You'll be patting your good judgement on the back for years to come if you get a family shelter now", they boasted.
Better Homes and Garden Magazine offered advice suggesting to it's readers that they would be smart to consider fall-out shelter's peace time role, offering tips in converting it into a rumpus room for the kids.
Don't Turn That Dial
A year later in 1962 when the Soviets installed missiles only 90 miles from our shore during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the nuclear family was back huddled in their home fall-out shelter built in their faux-wood paneled finished basements.
The tic-tic-tic of the geiger counter would be the soundtrack of our new Post-War World. Venturing out into the beak post-atomic landscape of chaos, you'll be glad you packed your weatherproof galoshes for the long nuclear winter that loomed ahead.
In the 1950's our government insisted that the spate of Nuclear atmospheric testings in Nevada were no more a danger than the new fangled TV transmissions racing through the sky.
You Don't Say!
The Atomic Energy Commission had decided that Utah and Nevada, these "virtually uninhabited territory", would be the perfect site for Nuclear testing.
Most shrugged off the potential hazards of testing especially the long term danger. In fact the danger lay in not doing the tests. Most folks agreed that the ultimate benefit of peace and security that only Nuclear bombs would bring us was more than enough for the potential risk.
Of course there were outlandish allegations from alarmists who attributed everything from birth defects, to rising cost of living, to climate changes, to the tests.
It was the same nervous Nellies who thought we should be concerned about the safety of DDT. Uncle Sam patiently and confidently dismissed every last one. Radiation was like taxes, not pleasant but you learned to live with it.back to top
Nevada Test Site
Our Government had guaranteed us the safety of the testings and if you couldn't trust the U.S.A. who could you trust?
Every school kid knew The Father of our country George Washington could never tell a lie, and so a trusting public believed that our Uncle Sam's word was as trustworthy as a Boy Scout.
With a ringing endorement from the Atomic Energy Commission confirming that Uncle Sam had taken all necessary precautions to ensure our safety, the Nevada Test Site, only 65 miles from Las Vegas, became quite the attraction. Why some folks even made a family trip of it catching Frank Sinatra at the Sands Hotel while they took in the sights at the Nevada Test Site.
Folks were encouraged to pack their Kodak's and Coppertone and head west for a rip-roarin' good time. And if you forgot your Brownie Hawkeye at home, not to worry, the experience would give you long lasting memories, to relive again and again.
Before the first light of dawn, dazzled onlookers with their heart thumping in their newly purchased resort-wear, sleepy kids in Roy Rogers cowboy hats, gathered with ex-GI's in Bermuda shorts sporting WWII issued anti-glare Ray Bans and looked at awe at the flash of bright light.
Rockets Red Glare Bombs Bursting In Air....
As the pink clouds drifted across the flat mesas, the shock waves booming against their chests, a veil of radioactive particles floated over the test site. With the rockets red glare, bombs bursting in air, the heat from the blast stimulated a healthy radiant-blush on the visitors, leaving them with an envied, sunburned vacation glow.
And for those folks who couldn't make any of the 126 tests detonated over 12 years, no worries.
The wind would carry the mushroom cloud downwind, dispersing radioactive elements over the purple mountains majesty, above the fruited plains, making you feel just like you had actually been there.
Accidents Will Happen
Despite the government protestations of I see nothing, I hear nothing, I know nothing, several serious health affects such as increased incidence of cancers, leukemia, thyroid diseases and congenital malformations have now been well documented to those citizens known as downwinders- individuals and communities exposed to radioactive contamination from nuclear weapons testing. back to top