No Room in the Motor Inn

(Click here to go to the beginning entry
of this Special Report on the Not So Fabulous 50s.

For many Baby Boomers, one of the most vivid parts of their nostalgia for what they remember as the Fabulous Fifties is Summer Vacation. More particularly—summer road trip vacations.

The 1950s and early 1960s were the heyday of the Family Road Trip Vacation. I’m pretty sure that the craze didn’t just start on its own…it was fed by the advertising industry (no doubt in cahoots with the hotel/motel/restaurant/gift shop/tourist trap industry!)

brochurefl1956brochurenybrochureFamilies would pile into their convertible or station wagon or sedan and head off down the highway, perhaps to see a national park, or historical sites like Tombstone, AZ or Gettysburg, PA, or maybe even Disneyland. Or at least to visit extended family in another state.

My family did both—our ultimate vacation destination was always to stay for a week with my Uncle Merle and his family, or with my maternal grandparents. (Dad was a mailman, and managed to schedule a vacation in winter most years, and I did well enough in school to be allowed to take off two weeks at a time during the school year.) But along the way from our home in Michigan, we’d get to see lots of the country. Uncle Merle was in the Navy, and wherever he was stationed became one of our destinations. Those included New London, CT (we saw Gettysburg and New York City along the way), Key West, FL (we saw Daytona Beach and Miami along the way), and Washington, DC.

My grandparents were snowbirds from Michigan, so some winters we got to go to Ft. Myers, FL to visit them, seeing lots of Crocodile Farms and Monkey Jungles…and the Weeki Wachee Spring mermaids …along the way.

monkeyjungleweeki1weeki2One time, when they tried out Tucson, AZ for their winter getaway, we got to see much of Texas (visiting Ciudad Juarez across the border) and visit western ghost towns and tourist traps in Arizona—I remember seeing Boot Hill, and “panning for gold.”


Nowadays I plan a trip by “asking” for a route from where I am to where I want to go to help make arrangements for motels and other stops along the way. Once my family gets in the car, we then rely on our GPS to talk us through every turn in our trip.

But of course Google and GPS gadgets didn’t exist in the ‘50s. From very early on, my parents and I made good use of the books and maps of the AAA. Tourism representatives for that organization would “custom make” for you mapping tools for your trip. They would plan the most efficient route from your home to your destination, and mark it out on a US map by hand with a magic marker.


Then they would pull together a “Trip Tik” of the whole route. The Trip Tik was a spiral bound set of small maps of limited stretches of road along your route. These would also be marked with the magic marker to avoid any confusion at all of exactly where a turn was to be made. The Trip Tik also included detailed information on where to find gas stations, restaurants, rest areas, and more.

trip tik

And then the tour representative would also provide you with “Tour Books” … state and regional guide books giving details of restaurants, lodging, sights to see, and more pin-pointed for you for every city or town you might be near.

aaatourbookSo even without an Internet hookup and GPS, you were pretty well-equipped to navigate the USA!

Yes, the pics below look pretty much like our family did in the Fabulous Fifties, relaxed, happy, and confident as we headed out on the road.


If a children’s book was written about our travels, it would have looked pretty much like this.



But I recently discovered a children’s book about family travel in the 1950s that shook my nostalgia for the fabulousness of the era.


Young Ruth is excited about going on a trip in her family’s new car – a 1952 Buick – all the way from home in Chicago to Alabama to visit her grandmother. At first the trip is fun, but soon there are problems. It’s the Jim Crow era in the South and African Americans like Ruth and her parents encounter racism and “whites only” signs on restrooms, service stations, restaurants and hotels. With no available restrooms, they have to use the woods and with no place to stay, they drive through the night.

In Tennessee, Ruth is happy when her daddy’s friend, Eddy, welcomes them to his home. There they spend the night. The next morning, Ruth overhears Eddy warning her parents about Jim Crow and what they might encounter as they drive further south. When he sees Ruth is worried, Eddy reassures her and tells her to look out for Esso service stations because her family will be welcome there.


(The ESSO company was the only major fuel corporation that actually solicited Negro franchisees across the nation, and they advertised in the Green Book.)

After her father explains to Ruth that Jim Crow isn’t a person but “a bunch of ugly laws forbidding blacks and whites from mixing in any way,” Ruth reflects, “It hurt my feelings to be so unwelcome.”

When they come to an Esso station, the attendant tells Ruth and her parents about The Negro Motorist Green Book, which “lists places in lots of states where we would be welcome to sleep, eat, shop, get a haircut – and all kinds of other information besides.” Once her father pays 75 cents for a copy, the family immediately uses it to find a place to stay that night. Ruth is particularly impressed because the home’s owner doesn’t charge anything since she feels helping one another is the right thing to do. Ruth decides, “I’m going to do the same one day!”

There continue to be ups and downs on the trip, but Ruth’s parents put her in charge of the Green Book, and with the Green Book and the helpful African Americans they meet on the way, the trip continues. The night before arriving at her grandmother’s, Ruth thinks about the bad and scary things that have happened – “It made me sad that some people were mean to Negroes” – but feels that on the positive side, “…it helped to know that good black people all over the country had pitched in to help each other.” [Source]

I live now in Savannah, Georgia. As I look around me today at the local WalMart or Walgreen’s, or doctor’s or dentist’s office, and see people my own age…but with darker skin…I now realize that inside their heads they may well have a totally different view of Family Vacations in the Fabulous Fifties than my own. I had long understood that “Baby Boomer Blacks” throughout BOTH the Deep South and much of the rest of the country lived in segregated neighborhoods in segregated towns in the 1950s, and many had to use “colored only” drinking fountains and theater sections, and sit “in the back of the bus.” But at least when in their own home territory they had a support group, and knew where they could and couldn’t go to eat and shop. And could go to the safe haven of their own home when problems arose.

But it had never dawned on me that when out on the “open road” they were at an extreme disadvantage for just about anything, from finding a meal or a restroom to getting a car repaired. And a AAA Tour Guide would have done them no good. It did NOT provide any information about segregation in America. For families like Ruth’s, Dinah Shore’s invitation rang pretty hollow.


“See the USA in your Chevrolet, America is asking you to call…
Drive your Chevrolet through the USA,
America’s the greatest land of all…”

It was almost as if…they lived in a totally different America than I, in an Alternate Universe occupying the same space!

Until long after the Civil Rights era (1955-1968), black drivers in the United States faced major problems to which most whites were oblivious. White supremacists had long sought to restrict black mobility, and simply undertaking a road journey was fraught with inconveniences, and worse – potentially dangerous – for many blacks. They were subjected to racial profiling by police departments … faced being punished for being “uppity” or “too prosperous” if they were seen driving a car (regarded by many whites as a white prerogative), and risked physical harassment ranging from arrest to lynching. In 1948 one black driver, Robert Mallard, was lynched in his brand-new car in front of his wife and child by a white mob in Georgia which allegedly saw him as being “not the right kind of negro” and “nigger rich”.

In a bitter commentary published in 1947, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) magazine, The Crisis, highlighted the uphill struggle blacks faced in undertaking recreational travel: “Would a Negro like to pursue a little happiness at a theater, a beach, pool, hotel, restaurant, on a train, plane, or ship, a golf course, summer or winter resort? Would he like to stop overnight at a tourist camp while he motors about his native land ‘Seeing America First’? Well, just let him try!”

Racist laws, discriminatory social codes, segregated commercial facilities, racial profiling by police, and the existence of “sundown towns” made road journeys a minefield of constant uncertainty and risk. The difficulties of travel for black Americans were such that, as Lester B. Granger of the National Urban League puts it, “so far as travel is concerned, Negroes are America’s last pioneers.”

Businesses across the United States refused to serve African-Americans. Black travelers often had to carry buckets or portable toilets in the trunks of their cars because they were usually barred from bathrooms and rest areas in service stations and roadside stops.

Diners and restaurants also rejected blacks, and even travel essentials such as gasoline could be unavailable because of discrimination at gas stations. To avoid such problems on long trips, African-Americans often packed meals and even containers of gasoline in their cars. The civil rights leader John Lewis has recalled how his family prepared for a trip in 1951:

“There would be no restaurant for us to stop at until we were well out of the South, so we took our restaurant right in the car with us… Stopping for gas and to use the bathroom took careful planning. Uncle Otis had made this trip before, and he knew which places along the way offered ‘colored’ bathrooms and which were better just to pass on by. Our map was marked and our route was planned that way, by the distances between service stations where it would be safe for us to stop.”

Finding accommodation was one of the greatest challenges faced by black travelers. Not only did many hotels, motels, and boarding houses refuse to serve black customers, but thousands of towns across America declared themselves “sundown towns” which all non-whites had to leave by sunset. [40 just along Route 66] They were not simply a phenomenon of the South. Huge numbers of towns across the country were effectively off-limits to African-Americans. By the end of the 1960s, there were at least 10,000 sundown towns across America – including large suburbs such as Glendale, California (population 60,000 at the time); Levittown, New York (80,000); and Warren, Michigan (180,000). Over half the incorporated communities in Illinois were sundown towns. The unofficial slogan of Anna, Illinois, which had violently expelled its African-American population in 1909, was “Ain’t No Niggers Allowed”.

Even in towns which did not exclude overnight stays by blacks, accommodations were often very limited. Only six percent of the more than 100 motels that lined U.S. Route 66 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, admitted black customers. Only three motels in New Hampshire served African-Americans in 1956. [Source]

May I remind you that New Hampshire is NOT in “the Deep South”!

Yes, the Green Book was a lifesaver in many ways.

greenbook1956Green wasn’t just the color. It was named after the book’s author — Victor Green — who was a postal worker. Most African Americans were familiar with where they could and couldn’t go in their own cities. So Green used his connections through the post office to collect lists from all over America, and even some other countries. These lists were invaluable to Black travelers.

Even in the depth of Jim Crow, however, Green dreamed of a better time. In the introduction he wrote:

‘There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal rights and privileges in the United States.”

His dream, I suppose, sort of did and sort of didn’t come true. [Source]

Although we all know now that it took a lot of sacrifice and facing danger by people in the Civil Rights movement to force the change that eventually came, it is interesting to look behind the scenes and see one other factor that factored into the equation…

Although President Eisenhower was not eager to enter the civil rights debate, he was confronted with a Cold War diplomatic reason for involvement…:

At the outset of his administration, Eisenhower’s United Nations representative clearly warned him that America’s notorious racist practices amounted to a “diplomatic Achilles’ heel.” While Washington ceaselessly sought support from new and third world member states against Soviet-backed initiatives, those countries had a hard time offering sympathy for a nation in which black and brown diplomats couldn’t sit at a lunch counter or rent a hotel room in its capital. In the early days of his presidency, the strongest factor in Eisenhower’s order to desegregate Washington’s public accommodations was likely not that black Americans had for so long suffered the indignity of Jim Crow in the nation’s capital, but that important black foreigners were now being humiliated. [American Nightmare , p. 229, emphasis in original]

This would be a growing problem as Europe’s colonial governments in Africa were overturned. Africans were increasingly part of the diplomatic corps that traveled around the United States.

One diplomatic incident, which occurred in the spring of 1961 shortly after President Eisenhower left office, illustrates the type of embarrassment Packard cited. William Fitzjohn, charge d’affaires for the Republic of Sierre Leone in west Africa, drove from Washington to Pittsburgh for a lecture. When his driver stopped at a Howard Johnson’s restaurant in Hagerstown, Maryland, they were both refused service because of their color. Appalled by reports of the snub, President John F. Kennedy invited Fitzjohn to the White House. The president of Howard Johnson’s apologized, while Hagerstown Mayor Winslow F. Burhans invited him to a dinner with the city’s leading citizens.

Soon, however, another incident occurred. On June 26, 1961, Ambassador Adam Malick of the Republic of Chad in northcentral Africa was driving to Washington on U.S. 40 to present his credentials to President Kennedy when he was refused service after stopping in Edgewood for a meal.

By one count, nine such incidents involving diplomats occurred in 1961 alone. In a 2005 column, Frederick N. Rasmussen of The Baltimore Sun recalled the Governor’s reaction:

While Maryland Gov. J. Millard Tawes apologized for the incidents, he also suggested that African diplomats traveling U.S. 40 should pick restaurants with an open-door policy.

U.S. 40, then the major route for diplomats traveling between New York and Washington, fittingly became the target of Kennedy’s efforts in ending the practice of denying service not only to black diplomats but African-Americans as well.

He asked Maryland civic leaders to extend “voluntary cooperation for an immediate end to segregation in restaurants and other places of public service.”

. . . Restaurant and café owners along U.S. 40 were slow to move, believing it was their right to serve, or withhold service from, whomever they pleased.

“Frankly, I can’t afford it,” said Mrs. Charles Krell, owner of the Suburban Inn near Aberdeen. “I’d lose all of my white customers.” [Source]

One of the most iconic representatives of the (white) great memories of travel of the 50s and early 60s was the famous Route 66.

66mapU.S. Route 66 (US 66 or Route 66), also known as the Will Rogers Highway and colloquially known as the Main Street of America or the Mother Road, was one of the original highways within the U.S. Highway System. Route 66 was established on November 11, 1926—with road signs erected the following year. The highway, which became one of the most famous roads in America, originally ran from Chicago, Illinois, through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona before ending at Santa Monica, California, covering a total of 2,448 miles (3,940 km). It was recognized in popular culture by both the hit song “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66” and the Route 66 television show in the 1960s. [Source]


There is a large subculture, represented on the Internet, of Route 66 aficionados, who collect memorabilia about the heyday of this icon.


There are also lots of books filled with pics and trivia about the road. One of the best is this one.


Regarding the author, Michael Wallis—he was a consultant for the Disney film Cars

sheriffwallisThe Sheriff is portrayed by the distinctive baritone voice of Michael Wallis, who also served as a Route 66 consultant for the film. Wallis has written 14 books, including the bestselling “Route 66: The Mother Road”, which catapulted him to national prominence in 1990. Wallis also guided the Pixar crew on two Route 66 tours for its research for “Cars,” and he and his wife, Suzanne, wrote “The Art of Cars,” a behind-the-scenes look at the film. [Source]

While looking up information on this material about the Green Book, I found a fascinating recent article by Wallis titled, “The Other Mother Road.

Wallis first describes a bit of his own childhood:

Come back with me to June of 1952. It most definitely was another time, another place. I was seven years old, and I recall neighbors in their backyards searching the night sky for flying saucers. Newspapers offered the latest reports on labor strife and atomic tests. The Korean conflict raged. Threat of a polio epidemic gripped the land. Out of Wisconsin, a vitriolic Senator Joe McCarthy, blinded by rancor and fear, prepared for his insidious Communist witch-hunt.

Despite the discord and apprehension, all was right with the world if you happened to be me—a kid growing up in Missouri within easy striking distance of Route 66.

Although Harry Truman was not running for another term of office, our family was proud that the Show Me State’s favorite son was still president of the United States. Down at our neighborhood theater, my band of friends felt Gary Cooper was worth every penny of admission portraying the stoic lawman in High Noon. Our television favorites included I Love Lucy, The Ernie Kovacs Show, and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. We never failed to miss Dragnet, the cop show starring Jack Webb as the poker-faced Sergeant Joe Friday.

After some more of that kind of nostalgia, he brings in the importance to his youth of his family’s summer vacation travels:

Out in the garage, my dad packed suitcases, thermos bottles, ice chests, road maps, ball gloves, fishing gear, and all the essentials needed to keep a family going for two whole weeks. Finally, Dad had his pride and joy—the shiny green Plymouth he calledthe “Green Monster”—loaded and ready… It was time for us to take to the open road.

The Route 66 story is both bitter and sweet. A microcosm of the nation, the old road has plenty of scar tissue.

Just the act of “getting there” was an important part of our vacation experience. We did not want to lose a single moment so we made the drive an indispensable component of the overall trip. There was an assortment of manmade and natural attractions to visit, tourist traps to survive, detours to avoid, and truck stop meals to consume.

… Soon Dad had the entire family out on U. S. Route 66. We cranked down the windows. Black-eyed Susans and Queen Anne’s lace lining the road flashed by as Dad mashed the gas pedal. Everyone else tried to figure out when the first pit stop would occur.

The voices of Peggy Lee, Eddie Fisher, Teresa Brewer, and Hank Williams poured from the radio. The Mother Road beckoned. I dreamed of reptile farms, Indian artifacts, and outlaw hideouts that waited down the highway. My mouth watered for cheeseburger platters and thick chocolate malts. The fantasy had begun. My hunger for the road and all that lay ahead grew with each passing mile.

He paints some more of his nostalgia picture very effectively. And then he takes an unexpected turn for a man whose career has long been mostly about evoking happy memories of the Good Old Days.

Maybe you have similar memories.

We tend to look back through rose-colored glasses and call that time the “Good Old Days.” Life was easy for many of us in the ‘50s. Life was as sweet as truck stop pie, at least it was for me—a white boy without a care in the world from a middle-class family living in a comfortable home in the heartland.

Now, of course, I know the cold, hard truth. Now I realize those days were not really so good; I only remember them that way. The main reason many of us considered those times the Good Old Days is simple. It comes down to technology. People didn’t know what was happening everywhere in the country and the world. They were uninformed for the most part, especially in rural America. There was no 24-hour news cycle worldwide. They were not bombarded with news and views. There was no Internet. No iPhones.

You cannot restore myths or turn back the clock to a dream that only existed for certain Americans. To live solely in the past is to live in complete denial.

Perhaps the good old days aren’t good; they are just old. The old wisdom-keepers told us not to ask why the old days were better than these, because such a question arises, not from wisdom, but from amnesia. Some of us have selective memories. We tend to believe in cliché, romanticize the past—our own past—and edit out any bad memories.

Wow. Them’s strong words!

I’ve been writing similar words for quite a while now, and every time I do, I seem to step on toes. Even friends tell me I ought to “leave the past alone” because bringing up any unpleasant truth about the American Narrative is somehow “unpatriotic.” I’m pleased to see that Michael Wallis agrees with me that it most certainly is NOT.

Back then, not only in the Jim Crow Deep South, but also everywhere in the land—including Oklahoma—if you were a person of color, you lived in another America. One that had no dreams. No hope. You could not eat in the same building or shop in the same store as white folks. You could not get gasoline from a white-owned pump or even think about staying in even the most basic white-owned lodging. You could not sit with white people in the Art Deco Tulsa train station and wait for a train. There was a separate place for you and your kind.

Many of us who have an abiding interest in Route 66 realize that because the highway is arguably the most famous roadway in the nation, and perhaps the world, we have an obligation to share the entire story of the old highway we love.

In the main, today’s astonishing revival of interest in the Mother Road has overlooked the inequities and the negative history that certainly transpired along the road’s shoulders and continues in some ways to this day.

There is ample reason to question the romanticizing of Route 66. There also is reason to stop avoiding that dark side of the highway story that all too often has been swept beneath the proverbial and convenient carpet.

Remember that this highway—our highway—is a true mirror of the nation. Like all roads, this road and what takes place on this road reflects our society and culture. Now that includes the good, the bad, the ugly, the holy, the shades of gray, and the truth of life. That has always been the case. That has always been a fact. That will never change.

Wallis writes of the Dust Bowl refugees who also went down Route 66 trying to find the Promised Land in California, and the prejudice they endured and abuse they received, as seen in Steinbeck’s book Grapes of Wrath, and heard in the songs of Woody Guthrie in the 30s.

But Woody was lucky. Even when he was down and out and busted like the folks he sang about, at least he was the right color. Ironically, only a few years later, the late great Nat King Cole, the man with the velvet voice that helped immortalize the highway by singing Bobby Troup’s “Get Your Kicks,” found that out. Like millions of African Americans, Hispanics, American Indians and others, Cole for way too long would not be able to check into even a modest tourist court or dine in a greasy spoon on the Mother Road or any other road in this country.

… Black families traveling America’s byways packed their own food and often slept in their vehicles. They didn’t get their kicks on Route 66—or at least the kind of kicks I was getting as a youngster or a few years later as a hitchhiking Marine. At highway stops such as the Rock Cafe in Stroud, Oklahoma, during the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, and into the ‘60s, black travelers went to the backdoor to get their food to go. None of them walked inside.

…To many white, middle- and upper-class travelers, Route 66 symbolized the most positive aspects of American society—freedom, progress, and economic possibility. But to the minorities who encountered racism, prejudice, and exploitation along the road, Route 66 embodied a much darker version of American history.

And then he writes about the Green Book

…Starting in 1936 and every year after until 1964, when the Civil Rights Act rendered it obsolete, that straightforward guide helped African Americans travel throughout the country in a safe and comfortable manner. A Harlem postal worker and activist named Victor H. Green published it. He named it The Negro Motorist Green Book. Some folks called it the Negro Travelers’ Green Book, but it was mostly known as The Green Book. Every cover bore a quotation from Mark Twain: “Travel is fatal to prejudice.”

… In 1955, for example, 3,500 white motels would allow dogs to stay in guest rooms, but less than 50 stated they would even consider housing any black travelers.

… There are several reports that in 1961 so many black tourists along Route 66 in Illinois were refused restaurant service that they took to bringing their own food and eating in their cars rather than chance being embarrassed. Undoubtedly, that accounts for why most editions of the Green Book listed nothing between Chicago and Springfield as well as nothing between Springfield and East St. Louis. There were also large gaps for Missouri, Texas, and New Mexico.

And Wallis’s conclusion of the matter…

Perhaps the good days aren’t good; they are just old.

And I would add, perhaps the Fifties weren’t all that Fabulous…it’s just that our rose-colored nostalgia glasses allow us to only see a tiny collection of the best of the best of our own personal memories of the time. And THOSE memories might well be fabulous. Nothing wrong with a Baby Boomer hanging on to his or her memories of fabulous experiences from that time, or of music or movies they really, really  still think were fabulous. But those things don’t “define” the era for everyone.

I’ll bet Annette Funicello was having a Fabulous 50s life when this 1957 picture was taken, and in later years looked back on the time with fondness.


But Elizabeth Eckford’s memories of that same year were likely not so fabulous.

eckfordYou see, she was one of the nine students who took part in the forced integration of Little Rock High School in 1957, as seen in this famous photo.


She and the other eight students were “accompanied” by the 101st US Airborne Division sent by President Eisenhower to protect them from the enraged crowds attempting to stand against integration in Arkansas.

littlerock1littlerock2As Elizabeth later wrote of that day, “I tried to see a friendly face somewhere in the crowd—someone who maybe could help. I looked into the face of an old woman and it seemed a kind face, but when I looked at her again, she spat on me.”

No, the Fifties weren’t Fabulous for everyone.

Frankly, I am glad to be alive in America now in 2014. I wouldn’t have the slightest desire to “go back” to “the way it was” in the 1950s.

Are there problems still waiting to be solved in 21st century America? Indeed there are.

But they deserve fresh solutions, not a fruitless desire to turn back the clock to a Time That Never Really Was.




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MORE MAD Music (NSFF Pt. 6)

Not So Fabulous Fifties (NSFF)

Part 6: MORE MAD Music 

(Click here to go to the beginning of this series.)

Another Atomic Platter Blast from the Past:

“The Sun is Burning”
Singers: Simon and Garfunkel
Composer: Ian Campbell (“Ian Campbell Folk Group”)

Year: 1964, S&G first album, Wednesday Morning, 3 AM

On a Personal Note

I was a 19 year old Sophomore at Michigan State University when the previously little-known duo of Simon and Garfunkel hit #1 on the Top 40 charts with their haunting “Sound of Silence” in January 1966. I had married my husband, George, a few months earlier, in spring 1965. He and I were both immediately taken by Simon and Garfunkel’s easy-listening folk style and lush harmonies. So I rushed out and bought the only album available by them at that time, Wednesday Morning, 3 AM.

album sandg

None of the other songs on the album had been marketed as singles at that point, so it was a real pleasurable adventure to play through the collection.  Side One included “The Sound of Silence” and five other very folk-y songs which I really enjoyed. (The song “Sparrow” was kind of sad and poignant, but I shed a tear for a moment and moved on.) Side Two started out the same way, with track #3 being a rousing version of the old traditional Spiritual “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” It was so positive and cheerful and exuberant!

And then Track #4 started. “The Sun is Burning.”

The sun is burning in the sky
Strands of clouds go slowly drifting by
In the park the lazy bees
Are droning in the flowers, among the trees
And the sun burns in the sky

It was a soothing and pretty ballad, with just a hint almost of a calypso beat. I was entranced. It was obviously going to be something sort of like the vintage Gershwin song “Summertime, and the livin’ is easy, fish are jumpin’, and the cotton is high…”

And then came verse 4. And my heart sank into my stomach!

Have a listen.

The lyrics haunt me to this day!

From 1000 Songs Everyone Must Hear (Politics and Protest section) “The Sun is Burning”

The power of subtlety in protest music is brilliantly expressed by one of the earliest anti-nuclear songs, an unofficial anthem of the CND [Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, 1958] movement and Ban the Bomb marches. Originally sung with innocent clarity by his sister Lorna – and later covered by Simon and Garfunkel – Ian Campbell’s clever descriptiveness gradually subverts a scene of idyllic normality into a shocking climax as the sun falls to earth and “death comes in a blinding flash of hellish heat”

 By the end, the song is echoing the published descriptions of the agonies suffered by the inhabitants of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the bombings in 1945.

The Sun is Burning

The sun is burning in the sky
Strands of clouds go slowly drifting by
In the park the lazy bees
Are droning in the flowers, among the trees
And the sun burns in the sky

Now the sun is in the West
Little kids go home to take their rest
And the couples in the park
Are holdin’ hands and waitin’ for the dark
And the sun is in the West

Now the sun is sinking low
Children playin’ know it’s time to go
High above a spot appears
A little blossom blooms and then draws near
And the sun is sinking low

Now the sun has come to Earth
Shrouded in a mushroom cloud of death
Death comes in a blinding flash
Of hellish heat and leaves a smear of ash
And the sun has come to Earth

Now the sun has disappeared
All is darkness, anger, pain and fear
Twisted, sightless wrecks of men
Go groping on their knees and cry in pain
And the sun has disappeared

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament is most famous today for its iconic symbol.


The CND Symbol

One of the most widely known symbols in the world, in Britain it is recognised as standing for nuclear disarmament – and in particular as the logo of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). In the United States and much of the rest of the world it is known more broadly as the peace symbol.

It was designed in 1958 by Gerald Holtom, a professional designer and artist and a graduate of the Royal College of Arts. He showed his preliminary sketches to a small group of people in the Peace News office in North London and to the Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War, one of several smaller organisations that came together to set up CND.

Gerald Holtom, a conscientious objector who had worked on a farm in Norfolk during the Second World War, explained that the symbol incorporated the semaphore letters N(uclear) and D(isarmament).

He later wrote to Hugh Brock, editor of Peace News, explaining the genesis of his idea in greater, more personal depth:

“I was in despair. Deep despair. I drew myself: the representative of an individual in despair, with hands palm outstretched outwards and downwards in the manner of Goya’s peasant before the firing squad. I formalised the drawing into a line and put a circle round it.”

The first badges were made by Eric Austin of Kensington CND using white clay with the symbol painted black. Again there was a conscious symbolism. They were distributed with a note explaining that in the event of a nuclear war, these fired pottery badges would be among the few human artifacts to survive the nuclear inferno.


These early ceramic badges can still be found and one, lent by CND, was included in the Imperial War Museum’s 1999/2000 exhibition From the Bomb to the Beatles.

Misrepresentation and misuse…

There have been claims that the symbol has older, occult or anti-Christian associations. In South Africa, under the apartheid regime, there was an official attempt to ban it. Various far-right and fundamentalist American groups have also spread the idea of Satanic associations or condemned it as a Communist sign. However the origins and the ideas behind the symbol have been clearly described, both in letters and in interviews, by Gerald Holtom. His original, first sketches are now on display as part of the Commonweal Collection in Bradford.

Although specifically designed for the anti-nuclear movement it has quite deliberately never been copyrighted. No one has to pay or to seek permission before they use it. A symbol of freedom, it is free for all.

ceramic peace badge

This of course sometimes leads to its use, or misuse, in circumstances that CND and the peace movement find distasteful. It is also often exploited for commercial, advertising or generally fashion purposes. We can’t stop this happening and have no intention of copyrighting it. All we can do is to ask commercial users if they would like to make a donation. Any money received is used for CND’s peace education and information work.

On a personal note again, I think “The Sun Is Burning” hit me particularly hard in early 1966 because my husband, George, had just finished an “interpretive reading” class at college the previous semester. For his main project, he read to the class a section from John Hersey’s book Hiroshima.  Hersey, a reporter for The New Yorker magazine, had traveled to Hiroshima within a year after the bomb had devastated the city and killed and maimed tens of thousands of people. He wove a description of the bombing and its aftermath around first-person stories of six survivors whom he interviewed. The story was originally published in the magazine, taking up almost the whole August 31, 1946 issue. It was so highly acclaimed that it was published in book form later in the year.

As George was preparing to do his class reading, I picked up the book and read through it myself. It was the first time I had ever read any material that personalized the events of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Up to that point, they were in my mind just that … “events” that had a date and some data attached to them. Power of so many tons of TNT. So many buildings smashed, raw data on casualties. Names of the bomber pilots, nicknames of the planes and the bombs.

The “view” I had was just like that of the bomber crews … from high in the sky.

Hersey brought me down to the ground and face to face with human suffering. Indeed, there were vivid descriptions of “twisted, sightless wrecks of men” groping on their knees and crying in pain. To say nothing of women and children doing the same. I was particularly touched by the line in the song saying that the blinding flash and hellish heat had left a “smear of ash.” The ash, of course, being incinerated people near Ground Zero. Then again, when reading the descriptions of misery and later disfigurements and death from radiation poisoning, it would seem that in many cases the idea of instant incineration was more merciful.

Composer Ian Campbell had indeed succeeded in leaving an indelible impression with his understatement that subtly set up an idyllic scene … and then shocked his listeners with stark reality. Right after WWII that reality seemed SO far away from America, something that could only happen to alien races of people in distant lands. But by 1966 when I first heard this song,  the Mutually Assured Destruction concept of the Cold War brought this reality agonizingly close to home.

Check the next entry in this Special Report, that explores another not-so-fabulous factor of life in the ’50s:

No Room in the Motor Inn

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MAD Music (NSFF Pt. 5)

Not So Fabulous Fifties (NSFF)

Part 5: MAD Music

(Click here to go to the beginning of this series.)


The Cold War Era spawned a large number of nuclear-themed musical and spoken recordings. One website has compiled a large collection of what it calls “Atomic Platters.”

atomic platters logo

You can listen to one of the co-founders of the and websites discuss a bit of the history of this genre and play brief clips of a few of the classics on a mini-documentary (8 minutes) on Youtube:

Atomic Platters video

As just a tiny taste of the mood of the times during the depths of the Cold War period, this blog entry and the next share the stories of two of the classic Atomic Platters. Given the obsession with Mutual Assured Destruction, we might refer to this genre as MAD Music.

Today’s Blast from the Past

“Fallout Shelter”

Singer: Billy Chambers
Composer: Bobby Braddock

Year: 1962

If you’re too impatient to listen to the song … or couldn’t clearly hear the lyrics, here they are.

Refrain: I’d rather die with you than live without you
And I hope that you feel the same.

Mom and Dad and I were getting ready for the game
I couldn’t play tonight, you know, my leg’s still kinda lame

And then I heard my mother call out our Savior’s name

I looked to the east and the sky was filled with flames

Then Dad said don’t worry, we don’t have to be scared
We’ve got our new fallout shelter waitin’ for us there

When I told Dad I’d go get you, he said don’t you dare

There’s no room for your girl, son, that just wouldn’t be fair


Then I thought of all the happy times that we had spent together
And the way we pledged our love to each other forever

Could I be there in that shelter with you out here

Rather than hold you in my arms? No, my darlin’, never

Old Uncle Ben, everybody’s friend, sits in there with his gun
The streets are all deserted now, did you see those people run?

You hold my hand, I understand the sickness has begun

And if we live or if we die our hearts will beat as one

Here’s what the Atomic Platters site had to say about Fallout Shelter by Billy Chambers. (There were other songs by the same name.)

Pop culture historians and music scholars have long noted that the so-called teenage ‘death’ songs of the late 1950s and early 1960s (1959’s Teen Angel, 1960’s Tell Laura I Love Her 1962’s Patches, etc.) were, in effect, allegorical Bomb songs. These dire, yet catchy songs about train accidents, car wrecks and double suicides channeled the atomic angst of America’s youth into mainstream hit singles.

The unforgettable 1962 release Fallout Shelter takes a more direct approach in conveying the fears of teenagers everywhere over nuclear annihilation. Its melodramatic storyline of a boy who wants to share his family’s shelter with his girlfriend and his father’s intervention is a perfect blending of elements from the overt and the allegorical/subtle Bomb song.

And with the tune’s lyrics about radiation sickness and fire-filled skies some might argue that the subtle route would have been the more profitable one. But then this particular non-charting record was written by a 21-year-old man who was more obsessed with impending hydrogen doom then he was in cracking the Top 40.

However, Bobby Braddock, the songwriter and producer of Fallout Shelter, admitted in an interview that drugs may have exacerbated his World War III mania: “To be very candid, I was a musician going through serious psychological problems due to an overdose of speed at the time and I was quite paranoid; I had tried to talk my parents into having a fallout shelter built—I remember we went to a place that built them and looked at their model.”

A secondary, non-amphetamine induced inspiration for his song, according to Braddock, was a 1961 episode of the ‘The Twilight Zone’ (The Shelter) in which a false attack alert throws a small community into chaos with a neighbor’s shelter becoming a flashpoint of mob violence.

Not familiar with that classic T-Zone episode? Here’s a brief overview of the plot.

The Shelter

Season 3, episode 68, aired 9/29/61

It is a typical evening in a typical suburban community. At the residence of physician Bill Stockton, he enjoys a birthday party being thrown for him by his wife Grace and their son Paul. Also at the party are Jerry Harlowe, Bill’s brother-in-law; Frank Henderson and Marty Weiss, Bill and Jerry’s former roommates; and the wives and children of Jerry, Frank and Marty. Bill is well-known and liked by this gathering; he attended the State University with Marty, Frank and Jerry. Moreover, Bill has repeatedly administered to the health and well being of each one of said guests, and/or delivered their children. Everyone is especially friendly and jovial, even when mention is made of Bill’s late-night work on a fallout shelter which he has built in his basement. Suddenly, a Civil Defense (CONELRAD) announcement overheard by young Paul, is made that unidentified objects have been detected heading for the United States. In these times, everybody knows what that means: nuclear attack.

As panic ensues, the doctor locks himself and his family into his shelter. The same gathering of friends becomes hysterical and now wants to occupy the shelter. All of the previous cordiality is now replaced with soaring desperation; pent-up hostility, searing racism and other suppressed emotions boil to the surface. Stockton offers his basement to the guests, but the shelter itself has sufficient air, provisions and space for only three people (the Stocktons themselves). The once-friendly neighbors don’t accept this; they break down the shelter door with an improvised battering ram.




Just then, a final Civil Defense broadcast announces that the objects have been identified as harmless satellites and that no danger is present. The neighbors apologize for their behavior; yet Stockton wonders if they have not destroyed each other – and themselves – without a bomb.

This theme of violence and shelters didn’t show up just in drama and popular music:

Gun Thy Neighbor

Following President John F. Kennedy’s Berlin crisis speech on July 25, 1961 that featured prominent and alarming references to nuclear war and civil defense, the topic of shelter morality entered the national discussion. Indeed, Time magazine published a remarkable article entitled “Gun Thy Neighbor” in its August 18, 1961 edition that reflected hard-line attitudes on shelter defense. One quote in the story came from an unnamed Chicago suburbanite:

“When I get my shelter finished, I’m going to mount a machine gun at the hatch to keep neighbors out if the bomb falls. I’m deadly serious about this. If the stupid American public will not do what they have to to save themselves, I’m not going to run the risk of not being able to use the shelter I’ve taken the trouble to provide to save my own family.”

The Time article concludes with quotes from a gaggle of religious representatives (two Lutherans, an Episcopalian, a Methodist, a Catholic and a Baptist) opining on the morality of shelter defense. With one exception, pacifism was the standard line coming from these holy men.

However, a few weeks later, another holy man weighed in with an opposing viewpoint on the pages of the Jesuit magazine, America (National Catholic Weekly Review). In fact, Father L.C. McHugh’s opinion piece (“Ethics at the Shelter Doorway,” America, September 30, 1961) cites the Time article as his impetus for writing. Father McHugh took particular exception to the following quote in the Time story from the Reverend Hugh Saussy of the Holy Innocents Episcopal Church in Atlanta, Georgia: “If someone wanted to use the shelter, then you yourself should get out and let him use it. That’s not what would happen, but that’s the strict Christian application.”

Father McHugh belittles the moralist argument against defending one’s shelter in his piece and asserts that “unjust aggressors” should be “repelled by whatever means will effectively deter their assault.” Ironically, the editors of the magazine sought to soften the priest’s uncompromising position on shelter defense by offering this ridiculous and baseless line in the accompanying writer’s biography: “Our guess is that Fr. McHugh would be the first to step aside from his own shelter door, yielding space to his neighbor.”

Coincidentally, the night before the publication date of Father McHugh’s controversial article, the CBS television network broadcast the famous episode of The Twilight Zone written by Rod Serling entitled “The Shelter.” This harrowing story about a homeowner locking his frenzied neighbors out of his shelter after an announced UFO sighting crystallized the shelter debate better than a thousand dueling op-ed pieces. And, in true Serling fashion, it is the behavior of the whole human race, not just the shelter owner and his neighbors, that wind up looking bad.

Father McHugh’s article spurred the shelter debate further and various newspaper articles commented on his unlikely position. In a September 27, 1961 New York Times piece by John Wicklein the paper called upon Rabbi Herbert Brichto, a professor of the Bible at the Hebrew Union College’s Jewish Institute of Religion for an opinion the America magazine article. Rabbi Brichto responded that “…preparation for an atomic war, such as building fall-out shelters, is immoral. The moral thing is not to prepare for survival of a fraction of the human race, but to put all our efforts into avoiding such a catastrophe.”

And Time magazine re-entered the fray in their October 20, 1961 issue by quoting a rebuttal to McHugh’s position from Washington, D.C.-based Episcopal Bishop Angus Dun: “I do not see how any Christian conscience can condone a policy which puts a supreme emphasis on saving your own skin without regard to the plight of your neighbor. Justice, mercy and brotherly love do not cease to operate, even in the final apocalypse.”

So well publicized was Father McHugh’s article that even Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy referenced the priest in an internal White House policy discussion on the issue of private versus public shelters. In Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s JFK administration memoir, A Thousand Days (Houghton Mifflin, 1965, page 749), RFK is quoted as saying in a forlorn voice, “There’s no problem here — we can just station Father McHugh with a machine gun at every shelter.” According to Schlesinger and other sources, it was during the McHugh-inflamed controversy that President Kennedy opted for shifting the administration’s support toward public shelters. Private shelters were never outright discouraged, but it was in late 1961 that the first iconic yellow and black National Fallout Shelter Signs started appearing on public buildings. The debate was effectively over.

shelter2 sign

A P.S. to the Braddock Fallout Shelter song story  …

Braddock would soon abandon his Cold War obsessions and focused on producing more commercial fare. Indeed, he went on to become one of Nashville’s biggest hit makers (1968’s D-I-V-O-R-C-E among many others) and Braddock continues to be a major talent in the country music industry to this day.

And for a less gloomy shelter song, check out this 1961 satirical one by Mike and Bernie Winters:

Fallout Shelter

I’m not scared
I’m prepared
We’ll be spared

I’ve got a fallout shelter, it’s 9 by 9
Hi-Fi set and a jug of wine
Let the missiles fly from nation to nation
But it’s party time in my radiation station
A 14 day supply of multi-purpose food
A TV set I’m sure to include
Build a bomb bungalow, one of your own
With no down payment and a government loan

Let the tests go on in the atmosphere
In my fallout shelter, I’ll have no fear
My baby and me, cozy we will be
Away from radioactivity

20 megatons is the size of the boom
And if they let it go, I’ll feel no doom
Let the cats run about, helter-skelter
I’m gonna, live, live, live in my fallout shelter

I’m not scared
I’m petrified
We’ll be spared

20 megatons is the size of the boom
And if they let it go, I’ll feel no doom
Let the cats run about, helter-skelter
I’m gonna live, live, live in my fallout shelter

So if you want to be full of confidence
Get survival jazz and civil defense
You’ll live like a king in your fallout pad
‘Till the all clear sounds, we’re swingin’, dad
We’re swingin’, dad
So what?

Continue on to the More MAD Music entry in this series, featuring a relevant platter by the inimitable Simon and Garfunkel. (And no, the song isn’t “Sound of Silence.”) 


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Civil Defense, Shelters…and “Emotion Management” (NSFF Pt. 4)

Not So Fabulous Fifties (NSFF)

Part 4: Civil Defense, Shelters…and
“Emotion Management”

(Click here to go to the beginning of this series.)

cd logo

Civil Defense

After the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb in 1949, the American public was understandably nervous. They were aware of the destruction that individual atomic bombs did to the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But the general public did not know a lot yet about the dangers of radiation and fallout.

So, a new Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA) was set up in 1951 to educate – and reassure – the country that there were ways to survive an atomic attack from the Soviet Union. They commissioned a university study on how to achieve “emotion management” during the early days of the Cold War.

The Civil Defense plans included two seemingly contradictory strategies:

It was first necessary to have an unusual level of openness about just how bad nuclear bombs were. At first, both President Eisenhower and others in his administration had hoped to keep information about nuclear weapons closely guarded. There had been an assumption that the Russians were mere bumpkins in the nuclear race, even after they showed, in 1949, they could develop an atomic bomb. It was assumed this was just the result of nuclear secrets leaked by WW 2 spies, and since those leaks had been discovered and plugged, the Russian nuclear program would dry up. But when the Russians successfully tested their first thermonuclear hydrogen bomb in 1953, it was painfully obvious that the US had underestimated the skill level of Russian scientists, and the threat they could pose to US supremacy.

If the US populace was to be induced to support the development of a growing US nuclear arsenal, they would need to be convinced that such an arsenal was absolutely necessary. Thus President Eisenhower established what he chose to call “Operation Candor.” Ike and members of his administration issued speeches and articles  going into great detail about the nuclear capabilities of the US and Russia and about the grim reality of the effects of atomic and hydrogen weapons. Above-ground US nuclear tests in the Southwest were filmed and documentaries created to inform the public.

Below the following sample pictures are links to a short two-part video documentary of the most famous, a 1955 Nevada test dubbed “Operation Cue.” It was set up particularly to test the effects of a nuclear bomb on man-made structures such as houses and power stations, and items such as food and clothing.

opcue insideopcue houseopcue mannequins

opcue mann after

The eerily cheerful lady reporter in this documentary linked below chattily comments on the effects of the blast on mannequins placed inside and outside the structures in what was dubbed “Survival Town.”

Operation Cue Part 1

Operation Cue Part 2

It’s not quite clear what the point of this test was … even the narrator admits that the bomb involved was an A-bomb of about 20 Kilotons, not even as large as the ones dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. By the time of this test, the US and Russia had both successfully tested thermonuclear H-Bombs a thousand times more powerful than this type of bomb. So the fact, for instance, that some “reinforced building” had remained partially intact within a mile from Ground Zero was absolutely irrelevant to what the chances of survival would be in an H-bomb attack.

But of course focusing only on all this “candor” would not have done much for keeping the masses of US citizens from developing utter paranoia and despair over the arms race! So it was necessary to add the second element to the Presidential Plan. The potential for paranoia and panic had to be controlled through a planned program of “emotion management.”

The earliest arm of this management program was the introduction of the Civil Defense Administration, and its adoption of the CONELRAD program.

conelrad posterEarly in the “Cold War”, there was concern that enemy bombers could simply home in on American cities by tuning in to specific broadcast radio and television transmitters. At the time, certain 50 kilowatt AM broadcast stations were still clear channel, the only stations in the nation at night on specific frequencies.

The 1951 solution to the problem was called Conelrad which stood for CONtrol of ELectromagnetic RADiation. Conelrad was “devised to provide radio communications in a national emergency while denying enemy bombers the use of radio beams as an aid in finding targets. This is accomplished by having television and FM stations cease their regular transmissions and selected AM stations to go to either 640 or 1240 KHz.”

In an alert, with broadcast stations transmitting only on either 640 or 1240 KHz, no directional aid would be available to an enemy bomber. Emergency information for the public would be broadcast on those frequencies.

Radios beginning with model year 1953 are marked with little CD triangles at 640 and 1240 on the AM broadcast dial. The CD stood for Civil Defense or Conelrad.

Through most of the 1950s, the advice on “duck and cover,” although admitted privately by experts to be very unlikely to provide any real survival benefits in the event of an actual nuclear attack, was drummed into the heads of most school children across the country. The reason? It provided “emotion management.” It gave children and teens the illusion that there really was something tangible they could do to help themselves in a nuclear attack. And the continual practice sessions for ducking and covering gave them a focus for nervous emotional energy. Thus feelings of anxiety and panic would be minimized.

At first very little was done to help find “things to do” for adults in a similar vein. Although individual “family bomb shelters” were mentioned early on, few people in the early 1950s took the suggestion seriously. But once both the US and Russia had successfully tested thermonuclear H-bombs in the Megaton range, and were obviously planning on continuing their Cold War arms race, the mood changed. In fall 1961, President John Kennedy focused the attention of the entire nation on the idea of Fallout Shelters.

Kennedy on Civil Defense (1961)

In a September letter published in Life magazine, Kennedy advised readers on survival tips. The article entitled “You Could Be Among the 97% to Survive If You Follow Advice in These Pages” was an unrealistic assessment of the likelihood of survival. Kennedy’s science advisers informed him that his analysis would provide false hope, but Kennedy insisted that as long as some were saved, it was worth it.


“Today, every inhabitant of this planet must contemplate the day when this planet may no longer be inhabitable. Every man, woman, and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or madness. The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us.”

Despite the unlikely success of the program, Kennedy urged governors to take civil defense seriously and instructed the Pentagon to create a pamphlet discussing the steps to take for survival. In its draft form, its suggestions — just like Kennedy’s article — were unrealistic. Even more troubling, only the affluent were able to build fallout shelters, and newspapers reported on the buildup of weapons among New Jersey and California suburbanites who were preparing to fend off nearby city dwellers from using their shelters.

shelter 1957

Kennedy gave a national speech on the same topic in October, and only weeks later it became obvious that he needed to be taken seriously.

tsar bomba 1961

On 10/30/61 the Russians tested the largest nuclear bomb ever exploded (including to this day!), a monster nicknamed Tsar Bomba. It exploded with 50 Megatons of force—and it could have released 100 megatons, but the Russians chose to “power down” the impact before detonating it.

In the shadow of such an apocalyptic weapon, it didn’t take long for shelter construction to become widespread.

When bomb shelters were all the rage

Civil defense officials talked confidently of group shelters for 50 million people, but in the new suburban communities the nervous were taking survival into their own hands. Bomb shelters costing from $100 to as much as $5,000 for an underground suite with phone and toilet were selling like hotcakes.

Wall Street investors said the bomb shelter business could gross up to $20 billion in the coming years (if there would be coming years).

Survival stores around the nation sold air blowers, filters, flashlights, fallout protection suits, first aid kits and water. General Foods and General Mills sold dry-packaged meals as underground rations.

Families with well stocked shelters lived with the fear that after a nuclear attack they’d be invaded by an army of friends and neighbors who neglected to build bunkers of their own. Many ordered contractors to construct their shelters in the dead of night so nosey neighbors wouldn’t see. One owner assured his neighbor that the bomb shelter he was building was really a wine cellar.

Civil defense films assured the public that simple precautions like walled-off basement corners stocked with two weeks rations and a radio tuned to Conelrad, the new emergency network, would help them survive a nuclear attack. But the government warned that a shoddy homemade shelter could broil its occupants “to a crisp” or squeeze them “like grapefruit.”

… Major airlines, Detroit automakers, IBM, the phone company and Wall Street planned employee shelters. The Federal Reserve designated banks for postwar check cashing, and a farmer in Iowa built a fallout shelter for 200 cows.

…  A year later, the Cuban Missile Crisis would shove the world to the brink for 13 agonizing days. Newspaper headlines blared warnings of impending annihilation. “Highest Urgency, Kennedy Reports,” “Invasion Possible, Air, Sea and Ground Forces Ordered Out for Maneuvers,” they cried.

But the bomb never dropped.

The world heaved a sigh of relief as the Soviets backed off. And as the immediate peril of nuclear holocaust began to fade, Americans began to accept that fallout shelters probably did little to protect them from nuclear disaster. The backyard bomb shelters became wine cellars, fruit cellars, or just quietly filled up with water.

Government officials acknowledge that over the last several decades they have quietly been discarding nearly a half-century of old foodstuffs and other supplies stocked for survivors of a nuclear war. The olive green canisters of water and food rations stamped with official civil defense markings have been discarded, donated or sold off.

And it wasn’t just suburbanites who built shelters:

Even presidents had their secrets. After 1961 saw crises in Cuba, Berlin and the Soviet Union, President Kennedy recommended, “A fallout shelter for everybody, as rapidly as possible.” He had a fallout shelter built in seven days by U.S. Navy Seabees at his vacation home on Peanut Island, near Palm Beach. Although it was a well-kept secret in Washington, residents of Palm Beach knew all about the “Detachment Hotel” as it was referred to as in government documents.

Treaties with the Soviet Union in the late 60s calmed down fears of Mutually Assured Destruction, the Detachment Hotel was abandoned, and in later years it became a favorite hangout for the homeless. More recently it has been refurbished and is now a museum.

The Detachment Hotel

Termed the Detachment Hotel in documents, the fallout shelter was built by Navy Seabees in less than two weeks. Deftly camouflaged by trees, it was hard to spot. If people asked, they would be told it was a munitions depot, nothing more. Kennedy visited the bunker twice during a drill.

“The government never declared it existed until 1974,” said Anthony Miller, a member of the executive board of the Palm Beach Maritime Museum, a nonprofit organization that leases part of the land on Peanut Island and gives tours of the bunker. “But it was the worst-kept secret in Palm Beach.”

With the Soviets intent on shipping nuclear warheads to nearby Cuba, Kennedy was assured a radiation-proof haven a mere five-minute helicopter hop from his oceanfront winter home on millionaire’s row in Palm Beach. Peanut Island sits just between Palm Beach and its ritzy companion, Singer Island.

The bunker, which fell into disrepair in the 1990s, was cleaned up and has been open for tours since 1999.

The decor is fittingly rustic, a far cry from Jacqueline Kennedy’s sensibilities. There is room enough to hold 30 people on 15 metal bunk beds for 30 days, if not very comfortably.

Shelves are stocked with giant tins of waterless hand cleaner (today’s hand sanitizers), cans lined with lead that contained drinking water (no longer advisable), deodorant to clean clothes, petroleum jelly, castor oil and ample Army K-rations. Gas masks sat at the ready. An escape hatch lies at one end, just in case the Russians were coming.

In one corner, there is a rocking chair, a nod to Kennedy’s bad back



kennedy camo

Would all these fallout shelters have actually worked to save lives in significant numbers?

Experts can’t agree on how well these shelters would protect occupants from radiation but they can agree that there were other problems to worry about. Most shelters didn’t have sufficient air-handling devices. Body heat alone could significantly raise the temperature during the two weeks people were told to remain in their bunkers after a blast. Many people could end up dying, not from radiation poisoning, but from old-fashioned heat exhaustion or suffocation.  (Fifties History)

The craze for fallout shelters eventually faded, but before it did, one record company found a way to make some money off the paranoia:


If the Bomb Falls: A Recorded Guide to Survival
[ 1961, TOPS Records ]

Released shortly after JFK’s Civil Defense appeal to America in the pages of LIFE magazine, this chilling spoken word LP was issued complete with a bonus insert manual on how to construct a “Family Fallout Shelter.”

SIDE ONE, “What to Do In Case of Nuclear Attack,” opens with a CONELRAD alert signal and is followed by the no-nonsense narration of David Wiley: “The threat of nuclear warfare is a threat to all of us. How can we live with this threat? Our best life insurance may be summed up in four words: Be Alert, Stay Alert. This will take some doing on your part. It will take ingenuity, it will take fervor, it will take the desire to survive. And it need not take a lot of money. All you’ll need is shelter and common sense.”

SIDE TWO, “Supplies Needed for Survival,” offers a litany of items required to wait out World War III: “…cups, napkins, matches, pocket knife, battery-powered radio and extra batteries, human waste can, recreational and spiritual supplies, a bible, books, cards and games…

And here’s where some of the “adult emotion management” came in. For this LP included the following advice:

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 four. Tranquilizers are not a narcotic and are not habit forming. Ask a doctor for his recommendation.”

YUP ….REAL “emotion management”!! Angst was VERY real.

Although it seems the record company wasn’t quite clear on the concept … for they also added to the angst with some of the ominous wording on the LP.

Speaking of recordings such as this LP, there was a whole music genre that grew up in the 1950s and 60s that churned out songs—both gleeful and grim—with an Atomic Theme.

Find out more about that in the next installment of this series.

MAD Music

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More MADmen (Pt. 3 NSFF)

Not So Fabulous Fifties (NSFF)

Part 3: More MADmen

(Click here to go to the beginning of this series.)

It shall be the policy of this Nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.

I call upon Chairman Khrushchev to halt and eliminate this clandestine, reckless and provocative threat to world peace and to stable relations between our two nations. I call upon him further to abandon this course of world domination, and to join in an historic effort to end the perilous arms race and to transform the history of man. He has an opportunity now to move the world back from the abyss of destruction—by returning to his government’s own words that it had no need to station missiles outside its own territory, and withdrawing these weapons from Cuba—by refraining from any action which will widen or deepen the present crisis–and then by participating in a search for peaceful and permanent solutions.

President John Kennedy, Television Address to the Nation regarding the “Cuban Missile Crisis,” Monday, October 22, 1962

“The Abyss of Destruction.”

Pretty strong words! The US had fought in WW1, according to President Woodrow Wilson, to “make the world safe for democracy.” But obviously that hadn’t worked.

So we’d fought WW2 to finish the job. And finish it we thought we did, with a display of power the likes of which the world had never seen. It must have seemed, to the average citizen, that after we dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and brought the Japanese to their knees, SURELY the world was safe now. America would be the policeman of the world, as it was the nation with the Biggest Billy Club. In fact, the only nation with that Club.

So how did we manage to get from there in 1945 to the edge of the “Abyss of Destruction” a mere 17 years later?

From the Wikipedia entry, History of Nuclear Weapons

The Soviet Union was not invited to share in the new weapons developed by the United States and the other Allies. During the war, information had been pouring in from a number of volunteer spies involved with the Manhattan Project (known in Soviet cables under the code-name of Enormoz), and the Soviet nuclear physicist Igor Kurchatov was carefully watching the Allied weapons development. It came as no surprise to Stalin when Truman had informed him at the Potsdam conference that he had a “powerful new weapon.” Truman was shocked at Stalin’s lack of interest.

The Soviet spies in the U.S. project were all volunteers and none were Russians. One of the most valuable, Klaus Fuchs, was a German émigré theoretical physicist who had been a part in the early British nuclear efforts and had been part of the UK mission to Los Alamos during the war. Fuchs had been intimately involved in the development of the implosion weapon, and passed on detailed cross-sections of the “Trinity” device to his Soviet contacts. Other Los Alamos spies—none of whom knew each other—included Theodore Hall and David Greenglass. The information was kept but not acted upon, as Russia was still too busy fighting the war in Europe to devote resources to this new project.

But once the war was over, the Russians hurried to begin making use of all of that Spy vs Spy information.

spyvsspy(Speaking of MADmen…the Spy vs Spy classic cartoon characters debuted in January 1961 in Mad Magazine—creator Antonio Prohias had only months earlier fled from his native Cuba under threat of arrest—or even  execution—for  his satirical parodies of the new Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.)

And the Russian scientists were quick learners.

Two days after the bombing of Nagasaki, the U.S. government released an official technical history of the Manhattan Project, authored by Princeton physicist Henry DeWolf Smyth, known colloquially as the Smyth Report. The sanitized summary of the wartime effort focused primarily on the production facilities and scale of investment, written in part to justify the wartime expenditure to the American public.

The Soviet program, under the suspicious watch of former NKVD [the Soviet Secret Police] chief Lavrenty Beria (a participant and victor in Stalin’s Great Purge of the 1930s), would use the Report as a blueprint, seeking to duplicate as much as possible the American effort. The “secret cities” used for the Soviet equivalents of Hanford and Oak Ridge literally vanished from the maps for decades to come.

And it only took them four years…some of it taken up with some bumbling of their efforts…for the Soviets to duplicate what was in the Report.

On August 29, 1949, the effort brought its results, when the USSR tested its first fission bomb, dubbed “Joe-1” by the U.S. [in reference to Joseph Stalin], years ahead of American predictions. The news of the first Soviet bomb was announced to the world first by the United States, which had detected the nuclear fallout it generated from its test site in Kazakhstan.

The loss of the American monopoly on nuclear weapons marked the first tit-for-tat of the nuclear arms race. The response in the U.S. was one of apprehension, fear, and scapegoating, which would lead eventually into the Red-baiting tactics of McCarthyism. Yet recent information from unclassified Venona intercepts and the opening of the KGB archives after the fall of the Soviet Union show that the USSR had useful spies that helped their program, although none were identified by McCarthy.

Joe-1 had a yield of 22 KT of TNT, very similar to the US Trinity and Fat Man bombs.


In order to test the effects of the new weapon, workers constructed houses made of wood and bricks, along with a bridge, and a simulated metro [electric railway] in the vicinity of the test site. Armoured hardware and approximately 50 aircraft were also brought to the testing grounds, as well as over 1,500 animals to test the bomb’s effects on life.The resulting data showed the RDS explosion to be 50% more destructive than originally estimated by its engineers.

And the race was on.

To clarify what happened next, it is necessary to understand the difference between “A-bombs” and “H-bombs”—or “thermonuclear weapons.”

The original atomic bomb used nuclear fission, in which big atoms (uranium or plutonium) were split into littler ones in a chain reaction, releasing vast amounts of energy.

The hydrogen bomb employs nuclear fusion, in which little atoms (various forms of hydrogen) fuse together to make bigger ones (helium), essentially the same process that occurs in the sun.

The only way to get enough heat to make this fusion process work … 50 million degrees… in a hydrogen bomb is to literally “ignite” it with a nuclear explosion—a fission bomb! So strangely enough, every H-bomb has an A-bomb inside its casing.


The basics of most thermonuclear weapons of the past and present: Radiation from a primary fission bomb compresses a secondary section containing both fission and fusion fuel. The compressed secondary is heated from within by a second fission explosion.

The bottom line of all this? Fission bombs are a million times more powerful than conventional chemical bombs. And fusion bombs are a thousand times more powerful than fission bombs.

And therein lies the race to the Abyss of Destruction.

The US took the first step three years after the Russians proved they could compete in the race. On November 1, 1952, the US tested its first thermonuclear/fusion device. It wasn’t really a weapon they planned to use… it was too big, at 20 feet tall and 140,000 pounds, for any plane to “deliver” it in warfare. It was just a prototype to test their thermonuclear theories.

So the bomb, code-named “Mike” and part of a multi-test series dubbed “Operation Ivy,” was detonated on an island in the Enewetak Atoll of the Marshall Islands in the South Pacific.

Its explosion yielded 10.4 megatons of energy—over 450 times the power of the bomb dropped onto Nagasaki— and obliterated Elugelab, leaving an underwater crater 6240 ft wide and 164 ft  deep where the island had once been. Truman had initially tried to create a media blackout about the test—hoping it would not become an issue in the upcoming presidential election—but on January 7, 1953, Truman announced the development of the hydrogen bomb to the world as hints and speculations of it were already beginning to emerge in the press.


And the Race was on…

Not to be outdone, the Soviet Union exploded its first thermonuclear device, designed by the physicist Andrei Sakharov, on August 12, 1953, labeled “Joe-4” by the West. This created concern within the U.S. government and military, because, unlike “Mike,” the Soviet device was a deliverable weapon, which the U.S. did not yet have. This first device though was arguably not a “true” hydrogen bomb, and could only reach explosive yields in the hundreds of kilotons (never reaching the megaton range of a “staged” weapon). Still, it was a powerful propaganda tool for the Soviet Union, and the technical differences were fairly oblique to the American public and politicians.


And the race continued. Although both nations held many  other tests, the next significant one was the US March 1, 1954, Castle Bravo test over the Bikini Atoll, also in the Marshall Islands.


The Bravo bomb yielded 15 MT of energy … and a lot of very bad publicity.

 [The Castle Bravo test] became the worst radiological disaster in U.S. history. The combination of the unexpectedly large blast and poor weather conditions caused a cloud of radioactive nuclear fallout to contaminate over 7,000 square miles (18,000 km2), including Marshall Island natives and the crew of a Japanese fishing boat, as a snow-like mist. The contaminated islands were evacuated (and are still uninhabitable), but the natives received enough of a radioactive dose that they suffered far elevated levels of cancer and birth defects in the years to come.

The crew of the Japanese fishing boat, Lucky Dragon 5, returned to port suffering from radiation sickness and skin burns. Their cargo, many tons of contaminated fish, managed to enter into the market before the cause of their illness was determined. When a crew member died from the sickness and the full results of the contamination were made public by the U.S., Japanese concerns were reignited about the hazards of radiation and resulted in a boycott on eating fish (a main staple of the island country) for some weeks.

The dropping of the two atomic bombs at the end of WW2 seemed very “justifiable” to most US citizens, and were no doubt more of a cause for pride in the present rather than fear for the future in the US at the time. But the Castle Bravo incident changed all that.

The hydrogen bomb age had a profound effect on the thoughts of nuclear war in the popular and military mind. With only fission bombs, nuclear war was something that possibly could be “limited.” Dropped by planes and only able to destroy the most built up areas of major cities, it was possible for many to look at fission bombs as a technological extension of large-scale conventional bombing—such as the extensive firebombing against Japan and Germany during World War II). Proponents brushed aside as grave exaggeration claims that such weapons could lead to worldwide death or harm.

Even in the decades before fission weapons, there had been speculation about the possibility for human beings to end all life on the planet, either by accident or purposeful maliciousness—but technology had not provided the capacity for such action. The great power of hydrogen bombs made world-wide annihilation possible.

The “Castle Bravo” incident itself raised a number of questions about the survivability of a nuclear war. Government scientists in both the U.S. and the USSR had insisted that fusion weapons, unlike fission weapons, were “cleaner,” as fusion reactions did not produce the dangerously radioactive by-products of fission reactions. While technically true, this hid a more gruesome point: the last stage of a multi-staged hydrogen bomb often used the neutrons produced by the fusion reactions to induce fissioning in a jacket of natural uranium, and provided around half of the yield of the device itself.

This fission stage made fusion weapons considerably more “dirty” than they were made out to be. This was evident in the towering cloud of deadly fallout that followed the Bravo test. When the Soviet Union tested its first megaton device in 1955, the possibility of a limited nuclear war seemed even more remote in the public and political mind. Even cities and countries that were not direct targets would suffer fallout contamination. Extremely harmful fission products would disperse via normal weather patterns and embed in soil and water around the planet.

Speculation began to run towards what fallout and dust from a full-scale nuclear exchange would do to the world as a whole, rather than just cities and countries directly involved. In this way, the fate of the world was now tied to the fate of the bomb-wielding superpowers.

At some point late in his presidency, Dwight Eisenhower was pressured by some of his more hawkish advisors to approve development of some new sort of nuclear weapon that they were convinced would allow the US to “win” such a war. Eisenhower’s famous reply:

“You can’t have this kind of war. There just aren’t enough bulldozers to scrape the bodies off the streets.”

Alfred Nobel (yes, the one who set up the Nobel Prizes) was the inventor of dynamite in 1867. He had this to say about his invention:

“My dynamite will sooner lead to peace than a thousand world conventions. As soon as men will find that in one instant, whole armies can be utterly destroyed, they surely will abide by golden peace. ”

Sounds quite a bit like the sentiment of the earlier quote in this series from 1870 by Wilkie Collins, doesn’t it!

   “I begin to believe in only one civilizing influence—the discovery one of these days of a destructive agent so terrible that War shall mean annihilation and men’s fears will force them to keep the peace”.

Nobel seemed to have thought he’d provided an agent destructive enough that people from then on would indeed “abide by golden peace.”

He was wrong.

We will continue our investigation into just how wrong in the next installment of this Special Report.

Civil Defense, Shelters … and Emotion Management

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MADmen (NSFF Pt. 2)

Not So Fabulous Fifties (NSFF)

Part 2: MADmen

(Click here to go to the beginning of this series.)

“I begin to believe in only one civilizing influence—the discovery one of these days
of a destructive agent so terrible that War shall mean annihilation
and men’s fears will force them to keep the peace”.

English author Wilkie Collins,
writing at the time of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870.

It took only 75 years for Collins’ speculation to come to fruition.

And his comments are recognized as probably the earliest reference to the concept dubbed during the Cold War as “Mutual Assured Destruction.”


There was, of course, no mutuality in August 1945 when the US dropped the first … and only … two nuclear bombs ever used in an actual act of war. At the time it was the only nation with such capability. But this was not because it was the only nation that had been working on such “terrible” weapons. US leaders suspected from US spy efforts that they were in a frantic race with Germany to see whose scientists could unravel the mystery of “splitting the atom”… and use the knowledge first to build a “terrible destructive agent.”

There is little doubt that if the Germans would have managed to pull off such a coup, they would have brandished the weapon before the astonished eyes of the world, and the history of civilization would have been quite different than it has turned out to be in the 21st century.

Instead, the US really did “beat the Germans to the punch.” But the US never used the weapon on the German front of World War 2…Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945, two months before the first Terrible Agent was tested and found ready for use.

US scientists began serious work on a nuclear bomb in 1941, just months before the US entered the war.

In August 1939, prominent physicists Leó Szilárd and Eugene Wigner drafted the Einstein–Szilárd letter, which warned of the potential development of “extremely powerful bombs of a new type”. It urged the United States to take steps to acquire stockpiles of uranium ore and accelerate the research of Enrico Fermi and others into nuclear chain reactions. They had it signed by Albert Einstein and delivered to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

(Einstein had added his own comments: “A single bomb of this type, carried by boat and exploded in a port, might well destroy the whole port with some of the surrounding territory. Letter from Albert Einstein to U.S. President Roosevelt in 1939)

Roosevelt called on Lyman Briggs of the National Bureau of Standards to head the Advisory Committee on Uranium to investigate the issues raised by the letter. Briggs held a meeting on 21 October 1939, which was attended by Szilárd, Wigner and Edward Teller. The committee reported back to Roosevelt in November that uranium “would provide a possible source of bombs with a destructiveness vastly greater than anything now known.”

Briggs proposed that the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) spend $167,000 on research into uranium, particularly the uranium-235 isotope, and the recently discovered plutonium.On 28 June 1941, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8807, which created the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD),with Vannevar Bush as its director.

This led directly to the establishment of what was dubbed the “Manhattan Project.”

At a meeting between President Roosevelt, Vannevar Bush and Vice President Henry A. Wallace on 9 October 1941, the President approved the atomic program. To control it, he created a Top Policy Group consisting of himself—although he never attended a meeting—Wallace, Bush, Conant, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson and the Chief of Staff of the Army, General George Marshall. Roosevelt chose the Army to run the project rather than the Navy, as the Army had the most experience with management of large-scale construction projects. He also agreed to coordinate the effort with that of the British, and on 11 October he sent a message to Prime Minister Winston Churchill, suggesting that they correspond on atomic matters.

Four years later, the scientists involved in the project had indeed created the prototype of “an extremely powerful bomb of a new type.” In an extremely powerful instance of understatement, those involved in the project nicknamed the creation “the gadget.”

A test of The Gadget was arranged for July 16, 1945, in the desert about 35 miles southeast of Socorro, New Mexico, at the Alamogordo Test Range, in the Jornada del Muerto (Journey of the Dead Man) desert. (Now the White Sands Missile Range.) The code name for this test—in a powerful instance of irony—was “Trinity.” Major General Leslie Groves of the US Army Corps of Engineers, director of the Manhattan Project oversaw the test.

At 05:30 on 16 July 1945 the gadget exploded with an energy equivalent of around 20 kilotons [20,000 tons: 20KT] of TNT, leaving a crater of Trinitite (radioactive glass) in the desert 250 feet (76 m) wide. The shock wave was felt over 100 miles (160 km) away, and the mushroom cloud reached 7.5 miles (12.1 km) in height. It was heard as far away as El Paso, Texas, so Groves issued a cover story about an ammunition magazine explosion at Alamogordo Field.

trinity nucleartrinity2

The Genie was out of the bottle, and it would not be returned. You can experience a tiny bit of the real-life drama of the moment in this short clip from a BBC docudrama about the Trinity explosion, which includes actual footage of the real blast in the background behind the actors.

Confident that The Gadget worked satisfactorily, and with the end of the War with Japan not clearly in sight, the extremely controversial decision was made to use two similar gadgets on the (primarily) civilian population of two large cities in Japan.

Less than a month after the Trinity test, an August 6, 1945, an Atomic Bomb code-named “Little Boy” was exploded over the Japanese city of Hiroshima (population approximately 350,000). It yielded the destructive power of 20 thousand tons (20KT) of TNT.

hiroshima color

A rare color image, taken by a 16 mm movie camera aboard a B-29 dubbed The Great Artiste, shows the first atomic weapon exploding over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. This film was donated to the Hoover Archives by Harold Agnew, a physicist who monitored the blast from the air with scientific instruments.

Before and after pictures of Hiroshima from the sky show the effects of Little Boy.

hiroshima before

hiroshima after

And from the ground it is even more obvious how little was left standing.


The plan was to detonate a second bomb, code-named “Fat Man” (with the same 20KT destructive power) three days later, on August 6, over the city of Kokura. But as the plane with the bomb neared that city, a cloud cover prevented effective implementation of bombing plans, and the plane headed instead to the secondary target that had been decided on, the city of Nagasaki (population approximately 240,000).

nagasaki bomb

Before and after photos of Nagasaki from the sky show the effects of Fat Man.

But the photos above only show primarily the damage to “man-made structures.”  Not shown is the effect on the (mostly civilian) population of humans.

Within the first two to four months of the bombings, the acute effects killed 90,000–166,000 people in Hiroshima and 60,000–80,000 in Nagasaki, with roughly half of the deaths in each city occurring on the first day. The Hiroshima prefecture health department estimated that, of the people who died on the day of the explosion, 60% died from flash or flame burns, 30% from falling debris and 10% from other causes. During the following months, large numbers died from the effect of burns, radiation sickness, and other injuries, compounded by illness.

Six days later, on August 15, the government of Japan announced its surrender to the Allies.

It was undisputed at this point that the US had the biggest, baddest weapons in the world.

But, as it turned out, this reputation didn’t last long. And the rival to fear in the Atomic Race was not Germany after all. It was a US Ally in WW2, the Soviet Union.

From the Wiki article on Mutual Assured Destruction:

In August 1945, the United States accepted the surrender of Japan after the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Four years later, on August 29, 1949, the Soviet Union detonated its own nuclear device. At the time, both sides lacked the means to effectively use nuclear devices against each other. However, with the development of aircraft like the Convair B-36, both sides were gaining a greater ability to deliver nuclear weapons into the interior of the opposing country. The official nuclear policy of the United States was one of “massive retaliation“, as coined by President Dwight D. Eisenhower‘s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, which called for massive attack against the Soviet Union if they were to invade Europe, regardless of whether it was a conventional or a nuclear attack.

From that point on, both nations entered an “arms race” that was much like kids playing “king of the hill.” Both kept making bigger and better bombs and testing them…sometimes secretly, sometimes with great fanfare.

And for a while it certainly wasn’t clear if Wilkie Collins’ theory, later dubbed “Mutual Assured Destruction,” would work …before the world WAS indeed annihilated.

But once again … is this just all “ancient history,” a little more recent but no more relevant to your 21st century daily life than the Wars of Napoleon or the US Civil War?

To continue the exploration of this question, click here for the next installment of this series.

 More MADmen

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Duck and Cover (NSFF Pt. 1)

Not So Fabulous Fifties (NSFF)

Part 1: Duck and Cover

If you grew up in the 1950s, you’d be well familiar with lots of cartoon characters, from the cartoon shorts at the theater that preceded the movies. There would be Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, and many more.

looney tunes

And, in fact, your own grandchildren would be likely familiar with these same exact characters. There are seldom any Looney Tunes shorts being played before movies these days, but the Looney crowd has made their fortune on TV and in feature films in recent decades.

But if you are a Baby Boomer “Child of the 50s,” like me (I was born in 1946), there is one cartoon character you may remember, that neither your children or grandchildren have ever heard of. He had a very short heyday—only one “starring role.” He was Bert the Turtle.


No, Bert didn’t star on the big screen. Nor on TV. He starred in a 1952 film that was instead played on 16mm projectors in classrooms all across America, teaching little kids what to do if they were faced with a nuclear attack by America’s enemies on our own turf.  In the film, Bert, an anthropomorphic turtle who walks on his hind legs, is harassed by a cheerful, naughty monkey who keeps trying to catch Bert out of his shell and explode a firecracker right in his face.  But Bert keeps spotting the danger in time. As soon as he does, he “ducks” by dropping down to all fours, and then “covers” by pulling his head and legs into his shell. And Bert’s urgent admonition to the kiddies watching is to “Duck and Cover” themselves if they see the flash of a nuclear bomb, or hear a siren warning one is coming.

Bert was part of an effort by the Federal Government to provide “emergency preparedness” information to the public as part of the Civil Defense program spawned by the post-World War 2 “nuclear arms race” between the US and Russia. Under this program, the average American, from Kindergartener to Senior Citizen, was encouraged to take an active part in dealing with the Threat of Nuclear War. Kids were taught that their main responsibility for preparation was to learn to duck and cover. If they were at school when an attack came, they were to Duck under their desks, and Cover their heads.


As you can see in the picture below, some younger students didn’t quite “get” how to get UNDER their desk without a lot of practice.


There was one other thing some could do to be even more prepared. I didn’t know about this until a few years ago when I was sorting through the belongings of my late mother-in-law after her death. She was a packrat who kept just about every scrap of paper that entered her house, and a whole lot more. In among the boxes of clutter I found the following little gem.


This was the card that came with my husband George’s dog tag.  No, he was never in the armed forces. And besides, at the time this card was issued, he was likely only 9 or 10 years old. Instead, these were dog tags issued by some schools around the country in the mid-1950s to all students. The tag bore their name, year of birth, blood type and Rh blood factor, a “religious code,” and an “individual identification number” issued to them by the company providing these tags. The tags were to be worn ALL THE TIME by the children on a chain around their neck, just like Army personnel. And for the same purpose as men on active duty overseas in war zones … identification of an injured or dead body! If the Big Bomb went off and ducking and covering didn’t work, rescue workers would be able to identify the injured student and know what blood type to give, or if the school was closer to Ground Zero, searchers days or weeks later could identify the charred remains.

Some folks seem to look back on the 1950s and early 60s through the lens of I Love Lucy re-runs and Howdy Doody clips on Youtube and assume it was a really cheery, simple, blissful time to be young.

Ah, for the good ol’ days, they think.

Well, yes, except for the regular polio epidemics that permanently crippled children by the tens of thousands, exemplified by this picture of the children in iron lungs in the polio ward of the LA County Hospital during a 1952 epidemic.

1952 epidemic

The first summer when I was home in Minnesota was that gosh-awful polio epidemic they had there.  We admitted 464 proven cases of polio just at the University Hospital, which is unbelievable.  And this was a very severe paralytic form.  Maybe two or three hours after a lot of these kids would come in with a stiff neck or a fever, they’d be dead.  It was unbelievable.  It was just loads of people that came in, sometimes with only a fever but usually a headache and a little stiffness in the neck.  And just absolutely terrified.  At the height of the epidemic, the people in Minneapolis were so frightened that there was nobody in the restaurants.  There was practically no traffic, the stores were empty.  It just was considered a feat of bravado almost to go out and mingle in public.  A lot of people just took up and moved away, went to another city.    — Richard Aldrich, M.D., quoted in A Paralyzing Fear

The threat of polio had been growing for a decade: in 1943 there were 12,000 cases; 1946, 25,000; 1948, 27,000; 1950, 33,000;  1952 59,000

The polio epidemic of 1952 is notable because serious outbreaks occurred in all of the forty-eight states, and in the territories of Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico.

By then, polio epidemics were second only to the atomic bomb in surveys of what Americans feared most.  Bomb and virus alike were terrible agents of destruction that might arrive at any moment to devastate a family, a community, or an entire nation.  The disease seemed like an omnipresent threat…

In 1954 as a young grade-schooler, I was part of the very first nationwide trials of the Salk anti-polio vaccine, receiving three shots over a period of time. At the end of the successful trial…I learned that I was part of the “control” group that received placebo shots. So I had to go through the whole series again. (A short time later I was also part of the first group to receive the Sabin “oral vaccine.”) Much later I had two different handicapper friends who had contracted polio during that same early-50s time period. One had been a young mother, who was left wheel-chair bound the rest of her life when her legs became useless. Her son, my age, had had to help  care for his mother since he was a young child.

The other was the same age as I–she had contracted polio as a young child during the time I was involved in the Salk trials, had a much more severe case, and was quadriplegic. She had spent the earliest period in one of those huge iron lungs. And even thirty years later she had to sleep every night in a smaller modern version of such a lung.

Yes, except for the threat of polio, Fabulous Fifties were a cheerful and idyllic time to be a child! Well, except for the grim videos you watched about impending nuclear disaster in grade school and high school. And the dog tag around your neck reminding you how short life may be. Oh … and the monthly air raid siren drills I remember. Every first Saturday of a month at noon in cities all over America, the ominous air raid sirens went off to test them. (I often wondered what would happen if the Reds sent bombers to Get Us on the first Saturday of the month at noon! We’d just think it was another test!)

Hear a sample from my childhood…

Yes, except for the polio and the nuclear worries, the 50s and early 60s were a time of idyllic childhood. Well, except if you were the wrong color and wanted a drink of water.

The photo below was the reality for almost every black person in the South—from a tiny child to an adult—who simply wanted a drink of water in a public place back in those days. I will never forget the time I was about 12 years old and my family stopped in a southern town on the way to visit my grandparents in Florida, and I saw my first “for whites only” drinking fountain in a dime store. In the main part of the store was a modern drinking fountain with chilled water for the “whites.” In a grubby corner in the back of the store was an ancient one just like the pic below, spewing tepid water for “colored” people. It literally made me sick to my stomach to realize that this was going on in the Land of the Free.

But except for the nuclear threat and the polio and the segregated water fountains, it was a great time to be a kid.

Well, except if you were the wrong color again and just wanted to go to a decent school and get a quality education.

The photo below is the iconic 1957 pic of Elizabeth Eckford of Little Rock being protected by federal troops –but viciously mocked and screamed at by bystanders, during integration attempts at her high school.


Elizabeth was a teen, and it would have been difficult for her to “maintain her cool” during such stressful events, although she managed admirably. But can you imagine how it was for THIS little one, Ruby Bridges, in 1960 in New Orleans?


Ruby Bridges Story

The court-ordered first day of integrated schools in New Orleans, November 14, 1960, was commemorated by Norman Rockwell in the painting The Problem We All Live With.

rockwell racism

As Bridges describes it, “Driving up I could see the crowd, but living in New Orleans, I actually thought it was Mardi Gras. There was a large crowd of people outside of the school. They were throwing things and shouting, and that sort of goes on in New Orleans at Mardi Gras.” Former United States Deputy Marshal Charles Burks later recalled, “She showed a lot of courage. She never cried. She didn’t whimper. She just marched along like a little soldier, and we’re all very proud of her.”

As soon as Bridges got into the school, white parents went in and brought their own children out; all teachers refused to teach while a black child was enrolled. They hired Barbara Henry, from Boston, Massachusetts, to teach Bridges, and for over a year Mrs. Henry taught her alone, “as if she were teaching a whole class.” That first day, Bridges and her adult companions spent the entire day in the principal’s office; the chaos of the school prevented their moving to the classroom until the second day. Every morning, as Bridges walked to school, one woman would threaten to poison her, because of this, the U.S. Marshals dispatched by President Eisenhower, who were overseeing her safety, only allowed Ruby to eat food that she brought from home. Another woman at the school put a black baby doll in a wooden coffin and protested with it outside the school, a sight that Bridges Hall has said “scared me more than the nasty things people screamed at us.” At her mother’s suggestion, Bridges began to pray on the way to school, which she found provided protection from the comments yelled at her on the daily walks.

No, come to think of it, the reality of life in the 1950s and early 60s often had little in common with the illusion of idyllic childhood on the kid’s shows and sitcoms of the times. Even for little kids. You never saw kids in iron lungs on the Howdy Doody show. None of The Beaver’s friends on Leave it to Beaver had to worry about getting a drink of water at the Five and Dime.  Betty and Bud on Father Knows Best didn’t have to worry about federal troops escorting children of the Wrong Color into their high school.

Ozzie and Harriet’s boys never had to duck and cover on their family sitcom, and didn’t wear dogtags so their corpses could be identified.

And Desi and Lucy didn’t have a bomb shelter that they and the Mertzes needed to “defend” from neighbors.

But as the 1950s wore on out in the real world, more and more people in suburbia DID have such shelters, as the adult version of emergency civilian preparedness.

shelter 1950s

But of course all this information is just ancient history, and has nothing to do with circumstances in the 21st century!

Or does it?  Click here to check out the next episode of The Not So Fabulous Fifties,  and we’ll begin exploring the answer to that question.


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