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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.