Saturday, July 25, 2009

Memories Of My Atomic Youth

Some of my most vivid memories from the late 1950s and early 1960s involve the old Civil Defense (CD) program. White it seems like utter lunacy in retrospect, quite a few Americans and government officials devoted a lot of time, energy, and money back then to planning how to survive a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Seriously.

The theory behind CD was that most deaths in a nuclear war would come from radioactive fallout instead of the bomb blasts themselves; while the poor folks in New York City or Los Angeles would be reduced to cinders, people in the hinterlands could retreat to underground shelters for two weeks until the radioactivity levels dropped to safe levels and people could move about safely above ground. To house large numbers of people, "fallout shelters" were established in the basements of large buildings such as schools and office buildings. I even remember visiting Tuckaleechee Caverns in Tennessee back in 1961 or 1962, and seeing that a couple of the cave's rooms were being used as fallout shelters!

These "mass storage" fallout shelters were stocked with cots, blankets, medical supplies, and food, such as these appetizing-sounding "survival crackers":

As you might expect, radiation detection equipment was also standard in "mass storage" fallout shelters:

In addition to public "mass storage" shelters, Civil Defense encouraged people to build and equip their own fallout shelters. CD did this the time-proven way: they scared hell out of people:

Civil Defense published several booklets detailing plans for building home fallout shelters, which more resembled home prison cells. Look at those cramped dimensions; can you imagine spending two weeks inside one of them without going stark, raving mad??

And, as the Civil Defense literature helpfully pointed out, living in a home fallout shelter for a couple of weeks would present some interesting challenges not faced by Ward and June Cleever:

Civil Defense thought the following items would be adequate for stocking a home fallout shelter. Looking it over, I can't help but wonder: uh, shouldn't a rifle, shotgun, or other firearm be on that list? Something tells me life in a post-nuclear war world would be chaotic and dangerous, and a weapon of some sort could come in very handy:

During a nuclear attack and its aftermath, the CONELRAD system is how people were supposed to get official information from the U.S. government. This system would have allowed radio broadcasts on just two AM radio frequencies, 640 and 1240 kHz, with transmissions switched between different stations so Soviet bombers could not use the broadcasts for direction-finding. Or at least that was the theory:

Station WBT in Charlotte was selected to participate in the CONELRAD program, and here's a link to a story about WBT's "fallout shelter" from which CONELRAD broadcasts would be transmitted.

Yeah, it all seems so crazy now. But fifty years ago people took all of this very seriously.