Monday, October 8, 2007

Duck and Cover! Memories of the Atomic Age

I want to say right up front that I am not a military history buff. I don't like war, I don't like killing, I don't like bombs. I don't like it when our country uses its power against other countries.

Having said all that, I am going to write about the Trinity Site on the White Sands Missile Range in the Tularosa Basin of southern New Mexico. This is where the first atomic bomb, results of the Manhattan Project, was detonated at 5:29:45 AM (Mountain Time) on July 16, 1945, bringing us the beginning, for better or for worse, of the atomic age. The second and third atomic bombs were exploded over Hiroshima on August 6 and Nagasaki on August 9, ultimately bringing the second World War to an end. The site of the detonation at White Sands is open to the public for a few hours twice a year, on the first Saturday of October and on the first Saturday of April.

Beez had long wanted to go see the Trinity Site. I was reluctant, thinking about exposure to radiation and just not wanting to have anything to do with the place. However, we agreed to take the trip and drove several hundred miles last Saturday to find out what the site was all about. Along the way, we talked about our memories of those times, and why there is such a fascination with this place.

Here are my memories of the bomb. I was less than a year old when the war ended, so I didn't know anything about that. But when I was 8 or 9 years old, my family lived in San Francisco in the early 1950s when atomic bomb tests were taking place in Nevada. My father drove a tow truck, working the night shift. I can remember my great excitement when he swung home to pick me up in the middle of the night when there were announced atomic tests at the Nevada Test Site at Frenchman Flat, about 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas. My mother made sure that I was dressed warmly and off we went into the San Francisco darkness. What an adventure for a little kid, being allowed out well after bedtime and with special time alone with Daddy! We always went right up to the top of Twin Peaks and Daddy would park the truck so that the nose was pointed southeast to face where he figured Las Vegas to be. Then he would turn on the radio to an AM station that would actually tune into the countdown to the detonation. Five, four, three, two, one... We'd wait a few seconds and then we would see it--a flash like lightning out on the horizon. And that was it. We'd drive down Twin Peaks for the highlight of the night, to my 8 year old self, stopping in at the Flying Saucer Cafe where we'd eat "dollar pancakes" and I'd have a cup of hot chocolate with whipped cream. So much innocence on the one hand, and so much potential death and harm and chaos on the other.

Here is what Beez had to say: When you grew up in the 1950s learning to hide under your desk in case of nuclear attack (!), you owed it to yourself to go see the place that started it all.

To get an idea of the fears we faced as school children, you must first realize that all school-age kids were required to wear engraved dog tags that gave their names, addresses, and blood type. Somehow the space for blood type was never filled in. Even as a child I understood that there probably wouldn't be enough of me left over after a bomb to worry about blood transfusions.

Then take a look at the instructional film called Duck and Cover. It was meant to reassure children about the bomb, so that they would know what to do if/when it came for them. The film is anything but comforting. Here is a sampling from the film of what young children were being told:

  • We must be ready for a new danger...Tony knows the bomb can explode any time of the year, day or night...The flash of an atomic bomb can come at any and holiday time...we must be ready
  • Sometimes the bomb might explode without any warning

  • You might be eating your lunch when the flash comes

  • If you are not ready and do not know what to do it could hurt you in different ways

  • There might not be any grownups around when the bomb explodes, then you're on your own.

  • [The bomb can come] on a beautiful spring day...but no matter where [children] go or what they do they must always try to remember what to do if the atomic bomb explodes right then. It's a bomb! Duck and cover!

  • You'll know when it comes.

Call it morbid fascination, but we were on our way. (Tomorrow: Visiting the Trinity Site).

Duck and Cover:

Manhattan Project:

Nevada Test Site Historical Information:

Trinity Site:

White Sands Missile Range:

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