Here’s an interesting little exercise for you: think back to your childhood and try to remember the age at which you first realized with absolute certainty that there were things in this world from which your parents couldn’t keep you safe.

For many people of my generation (the baby boomers) it was the moment when you first understood the potential for dying in a nuclear blast. Sure, Mom and Dad could protect you from a robber by locking the door, from getting lost by holding your hand tightly, from the boogeyman under the bed or the monster in the closet by tucking you in and leaving the nightlight on. But what could they do about a bomb? For my generation “The Bomb” (the euphemistic term “weapon of mass destruction” hadn’t yet been created) was the proverbial five hundred pound gorilla in the corner. I’m not implying that every kid of the 1950’s and 1960’s was permanently scarred emotionally by his or her first “duck and cover” drill, but I’ll confidently state that a lot of children were scared by them and it’s an experience that you don’t forget even after the passing of a half-century.

The United States always took civil defense pretty seriously (my grandfather was an air warden in World War II), but the recommended defense measures recommended to citizens in the wake of the atomic bomb were largely smoke and mirrors. For those too young to remember, “duck and cover” was the recommended way to try to survive an atomic bomb explosion if you were caught unawares away from a bomb shelter. It basically amounted to “hit the dirt and cover your head”. When I was in elementary school, we had “duck and cover” drills, in which we were instructed to cower under our desks. You did it because you were told to do it, but the brightest of us (who had seen Hiroshima footage from the war) knew that diving under your desk wasn’t going to do much for you in a one-story elementary school built in the classic 1950’s-1960’s “girder and panel” style in which every wall was at least 50% glass.

The creation of fallout shelters was the order of the day in the 1950’s. Families were encouraged to built backyard bomb shelters and keep them stocked with canned goods, water, first aid supplies, and other necessities. In the case of the first item on our checklist, the government was referring to goods in aluminum cans but “canning” fruits and vegetables in Mason jars became a near-mania among rural and suburban housewives. In the 1960’s and 1970’s my mother canned enough stuff to keep a family of four alive for practically a century; when she sold her house around the turn of the 21st century, all that stuff was still down in the basement. (“Oh, look! Beets, 1967 – the perfect vintage!” In Mom’s defense, though, she was really good at it: her canned foods were county fair prizewinners many, many times over.)

For families who couldn’t or wouldn’t bear the expense of building an outdoor bomb shelter, it was recommended that they build a separate reinforced room in the basement for the purpose. I knew more than one kid whose family had done that; although we were by and large forbidden to enter these “bomb rooms”, we’d sometimes sneak in and play “air raid”, a game which mostly entailed lying around reading comic books.

People who were around in the Sixties will doubtless recall a particular metal sign which was so ubiquitous that it eventually became part of the background in urban and suburban landscapes:


The sign denoted that a building had a public fallout shelter, and the black band at the bottom had an additional legend which designated the human capacity of the shelter based on its size and contents (“Capacity: 200”). You saw these signs on walls everywhere: on schools, churches, town halls, courthouses, police stations, even sometimes on stores and shops. There were regulations regarding the sign’s placement on a building’s wall so that people would know exactly where to look to see if the structure contained a shelter: the sign had to appear as close as possible to a corner of the building and had to be x feet off the ground for the sake of visibility. As an extra bonus to civilians who built bomb shelters or bomb rooms, the government would provide a fallout shelter sign if one was requested (in retrospect, it was pretty hilarious to be horsing around in some kid’s basement and see an indoor closed doorway with a “Capacity:4” fallout shelter sign next to it, as though people living in the house had to be told the capacity. “Ooops! Sorry, grandma, but since Ma had the new baby there’s five of us. But, hey, you made it to 82 – that’s a pretty good run!”).

These fallout shelter signs did carry their own gravitas, as they were a reminder that the Soviets had a passel of bombs and missles pointing right at our heads. Although the signs were everywhere and were largely just part of the urban scenery, every now and then you’d look at one of them and think about the purpose of that sign. You’d be on the playground at recess and notice a kid just standing there, looking up at the sign. We’d all stop and look too, then swallow hard. After a moment, somebody would say, “C’mon, we’re playing ball here!” to break the spell and (for a while) things would get back to normal.

Just as I can remember about the age I was when I first became cognizant of The Bomb, I can also remember the age I was when I stopped buying in to the bullshit. When I was 15 in the mid-1970’s, on a dare, I entered the neighborhood fallout shelter at the local elementary school. Although the sign read “Capacity:150”, you’d have been hard pressed to get more than 25 people in that room without stacking them like cordwood. By the glow of one (I assume permanently lit) sconced and caged 75 watt bulb I was able to see stacks of official-looking government cardboard cases labeled as containing food, water, and other supplies. I did a quick count, a bit of math in my head, and determined that 150 people would be equipped to survive maybe 3 days into the Apocalypse (and on short rations at that). Unless I was the one and only person to hunker down in that shelter, there was no way I was going to be able to go in there for a year, come out, and become Kamandi in a Jack Kirby comic or a Level 1 purestrain human in a Gamma World campaign.

Like me, the general public’s perception of the aftermath of a nuclear attack changed too, albeit a bit later. In the early 1980’s due primarily to films and books such as The Day After and Nuclear War: What’s In It For You?, people began to realize that you weren’t going to hide out in your basement for a few days while subsisting on Mom’s canned beets, crawl out of some rubble, and start rebuilding like nothing worse than a tornado had passed through. The fallout and persistent radiation would be ongoing hazards, and the dangers posed by other people competing violently for scarce resources in the wake of a complete infrastructure collapse would be significant. In fact, the aforementioned book Nuclear War: What’s In It For You? went so far as to say that your best case scenario would to be caught at Ground Zero when a bomb went off, as you’d be instantly vaporized and feel nothing; the survivors of the initial blast would be the ones who had a rough time of it.

Citizens (some interested in preparedness, others just curious) began to investigate the public fallout shelters and discovered that they’d by and large become worthless (assuming, of course, they’d not been useless from their inception, he said cynically). The water which had been stored in the shelters had by and large evaporated, the canned food rations hadn’t exactly been prime chow at the start, and (as I’d discovered in the Seventies) many of the shelters had been rated at about ten times their actual capacity. The shelters ( as well as “duck and cover”) hadn’t been much more than snake oil designed to try to calm a jittery American public in the first two decades after the Soviets had developed their own bomb. It was subsequently revealed that one’s chances of surviving an all-out nuclear exchange were slim regardless; the Soviets had enough nuclear firepower that every U.S. town with a population of 10,000 or more had at least one nuke with its name on it.

Fallout shelters became a relic of the past. The old yellow/orange shelter signs are now collectible antiques. America’s nuclear fears have largely abated and few people even think about nuclear weapons anymore, much less discuss them. And the idea of a comic book based on the premise of nuclear war would be unthinkable to most publishers today.

The problem with irony is that some people just don’t get it. While there was always a slight possibility of a U.S.-Soviet nuclear exchange, the odds were surprisingly slim; now that the Berlin Wall has fallen and we’ve come to know our former foes better, we realize that neither side wanted to be the first to push the button. Today, however, the chances of a nuclear weapon being detonated in anger are far higher than they ever were, even when the Cold War was at its frostiest, due to the rise of rogue states and nihilistic religious extremists. Few people talk about a “suitcase nuke” being detonated as a terrorist or political act (although the latter was the catalyst in a surprisingly well-made 1980’s TV movie, Special Bulletin) but the odds of such an event are today far higher than were those of nuclear war breaking out in the 1950’s.

Here’s the second part of the story which began in our previous post, the lead story from Ace Comics’ Atomic War #1, published in November 1952. I was especially struck by the “one man can make a difference” ending of this early-1950’s tale, which is quite a contrast to “the system tries to crush a man” movies (Rollerball, Logan’s Run, Soylent Green) which were prevalent in the post-Vietnam era two decades later (and which I mentioned in passing in the previous post).

Atomic War #1, November 1952

Atomic War #1, November 1952

Atomic War #1, November 1952

Atomic War #1, November 1952

Atomic War #1, November 1952

Atomic War #1, November 1952

Have fun! — Steve

Copyright 2015, Steven A., Lopez. All rights reserved.